Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas 2011:Three Elves Search for Santa in Colorado

Other than rolling down the narrow gauge tracks on fat tires chasing the Polar Express that runs out of Durango, where else would one want to be on Christmas Eve? This year, I decided it was going to be at N 38.054156, W 107.898071 (aka the San Juan Hut System's North Pole Hut).

So, myself and two friends decided to spend Christmas far removed from civilization. Searching for Santa of course (with a GPS and a few maps).

We set out early Friday morning over Molas and Red Mountain Pass to pick up keys for both Last Dollar and North Pole huts.The SJHS office is located in Ridgway, so our route was definitely the long way around. This gave us a good excuse to stop and have hot chocolate and bagels in heaven (aka Ouray, CO):

After getting the keys and a basic route description, we were warned of the eight points of avalanche danger on the Alder Creek trail from Last Dollar Hut (our first night) to the most remote hut on the circuit, North Pole (our second night). No one except the hut owners had been in this season and we were warned of the need for route-finding and alternate slide crossings.

The drive from Ridgway to Last Dollar road near Telluride through the Dallas Divide is always a stunning sight, whether it is the mountains or the frozen trees. Friday morning held true:

The trailhead for the trek into Last Dollar Hut starts off of Last Dollar Road. It is a 3 mile road climb to the top of the pass and then about 1/3 mile slog up onto a ridgeline where the hut sits amongst the trees.

View from the start into Last Dollar

Looking out the door of Last Dollar Hut..makes hanging laundry fun, no?
Last Dollar Hut sitting on the ridgeline back in the trees
We arrived around 2pm on Friday, built a fire, imbibed upon some Christmas cheer, cooked some great food and studied the 9 mile route to the North Pole planned for morning. 

With no winter gpx file available after all, we were armed with topo maps, route descriptions and the hope of an old ski track to help us navigate. Worst-case scenario, if we were unable to find the route, the plan was to crash in Last Dollar again--not a bad place, as you can see from the views:

Wood was abundant at the hut and the stove kept us toasty warm inside:

The next morning, we began the traverse to NP hut. I think all of us were a little nervous about the slide crossings and snow conditions at first, but after a mile or two in, my worries were gone. None of the mentioned danger points had enough snow to even notice. We kept a good pace and made it in 5:45 with roughly 1900' of climbing.

The terrain undulated for most of the route which made trail breaking easier. The one big climb out of Leopard Creek inflicted a small bout of the sustained ass kicking I crave, but within a mile, we were back at cruising pace and descended into a gorgeous meadow filled with snow and the hut less than 1/2 mile away. Hayden Peak and North Pole peak towered above, giving us that gauge of how truly far away from anything we were.

We marveled at our surroundings for a moment. The sense of childlike Christmas magic found us all. The simplicity of the time in the hut is what brought true meaning to each of us I think. Warmth. Soft light. A card game. The dogs. A hot cup of cider. A sky full of brilliant, bright stars. The crunch of the snow beneath our feet and the sizzle as it melts for drinking water. Reading a good book by the light of my headlamp. The smell of our little Christmas tree. Nowhere to go and no obligations except chopping some wood and making oatmeal in the morning.

Here is the photo log of the trek into NP hut beginning about mile 3 where the Alder Creek trail finally opens up for some views:

The only "detour" we had to take is in this section of the trail that went through a bit of a dicey area
But we found a deep, but safe crossing about 75 yards below in the trees (both pics actually taken on the return trek back to Last Dollar). What a way to spend Christmas Day!

An old trapper's cabin in a meadow we crossed

The Alder Creek Slide. The trail crosses what is usually a gorge full of snow
Led by an energetic Vizsla, (Buck) we crossed easily
And climbed out the other side
Then came upon three different Aspen-lined clearings

And arrived at the North Pole where Christmas awaited (led all the way by our trusty scout, Buck)

Both dogs assumed the positions in which they would remain most of the day and night...

And I made it my mission to provide a tree for our humble abode

Which was decorated with all available "ornaments"

We hung our stockings out for Santa and woke the next morning to one of the best gifts I have ever received on Christmas:

The return trip took us back to Durango through Rico to check out a hot spring by the Delores River. The temperature was a little cooler than we had hoped, but it will be a good one to hit up in the summer after a long ride.

Total mileage: 21.3 miles
Total mileage for our scout, Buck: most likely 42.6 miles..haha!
Total climbing: 3850'
Time into NP: 5:45
Time back to LD: 4:45

Total midday snoozing by a warm stove (in hours): around 1.5

Perhaps my favorite question to answer over the past couple days is "How was your Christmas?" I smile, my mind goes back to the four days I just spent in the Colorado backcountry and I tell a condensed version using my normal epic descriptions. I then return the question and usually get "ugh, I am so glad its over!" or "Eh, it was ok." or "I spent too much."

I am so thankful that I cannot relate whatsoever to those replies.


  1. I wish I had come. I might not have this stupid rash I got from going home for the holidays and dealing with all that holiday travel.

  2. Thank you kindly for bringing the typo to my attention. I guess I should go change the "e" to an "o" now.