Berthoud Pass = Backcountry Fun

Looking for love at 11,300'

Berthoud Pass has long been a favorite of front range backcountry skiers and for good reason. Steep, deep, easily accessible terrain with the added bonus of extra vertical if you don’t mind hitchhiking back up the pass. Site of the first ski area in Colorado (1937), the pass has a long and storied history of providing fabulous turns to its’ followers. You can count me as one of them as when the area reopened in the late 90’s after being closed for 6 years I spent many a powder filled day exploring the four quadrants of Berthoud Pass that have been created by the intersection of Highway 40 and the Continental Divide. After the latest in a series of financial problems closed the ski area for good in 2002 (the lifts stopped running at the end of the 2000-2001 season – there was cat skiing for a season or two) – Forest Service requirements forced the removal of the lifts in 2003. This was both a good and bad thing – it was one hell of a ski area, but the fantastic skiing didn’t go away, it just now requires more effort to experience it. (For more info on it’s fascinating and troubled history check out this article on Berthoud Pass skiing in Cyberwest magazine).

Doesn't this look inviting - Floral Park trees

Skiing Berthoud Pass is what motivated me to get my backcountry act together. While every cat and heli trip I’d done required avalanche rescue and beacon training, and in the course of producing two videos for the CAIC on those same subjects I’d picked up a few pointers, it wasn’t until I started skiing Berthoud regularly that I got my own beacon, shovel and probe. I also started paying more attention to the avalanche reports produced by the CAIC on a daily basis. Skiing the backcountry is a ton of fun but there’s no one bombing those slopes to keep them slide free and if you screw up, you’re pretty much on your own.

Frank contemplating some Floral Park freshies

On Friday’s visit, we decided to start with the Southeast quadrant better known as Floral Park. (For some good maps of the area check out this pdf of the avalanche paths of Berthoud Pass and these old Berthoud Ski Area maps). Floral Park has in my estimation the best tree skiing on Berthoud Pass but because it is south facing it gets baked by the sun so is best visited as early as possible. We hiked out as far as we could  without post holing and then started down (the farther you go the steeper it gets and of course the less tracks there are). The snow was pure sugar and as such had no base which made for some tricky skiing. However once we got a little lower and into the trees we found some beautiful stretches and ripped it up down to the road.

Notice the long and winding road - looking west from atop Hell's Half Acre

Now one of the fun and sometimes challenging aspects of skiing Berthoud is the hitchhiking required if you don’t run your own car shuttle. I have generally found it fairly easy to get a ride (and surprisingly even easier when I had my golden retriever with me although on this trip due to age issues he was consigned to guarding the car) but after the fourth empty pickup truck has passed you by you can start to take it a little personally. The people who do pick you up tend to be ski enthusiasts or those curious as to what exactly you’re doing standing by the side of the highway with your snowboard and dog. Either way, it’s a great way to make new friends and scout the terrain you want to do next.

Hell's Half Acre as seen from the pickup spot

The next stop on our tour was my personal Berthoud favorite, Hell’s Half Acre in the northeast quadrant. This area is a great combination of  avalanche chutes, steep glades and sweet trees not to mention the incredibly scenic hike involved in getting there. I find these to be the most consistently powder filled runs and because it requires quite a bit of work to get there, rarely tracked out. We headed out to my favorite chute, got some great turns above it, but played it conservatively at the bottom as the snow pack was definitely touchy and the reason you often see a beautiful untracked chute is because it’s an avalanche waiting to happen. Still a great run and well worth the effort as always.

Ye Olde Ditch Trail

If the Gods are with you and things are going smoothly on the tour you can often luck out and convince your ride to drop you off across from a ditch trail on the way back up the road. We’re now talking about the northwest quadrant which has the most skiable terrain and widest variety of options. To access all that, you need to hike up to where the old lift terminated, but you can save a lot of legs by limiting your options and giving up some vertical and taking a shortcut to the runs known as the 90’s and Rock Garden. This is the route we choose to take and because it is easier to get to found the most tracks we had seen all day. I was however, able to wander into some nearby trees lower down and was rewarded with a very nice untracked run to the bottom which I had to pay for with some post holing back to the highway but definitely a worthwhile trade off.

Sure is pretty up here - iew form above of Hell's Half Acre - Berthoud Pass

Sure is pretty up here - looking SW from the top of Hell's Half Acre - Berthoud Pass

After that run we decided to call it a day as we had responsibilities awaiting us back in the real world. Now for a lot of folks that would sound like a lot of time and effort for only three runs but for those of us who do this regularly, we know that one of the best parts is often the getting there. I don’t know if it’s the oxygen deprivation from the altitude, the endorphins buzz from the hiking or the great tunes playing in my ears (today Truckin’ from Europe 72) but I rarely feel as simply joyous as I do when climbing up those hills. I’m not a big John Denver fan, but when I stand on top of Berthoud Pass after a hike, I’ve certainly got that Rocky Mountain High…

3 Responses to “Berthoud Pass = Backcountry Fun”

Leave a Reply