Gaining Independence

Words by Will Shoemaker: Editor for the Gunnison Country Times

It was raining cats and dogs when a Cold Smoke crew consisting of Kyle Jones and I pulled north out of Gunnison on Friday afternoon. Independence Pass called our names, but the soggy weather cast doubt on whether spring shredding was actually in the cards.

 Typically, this Colorado high-country pass is plowed free of snow by the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, and the doors open to a winter wonderland of massive peaks, alluring couloirs and creamy corn snow. Typically, that is. As we headed north from Gunnison, the forecast called for wintry weather for most of the holiday weekend. Luckily, the pop-up, cab-over camper — dubbed the “Starship Enterprise” — in the bed of my truck would offer a safe haven from sour weather. Late spring in the Rockies: You never know what you’re gonna get.
As if on cue, the clouds parted as we entered Taylor Park and began the ascent of Cottonwood Pass. A  few beers and piping-hot pizza at Eddyline Brewery in Buena Vista set the stage for a solid weekend of hanging with homies and incredible turns. After dinner, we met up with a group of friends from the I-70 corridor at their camp along Lake Creek — the tributary that twists its way eastward as it descends from the top of Independence Pass to Twin Lakes.
The impending weather left a question mark on the next day’s objective. The Weather Man had called for 1-3 inches of snow on top of the pass overnight, but sunrise gave way to somewhat clear skies. With a window present, we headed to the top of the pass and pointed our tips toward the summit of Twinings Peak. We had topped out and were waiting for the snow to corn when the legendary Lou Dawson appeared from the opposite side of the summit with an entourage en tow from the Aspen side of the pass. If you’re serious about backcountry skiing or snowboarding, you’ve probably heard of Lou Dawson — the first person to climb and ski all of Colorado’s “fourteeners.” Every Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Lou can be found skiing and barbecuing on Independence Pass.
After riding both east and west sides of Twinings — or what Lou calls “Blue Peak” — we called it a day and cruised back to camp for beers and food. A little fishing was in order, but afternoon rains sent us to the camper earlier than expected. Plans for an afternoon barbecue were drown by rainshowers that continued through most of the night. Luckily, a nap that turned into 18 hours of sleep had us feeling like He-Man by sunrise Sunday.
We drank warm coffee and fueled up on oatmeal and muffins while watching the clouds burn off — revealing summits capped in fresh snow. Duty called, and the crew sped to the top of the pass for the prospect of powder turns in late May. It wasn’t the 6-inch storm that forecasters had called for; most of the precipitation the night before came in rain. But at some point, likely early in the morning, the mercury dropped low enough to turn the moisture into cold, low-density snow — Cold Smoke. We lapped it up like hounds until
late-spring sun began peeking through the clouds, bringing to an end a fabulous, snow-filled weekend of spring pass shredding.
We said our goodbyes over beers at camp, packed up the Starship and rallied back to the Gunnison Valley. Who knew Memorial Day could be so good? Summer may be here, but there’s still plenty of snow begging to be ridden …