Peter Shelton

To bivy, or not to bivy, that is the question.

Posted in Personal History, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on January 19, 2012

It was probably about this time of year, in 1978 or 1979, when Davey O’Brien, late of Olympic Sports, proposed a ski tour to Dunton hot springs.

Davey was one of Olympic’s ski equipment gurus back when the shop was next door to the Floradora Saloon, back before the United States Olympic Committee, citing copyright infringement, made them change their name.

Davey had a heart condition. His grandfather and father had both died young. We were about the same age, 30 give or take. He didn’t talk about it much, but he felt even then he was living on borrowed time. He loved to ski. And he loved the latest ski gear and snow camping and pushing himself on new adventures.

So, he got a posse together, four of us, and planned a tour from Woods Lake, south of Fall Creek, up over the shoulder of Wilson Peak and down the West Dolores River from near its headwaters to Dunton, which in those days was closer to its mining ghost-town past than to the “rustic luxury” resort it has since become. It did have hot springs, and a bar, and it sounded like the perfect end point for a mildly strenuous two-day tour.

I was new to Telluride, having arrived in the summer of 1976. I’d never been to Dunton. Jerry Greene, who’d fired up Baked in Telluride a couple of years previous, was also along. (It was always good to have the bagel man along.) And the fourth was the new doctor in town, whose name escapes me, perhaps because he didn’t stick around very long.

He was young and fit, and had all the best skis and boots and parkas and stuff, and he wanted to come, so Davey said sure. Davey said there was an abandoned cabin on the Woods Lake side of the divide where we’d spend the night. No need to bring a tent or anything; there’d be a roof over our heads. And sure enough, after an afternoon’s slog we found it right about treeline – grayed logs sagging back to the earth, and the whole thing missing enough teeth to allow the interior to fill with snow. That was OK. We tamped out flat spots for our pads and sleeping bags (Davey was the only one who brought a weatherproof bivouac sack in which to zip his bag) and spent a quiet, if cold, night watching the earth spin – stars appearing and then vanishing in the inky slits between roof boards.

Before dark, we had made a fire out in the snow and stood around its crackling warmth. Someone, maybe it was Davey, had brought a few cans of soda, Coke or Dr. Pepper, or something. They tasted really good after our long hike, until the doctor told us that all caffeine drinks were diuretics, that they ultimately cost you more fluid than you were taking in, and were therefore a contributor to dehydration, which was, we knew, a contributing factor in hypothermia.

(It turns out new research says this is not true, the diuretic part – unless you were to drink seven or eight cups of coffee, say. It was one of a few crucial things the good doctor got wrong.)

Next morning we snailed up the treeless col between the Wilson massif on our left and the Dolores Peaks on the right. At the top we stopped to scrape the climbing wax from our ski bases and cork in additional glide wax, for the long downhill run to Dunton.

The pitch ahead was south-facing, but it was early in the year, the sun was low in the sky, and there had been fresh snow recently, so the powder wasn’t bad – a little crusty maybe, but skiable, even with our big packs and skinny touring skis.

Skiable for three members of the group, that is. It turned out the doctor couldn’t buy a turn. His uphill technique hadn’t raised alarms; he’d gotten by on youth and strength. But on the descent his inexperience proved catastrophic. Every telemark attempt resulted in a head-over tumble. Then the exhausting recovery: snow-coated, limbs akimbo, skis buried, his pack like an angry orangutan on his back.

We tried traversing him back and forth across the slope, but that wasn’t much help; there were required turns at either end. The day dragged. Without our noticing, the wind picked up and the sky went milky with cloud cover. By the time we reached the creek, buried along with its beaver ponds, it was already late afternoon. At least we thought it was late afternoon. The sun had disappeared, and there were no shadows. The light had gone completely flat: snow and sky, up and down, near and far were the same blank slate.

Still, Davey thought we’d have enough light to make it to Dunton.

To be continued . . .

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