November 24, 2020 2 min read

Words & Images: Whitton Feer

Off-season is a difficult time in Aspen. It’s too wet and cold to mountain bike, but too dry to ski. On this particular day off from work, my brother and I settled on backcountry ice skating.

November is the perfect, if not only month to backcountry skate. It provides both the combination of cold temperatures and lack of snow needed for the alpine lakes to be frozen, but uncovered.

hiking to backcountry lake in snowPatchy snow cover on the hike in is a good sign. Too much snow and the lake will be covered.

The search for wild ice does not begin at the trailhead, as we relied on a few quick, but extremely important planning items to ensure our safety. Preparation for backcountry skating is very similar to backcountry skiing, however instead of a complex snowpack, we only had to worry about a single layer of ice.

backcountry ice reflecting in sunOur single layer of ice shimmering in the sunset.

How does one go backcountry ice skating? First, location, the lake needs to be both accessible yet high elevation enough to thoroughly freeze. From there, you can check the temperature for the area and elevation at which you plan to skate. I use the weather station section of the Colorado Avalanche Information website, which populates data from both manned and unmanned weather stations around Colorado. I look for a deep freeze overnight, with temperatures below 28º for a few hours total. Once nightly temperatures are consistently cold enough for a few days, wild ice will be thick enough to skate. After the temperatures drop for multiple nights in a row, you’re good to go. Always bring a drill, pick or ice axe to check depth (if skating in wilderness, make sure to use non-mechanized tools only), ideally the ice should be thicker than 5 inches in multiple spots. The ice will often be thinner closer to the lake shore.

skating on a backcountry alpine lakeWheeler Feer in the New Navy Aero Insulator.

After hiking a few miles into our chosen lake, and checking nightly temps and the thickness of the ice, we were ready to skate. We cautiously stepped onto the ice, spikes in hand, in case we fell in. Ice axes or points of some sort are a crucial safety net as they provide purchase in the event of a catastrophic ice failure.

ice skating in the mountains

Dwarfed by the surrounding fourteeners and a fall sunset, the gliding sensation we felt while skating was absolutely surreal. The ice changed color by the minute, as the alpenglow gave way to blue hour, eventually revealing a waning moon. The previously barren exterior of the lake now hinted at a human presence; the tangle of small trenches etched a history of our paths across the surface. Like skiing powder, these tracks will be erased by weather and temperature, marking our presence in the wilderness as only temporary.

balancing on thin alpine ice

As we looked out over the continental divide, Wheeler and I were certain we had found the ideal off season activity. Backcountry skating combines the preparation and backcountry feel of ski touring with the far less consequential nature of ice skating and is a welcome addition to our bag of tricks to make it through the off season. We had conquered off season boredom once again!

alpine sunset