The trail starts at the edge of Frisco and immediately begins to go up. It is cold, but not as cold as it was when I pulled in front of a coffee shop an hour earlier to rendezvous with guidebook author Fritz Sperry. The sun has seen to that, pushing a growing warmth down onto the slopes of Royal Mountain. As Sperry climbs easily up the trail in front of me, I’m thankful for the late start and mellow pace. I had expected a hard run of it. But Sperry is in no hurry. He knows that there’s always good snow to be found in Colorado and that there’s plenty to go around. Why rush?
Fritz Sperry moved to Colorado in 1992 from New York, ending up in Summit County. A skier since the age of 4 and already veteran of the Eastern backcountry with trips to Tuckerman’s Ravine and other descents, he almost immediately started fooling around in Colorado’s wilder terrain, nailing his first out-of-bounds Colorado day on Gore Range landmark Red Peak. A desire to ski steeper and more intense took him to Crested Butte in 1995.
He might have stayed in that legendary Colorado ski town forever, but a serious injury forced his return to New York City in 1998. He made it back to Colorado a year later after healing up, but then life took him to St. Louis.
“I spent four painful years there,” Sperry says and laughs, while also admitting that one bright spot in his Midwestern hiatus from the Centennial State was a renewed appreciation for baseball.
The other bright spot was that St. Louis was where Sperry got the inspiration for his guidebooks, Making Turns in Colorado’s Front Range: Volume 1 — South of I-70 and Making Turns in the Tenmile Mosquito Range.
“When I was in St. Louis in 2001, I came up with the idea of doing a guidebook,” says Sperry. “I started work on it then and used it as inspiration to return.
“There’s nothing like dreaming of ski lines to make life in the flatlands more bearable,” he adds. “My ex-wife was doing her doctoral work in St. Louis and we were looking for some direction on where to go when we were done there. Each season, we made it back to Colorado for skiing and visits. I even got some of the lines in the first book done while I lived in St. Louis.”
From a forested shoulder of Royal Mountain, where I’m skiing today along with one of Sperry’s regular backcountry partners, Frisco local Gary Fondl, you can see many of the peaks that Sperry has skied, written about and photographed. Lake Dillon glistens in the sunshine below as the sun rises higher. Conversation comes easily and ranges across a wide range of subjects. It’s a companionable group and I’m reminded why some of the strongest bonds in life are created outdoors. And for Sperry, it’s been one of the highlights of the creative process that went into his guidebook projects.
“The friendship bonds created in the hills are like none I’ve ever experienced in other aspects of my life,” says Sperry. “Ski partners mirror family in my mind and my heart.”
These bonds, of course, make it painful when — as does happen — an accident or other tragedy results in death.
“Losing some of these friends along the way is the low point,” admits Sperry. “It wasn’t in an accident that involved one of our trips, but it still hurts.
“Backcountry skiing is dangerous no matter how well you prepare,” notes Sperry. “The first book is dedicated to one of my fallen friends. This is a serious game without a doubt.”
Because of this, both Making Turns in Colorado’s Front Range: Volume 1 — South of I-70 and Making Turns in the Tenmile Mosquito Range have a strong emphasis on backcountry safety and avalanche protocols. Colorado leads the nation in avalanche deaths and has a tricky snowpack that can challenge the most educated.
“Powder days and steep scary lines are the highlights of the mountains,” says Sperry. “Learning how to best go about getting it done has been an amazing experience. Colorado’s fickle snowpack dictates doing it a certain way.”
Sperry freely admits that one goal of his guidebooks is to, “pass along my thoughts on what the right way to get it done is.”
And the right way, he says, is to take it easy and ski what Mother Nature, the weather and snow conditions let you ski, without taking big risks, because the conditions will always improve and the big peaks and huge lines will always be there.
“Some of the peaks took multiple tries to get done,” says Sperry of the process of gathering beta and photographs of the terrain he covers in his books, multiple trips that were a result of being hyper aware of avalanche and weather hazards in Colorado’s harsh winter environment and making the choices that would let him come home each day alive.
Still, Sperry wants you to go skiing, and he wants you to explore Colorado’s mountains in winter.
“The goal of the books is to highlight the great options in each of the zones that I know best,” he says. “The more choices people have the better. Places like Berthoud and Loveland Pass will always be crowded but there are better places to ski. Thinning out the crowds by giving people fun choices is the point.”
And when it comes to choice, Sperry wants you to have more. A lot more.
“I’ve always got plans for the mountains,” he laughs. “This spring my focus will be on the Indian Peaks and the skiing portion of Volume 2 of the Front Range books. I’m shooting for a 2016 release for this project. My company Giterdun Publishing will be publishing Eli Helmuth’s Select Ice Climbs of Rocky Mountain National Park, we’re hoping to hit the shelves with this around August 1. Then, hopefully, there will be good weather in the fall and we can go for some objectives down in South America. Volume 3 of the Front Range series will cover from Southwest RMNP to the Snowies in Wyoming, this will include the Never Summers and Cameron Pass. I’m hoping to have that in stores in fall 2017. There are a few other projects in the works but those are just discussions at this point. The other big goal is to ski powder all the time and just have a ton of fun, but isn’t that what life’s all about?”
At least for today it is. We finish our ascent on a ridge high above Frisco, the town attractive in the late December light and the descent below us even more so as it’s a blanket of untouched white, with stable conditions and a green light to descend. People have skied up here, but the tracks are way over to the left — it’s good to be with the guy who wrote the book on skiing these parts — and so one by one, we drop in, having a ton of fun and living life, at least for the moment, just like Fritz.
Beer and books:
Fritz Sperry has teamed up with Upslope Brewing Company to present a discussion about backcountry skiing, avalanche information and showcase images and routes from both of his guidebooks. The event is hosted by REI and takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 1 at the Denver Flagship store, 1416 Platte St., Denver, and also includes free tastings of Upslope’s many fine beers.
Learn about more backcountry skiing routes and keep up on the latest snow and weather conditions by following Fritz’s blog here: www.makingturns.com. You can purchase both Making Turns in Colorado’s Front Range: Volume 1 — South of I-70 and Making Turns in the Tenmile Mosquito Range through that website as well.