There is an old joke in Summit County that goes like this: “So, what weekend do you think summer will fall on this year?”
It took me a moment to get it the first time I heard it. But when you live in a place where winter often lasts from October to May, such quips come with the territory. You learn to take advantage of every warm, sunny ray that falls between flakes. Which is why I was so conflicted the first time someone asked whether I wanted to ski on the Fourth of July.
Independence Day is about bike rides and barbecues, right? It’s about baking in the sun and eating watermelon, sipping suds and playing volleyball, watching the sky explode with fireworks while cozying up to your honey.
Or is it? As much as I love all of those things, I love skiing more—the gravity-fed rush, the grace, the altitude. Still, even for die-hards, a time comes when you must move on with your year.
“No, thanks,” I told my friend. “I’m going to watch the parade, then hit a trail.” When she asked again the next year, I gave her the same answer. Ditto the following year.
Mostly, I was happy with my choice. Then a funny thing happened. After the parade and before the barbecue that third year, I rode a trail that was so clogged with users my head felt like it was going to explode by the time I finished. Independence Day means many things to many people, but more than anything, I decided, it should be about freedom. Freedom to do what you want, go where you please, be as you wish. I realized that being around crowds all day was sapping my holiday of its magical main ingredient.
So the next year, when my friend asked yet again (bless her persistence) whether I would like to go skiing, I said yes.
It wasn’t that outlandish. The core summer ski scene in Summit County comprises small pods of aficionados who mine the county’s nooks and crannies for lingering strips of snow. It is the summer calendar’s counterculture—one I am now proud to be part of. Despite my initial reluctance to make turns on the Fourth of July, I have skied into June every year I’ve lived in Breckenridge. Avalanche hazard subsides, crowds thin, novelty grows. It’s fun to be strange when strange means gliding down firm, smooth snow in shorts. One year a friend and I even skied 1,500 vertical feet on the north face of Mount Democrat, a Park County fourteener, on August 6.
The morning of my first Independence Day ski, our group of five—I, at 31, was the youngest by a decade—met at the Spruce Creek trailhead at 8 a.m. From there we loaded up my pickup and drove to a higher trailhead, so as to limit the slog with so much weight on our backs. We stashed a bottle of Champagne in the woods for later, strapped our skis and boots to our packs, and set out in short sleeves and visors. Tourists looked at us like we were yetis.
After an hour of hiking, we left the trail and traversed to the bottom of a large, snowy bowl above Lower Mohawk Lake. Then we strapped crampons to our boots, grasped mountaineering axes, and climbed to the top at 13,000 feet. Bright yellow and purple flowers bloomed in the grassy tundra a few feet beyond the snow, lest we forget what season it was.
The run was sublime. Perfect snow, light wind, temperatures in the 60s. A few miles to the north, dozens of summer skiers were carving turns of their own down the aptly named Fourth of July Bowl at the summit of Peak 10. We waved to them ceremoniously, then continued into the valley, back to the masses and our fleeting summer. And our bottle of Champagne.