Wild Ice Skating

An Adventurer Makes the Most of No-Show Snow

Photography by  Ann Driggers

Photography by Ann Driggers

Every evening as the sun slips behind the mountains, I go down to the pond. I glide over the ice, marveling at the bubbles and cracks, at how they have changed since I last saw them just 24 hours ago. I am fascinated by how the afternoon sun has smoothed out the blade marks from the previous evening, polishing the ice into the blackest onyx again. I am awestruck by its hardness and purity, gleaming in the last golden light of the day, by its smoothness and translucence, and at how it flexes, squeaks, and creaks beneath my blades. As I sail around, into the dusk, unable to tear myself away, the temperature plummets and the air becomes sharp, nipping at my cheeks. And then the ice starts to sing.

    The first time I heard the bewitching sounds of ice it was late fall, several years ago, as I was hiking deep in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. I had waited until there was a heavy frost in the meadows, the earth was hard and dull like iron, and winter had started to drift in. I like wandering the high country in solitude, and as I climbed through the forest the only prints I saw, pressed into a skiff of fresh snow, were those of a late hibernating bear.

    Arriving at a lake, I was stopped in my tracks by otherworldly sounds — the likes of which I had never heard before. A cacophony of eerie cracking and popping was being transmitted in low-frequency waves from a sheet of ice covering the lake. I was mesmerized, sitting on a rock at the shore for hours, listening to these synthetic, laser-like reverberations echoing off the granite walls towering above as the sun moved across the shimmering ice. If there was a defining moment when my love affair with ice began, this was it.

A surreal experience: skating Maroon Lake

A surreal experience: skating Maroon Lake

    Fast-forward to the current time, and we find ourselves in the winter of little snow. For us diehard skiers, the weather this season has been a big disappointment. Little did I know there was indeed a silver lining — the cold temperatures of late fall coupled with insignificant precipitation creates prime conditions for ice development. In early November, instead of going on yet another last mountain bike ride, on a whim I borrowed some hockey skates and headed up towards Independence Pass.

The first time I heard the bewitching sounds of ice it was late fall, several years ago, as I was hiking deep in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness.

    Here at 12,000 feet, hemmed in by snowy peaks, lay a perfect round of blue glass, from which emanated the hypnotizing sounds I had heard years earlier. Nervously, not having skated since I was a child, I laced up and tentatively pushed out across the lake. At first I wobbled around, but gradually I became more confident and relaxed into exploring nature in a whole new way. As the ice flexed and sang beneath my feet, I became spellbound. And from that moment on I was hooked, totally captivated by the exhilaration and beauty of skating on wild ice.

    Throughout December, as temperatures dropped, my obsession grew. I skated all the wild ice I could find — from large frozen lakes at the foot of iconic peaks such as Mount Sopris and the Maroon Bells, to little unnamed ponds in between. I would hike miles on snowy trails or mountain-bike up closed roads to reach remote locations where I would find skateable ice. I spent many hours drooling over online videos and photographs of people gliding over vast frozen expanses in places like Alaska, Norway, and Alberta, Canada. And when the snow finally fell, covering up the local ice, I traveled further afield on weekends ... to the southern side of the Elks and the Front Range. And on weekdays I shoveled the pond near my house, clearing the snow so I could skate after work.

    Now, with snow falling in the lower valleys, it is getting harder to find ice. Between the infrequent powder days when my skis are dusted off, I impatiently wait, checking weather forecasts, calculating the number of freezing-degree days, trying to predict where new ice will have formed and when it will be thick enough to skate. My truck is packed with my PFD, ice claws, and skates, ready to jump on the words, “It’s in!”

    Wild ice now runs through my veins like oxygen.