Chasing a Couple of Geezers on a San Juan Traverse

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Matt Wells has many nicknames, chief among them Uncle Fuzz, but it isn’t until his old buddy Jerry Roberts calls him abuelo that reality sinks in. We are standing in Roberts’ yard on Easter Sunday 2017, in the small southern Colorado town of Ridgway, inventorying our gear before attempting a ski traverse of the San Juan Range. For some reason, up until now I have viewed this trip like any other. Only when Roberts used the Spanish word for grandpa did I remember: I am about to try and cross one of America’s king ranges with a 70-year-old (Wells)—while following his 68-year-old friend Denny Hogan’s lead.

Hogan, who organized the trip, drove south from his home in Buena Vista and met me on Wolf Creek Pass the prior day. We stashed a truck there and continued on to Ridgway, where in recent years an impressive array of mountain men have retired to an alpine-desert version of their former selves. Roberts, who used to oversee avalanche mitigation along the notorious Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton, acts as a sort of ringleader, and whenever a member of the old guard shows up, à la Hogan and Wells, the rest of them emerge like werewolves.

Almost on cue, Peter Lev appears at 10 a.m. A retired guide and former co-owner of Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Lev partnered with Hogan on an attempted first ascent of the west face of Mount Huntington in Alaska 38 years ago. Earlier this winter, he relocated from the Black Hills to Ouray, just down the road from Ridgway, at the base of Red Mountain Pass. Lev almost summited 13,321-foot Trico Peak yesterday, he tells us, and enjoyed a marvelous solo ski descent. He is 77.

Roberts knows that Cron and I are here to learn from Hogan and Wells, and he assures us we will. “These guys are mentors without being mentors,” he says. “You see how things are done just by watching them.”

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Wells, left, and Hogan relax next to Cunningham Creek. (Devon O’Neil)

Hogan became interested in a San Juans traverse after reading that George Lowe and two friends skied it in 1992. Hogan has since tried it nine times, succeeding four. The 65-mile route basically follows the Continental Divide from west to east, and you spend much of your time above treeline—for better or worse. Hogan had long tried to convince Wells to join him, but it didn’t come together until this year. Wells recruited Cron, his former mentee on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, and Cron invited me for an even number.

Aiming to complete the traverse in six days—an ambitious timeline even with good conditions—we divvy up supplies in the driveway. Lev, who has climbed the Grand Teton more than 400 times, shakes his index finger at Hogan. “You clearly still like to carry a heavy pack. What the heck is wrong with you?” Hogan laughs and blushes, but weight will indeed prove to be a factor during our trip.

Neither Lev, whose ski pack now consists of a hip pouch with a small bottle of schnapps, nor Roberts can physically handle such a traverse anymore. With each lament that another of their brethren has succumbed to a heart attack or brain tumor, it becomes clear how rare our two partners are. Cron and I are here to see how they still do it, so that one day we can be the holdouts.

~~~  CONTINUE THE SAN JUAN STORY  ~~~

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