Season's Fleeings

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Season's Fleeings

Out with the old, in with a ramble--winter celebrations in the mountains and the sea
By Meg Lukens Noonan

With the holidays looming, you're no doubt deep in shopping malls, fake snow, and way too many in-laws. If the prospect of another few weeks on the tinsel-and-confetti circuit has you longing for clean air and natural colors, take heart. Hustle and there's still time to make an escape, whether you picture yourself toasting the new year in the gentle tropic night or a snowbound mountain hut (last-minute booking is possible on all these trips). Or plan to ring in the season belatedly on a January, February, or March departure. Either way, get out there. And when people ask how you plan to mark the arrival of 1996, say with conviction that you're going to go wild.


The San Juans, Colorado
If the words New Year's Day and bowl conjure up visions of back-to-back football games and a jumbo bag of Cheez Doodles, it may be time to eject yourself from the La-Z-Boy, grab some friends, and head to Ouray, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains. There the American Alpine Institute can introduce you to a different kind of New Year's bowl--the kind that's filled with snow and ringed with ragged peaks.

AAI's six-day backcountry ski-touring course begins at the Telluride Ski Area for one or two days of practicing cross-country basics before you head east into the San Juan National Forest. In the highlands, where the snowpack is usually about seven feet deep, you'll travel six to ten miles a day and learn how to interpret mountain weather, construct snow shelters, find routes through difficult terrain, evaluate avalanche hazards, and prevent frostbite and hypothermia. Two high camps are home base--one a remote bowl, the other an isolated mountain pass. You'll ski through aspen groves, old mining sites, and open snowfields to reach 12,000 feet and expansive views of the surrounding peaks, the perfect spot to wave 1995 good-bye.

Classes run weekly from December through April, by arrangement and subject to guide availability; the last December course starts the day before Christmas, though dates are flexible. The only prerequisite is intermediate cross-country skiing ability. Costs range from $750 to $1,380 per person, depending on student-to-guide ratio (the low end is four to one; the high end, one to one). In Ouray, most participants stay at the Ouray Victorian Inn (doubles, $59-$65; 970-325-7222), an eight-year-old lodge with 38 motelish rooms and two outdoor hot tubs. Students are responsible for their own food (the group usually goes shopping beforehand with the guide) and most equipment; avalanche beacons are required and can be rented for $35. Call AAI at 360-671-1505. To get to Ouray, fly to Denver and connect to Telluride, Montrose, or Grand Junction, and then take a charter bus from there.


Wine Country, California
Families that clash at the holidays may be suffering from an acute form of cabin fever brought on by heavy meals, bad jokes, and stale air. Consider a new approach this year: Get the clan to sign up for a December 24-29 bicycle tour along the quiet roads of northern California's wine country. Everyone will be building up their quads, eating superb meals, sampling great wine, and staying in some of the region's finest inns. And nobody will be getting stuck with the dishes.

The group will convene on Christmas Eve at the Madrona Manor, a decorated-to-the-hilt Victorian inn in Healdsburg, 65 miles north of San Francisco. On Christmas Day, riders will log 34 miles (longer and shorter options are available) through the undulating countryside of the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys, ending the day with a feast, and perhaps a mud bath at the Mount View Hotel in Calistoga. The next day is an easy one--25 miles to Yountville along the Silverado Trail, a mostly level road that winds through tawny rolling hills and vineyards. Longer subsequent days will take you to Sonoma, and then through wide-open grazing land to the Pacific. The last day holds in store ten glorious miles of rugged coastline followed by 30-plus miles through dense forests paralleling the Russian River. By the time you hit the outskirts of Healdsburg, who knows, you may even be cracking a smile at Uncle Martin's stories.

Expect cool temperatures--thirties in the morning with daytime highs in the fifties and sixties. The trip costs $1,348 per person, not including transportation to Healdsburg from downtown San Francisco or the airport ($50 per person). Customized touring bikes can be rented for $109. If you miss the Christmas departure, sign up for one of three trips in March. Call Backroads at 800-462-2848.


The Canadian Rockies
It's not a great idea to spend a lot of time looking at the scenery when you're suspended by crampon points and ice tools 500 feet up a frozen waterfall, but when you have the Canadian Rockies at your back, the urge is almost overpowering. The guides at Yamnuska Inc., based in Canmore, Alberta, will do their best to help you stay focused on your next move when you sign up for their six-day course called Complete Ice. The program is designed to take novice climbers from the basics of knot-tying and crampon use to the completion of several multipitch climbs, including the famed Weeping Wall, a curtain of ice formed by frozen waterfalls a few minutes off the Banff-Jasper highway.

You'll start off with some nonthreatening ice bouldering to get comfortable with maneuvering on ice while remaining just a few feet above the ground. Evening discussion groups will touch on such topics as construction of ice anchors, ice screw placement, the hazards of climbing, and no doubt the futility of New Year's resolutions. As the week progresses, you'll do some easy climbs just outside Canmore and then move on to greater challenges, such as the Professors, a four- to five-pitch climb about an hour's hike in on Mount Rundle. On all multipitch climbs the student-to-instructor ratio is two to one.

Technical gear is supplied, but you'll need to bring winter clothing and climbing boots (which you can rent from Yamnuska for about $5 U.S. per day). Meals, accommodations, and transportation are your responsibility. For budget lodging, try the Alpine Club of Canada Clubhouse just east of town (beds, $19; 403-678-3200), which has bunk rooms and cooking facilities. For something more posh, By the Brook B&B (doubles, $52; 403-678-4566) and Back of Beyond B&B ($44; 403-678-6606) are both across the street from Yamnuska's headquarters. Cost for the six-day program is $550 per person. Courses run December 27-January 1, January 22-28, and February 25-March 2. Call Yamnuska at 403-678-4164. Canmore can be reached by bus from downtown Calgary and the Calgary Airport.


The Bay Islands, Honduras
Scuba divers know time spent on land is time wasted. Turkey dinners? Don't need 'em. Presents? Don't want 'em (though that new dive computer would be nice).

If you're one of those obsessed divers, pay homage to the season just where you want to be--underwater. Book passage on the Bay Islands Aggressor, a 110-foot live-aboard boat that sleeps 18 and works the islands and reefs 30 miles off mainland Honduras. After briefings by the dive master about each new site--such as Barbereta Wall, a pristine, 150-foot dropoff swarming with large groupers and Jewfish--you're on your own to dive five times a day for five and half days.

The Bay Islands are known as the Macro Capital of the Caribbean, paradise for the legions of divers who are fanatical about observing and photographing minute sea creatures (and who'll be happy to know that there's a photo center with processing lab on board). Eagle rays, angelfish, sea horses, frogfish, and dolphins are all around, as are 63 species of hard coral and encrusting sponges--basket sponges, tube sponges, rope sponges. You'll be taken to five sea mounts that the boat's operators say are so secret and untrammeled that they're virtually virgin dives. Now that's a gift. The boat leaves from the island of Roatán December 23 and 30, January 13 and 20, and February 10 and 17. The cost of $1,195 per person includes tanks, weight belts, weights, and all meals and beverages. TACA (800-535-8780) flies to Roatán from Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Los Angeles for about $400 round-trip. Call the Aggressor Fleet at 800-348-2628.


White Mountains, New Hampshire
You could watch the apple drop in New York's Times Square or admire the ice sculptures during Boston's First Night celebration, but easterners who want to welcome the New Year without the crowds and the noise should strap on snowshoes and head up to the Carter Notch Hut in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, this trio of cabins at 3,288 feet overlooks the Ramparts, a jumble of giant snow-smothered boulders, and Carter Notch, one the area's most dramatic passes. Up here, close to the stars, you may not make it to midnight, but you can celebrate with the sun's first rays on Wildcat Ridge.

The main lodge has a common room heated by a woodstove, as well as a full kitchen. A caretaker is on hand to pass out pots and pans--and silly hats--and to help you find your way to bed in one of two bunkhouses. If you plan to act fast and be here for New Year's Eve, make the four-mile trek up to the hut on your own. The Carter Notch trailhead is just off New Hampshire 16, about a mile and a half north of Pinkham Notch; nightly hut fees are $12 per person for AMC members, $18 for nonmembers. Carve some time out of the first day of the year to snowshoe to the summit of Carter Dome and along the Carter Range to Zeta Pass.

Extend your stay in the Mount Washington Valley at the Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, a large AMC base facility that can accommodate 108 people with dorm rooms and three cafeteria meals per day. Sign up for full- or multiday workshops on nature photography, cross-country skiing, or snow-shelter building, or head out on numerous cross-country and snowshoeing trails right out the lodge's front door. Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is located off New Hampshire 16 at the base of Mount Washington, 15 miles north of the town of Jackson. Nightly rates at the Joe Dodge Lodge are $35-$40 per person for AMC members, $42-$47 for nonmembers, including lodging, dinner, and breakfast. AMC membership costs $40 per year. Guided overnight trips to the Carter Notch Hut leave December 30, January 8, and March 9 ($140 per person includes snowshoes, instruction, lodging, and two meals). Call 603-466-2727.


The Grand Canyon
Barring an invitation on the space shuttle, a seven-day pack trip 2,000 feet into the Grand Canyon may be your best shot at finding an uncluttered vantage point from which to evaluate 1995's passing. On the wintry reaches of the North Rim, you'll camp the first night at the confluence of Hack and Kanab Creek Canyons; on the next day, you and your extremely surefooted horse will wind down Kanab Creek to Dave's Canyon, nearing the warmer climes of lower elevations. Here, after the last pink light leaves the sandstone walls, you'll be sitting around a campfire, toasting your stomping packhorses with shots of Jack Daniels.

Dripping Springs is the next day's goal, and on day four, about two-thirds of the way into the canyon, you'll come to the little-visited Esplanade, a wide ledge of pastureland that was once used extensively for wintering livestock. Ride to Kanab Point for a spectacular view of the Colorado River, some 1,500 feet directly below. Over the last three days, the group will mosey back to civilization via a different route.

Daytime temperatures will vary from the forties to the upper sixties, with nighttime lows in the twenties. Be prepared for snow at higher elevations. You'll need plenty of layers, including long underwear and a sturdy winter parka, and a below-20-degrees sleeping bag (you can rent one from Equitours for $20). Camping each night is full service, with pack horses carrying both group and individual gear (there's a 50-pound personal gear limit). Plan on flying into Las Vegas and taking a two-hour van ride to St. George, Utah, where you'll rendezvous with your group. Cost for the trip, which runs December 30-January 6, and February 17-23, is $840 per person, including horses, guides, all meals, and transfers. Call Equitours at 800-545-0019.

Meg Lukens Noonan, a longtime contributor to Outside, will spend the holidays at home in Hanover, New Hampshire.

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