Taking advantage of a sunny spring day to ski the Crystal Valley classic
In the Upper Crystal River Valley, to the north of the town of Marble, is a 12,000-foot peak known as Mount Daly. Like most of the mountain features in the area, Mount Daly has abundant snow and it offers ski lines on nearly all aspects of the compass.
If you’ve a skier and you’ve ever cast your eyes on Mount Daly in the winter months, you’ve probably wondered what it would be like to climb and ski. I still remember when it first piqued my interest nearly 20 years ago on my first outing to ski Marble Bowl across the valley.
As we ascended the skin track that day up through the popular ski zone, my gaze was drawn to Mount Daly to the north. I was impressed by the half dozen prominent ski lines that descended from its summit towards town and the old ski area below.
It is worth noting that Marble’s Mount Daly is different from another mountain that bears the same name near Snowmass Village. Anyone who has been around the Upper Roaring Fork Valley long enough is familiar with that Mount Daly— its distinctive diagonal stripe is hard to miss and serves as the backdrop of countless postcards and local marketing photos due to its location at the head of West Snowmass Creek adjacent to Capitol Peak.
Many people find it odd and confusing to learn that two identically named mountains are so close to each other. They’re only 6.5 miles apart as the crow flies. Yet Daly isn’t the only example of a redundant name identifying more than one summit in our backyard.
Our local Elk Mountains have a Mount Belleview overlooking Crested Butte and a Belleview Mountain adjacent to West Maroon Pass. Snowmass Mountain and Snowmass Peak are neighboring high points that overlook Snowmass Lake. And not far from Marble, in the Raggeds Wilderness south of town, there is a Ragged Mountain and a Ragged Peak.
To reduce confusion and help differentiate between the two Mount Dalys, the local backcountry community and summer peak baggers sometimes refer to the mountain near Marble as “Marble Daly.”
Two decades after first seeing Marble Daly, I finally had an opportunity recently to explore it up close. My wife Christy and I, along with two other ski partners, made plans to take advantage of a sunny spring day, and we packed up our ski gear and made our way to Marble.
Our route began just outside town, at the snow closure past Beaver Lake. The initial approach to the mountain wasn’t too complicated. We planned to follow a route we had explored in the summer months. So, armed with an awareness of the topography and a familiarity with the summer trail, the four of us started up the partially snow-covered Daniels Hill Road, and we were on our way.
After the short skin up the road, we took the high fork of the Lead King Loop to the summer trailhead for the North Lost Trail. We left the road at the trailhead and made our way through the forest along the North Fork of Lost Trail Creek until we reached Buckskin Basin.
Buckskin Basin is a beautiful valley in the summer, green and full of wildflowers. The trail that ascends the valley can be followed to reach Avalanche Pass or Carbonate Creek, which can make a cool circumnavigation of Mount Daly.
During the snow season, Buckskin Basin is a straightforward ski approach to the east side of Mount Daly. However, it should be noted that the steep walls that frame this picturesque valley can pose an avalanche threat. Therefore, it’s advisable to avoid this route at times of elevated risk.
In our case, the recent sunny spring days and cold nights have jump-started the spring melt-freeze cycle, resulting in a more stable snowpack.
At the head of Buckskin Basin, the mountain steepened. The final 500 feet to the summit involved some high-angle skinning and switchbacks. We needed to select terrain carefully to avoid exposing ourselves to more avalanche-prone slopes.
But soon enough, we were on the 12,610-foot summit. It was a beautiful day and the first time this year that this crew had been out to ski together. And it was also the first time any of us had been on the summit of this mountain, which made the moment even more special.
We took in the views, which are some of the best in this zone of the Elks. The unique vantage point offered interesting perspectives of nearby mountains and our local 14ers. After noting some potential future ski objectives in the surrounding area, it was time to ski.
Rather than descend unknown snow on the front side of the mountain down towards town, we opted to retrace our ascent route back down through Buckskin Basin. It’s always preferred to descend familiar terrain rather than drop into the unknown. There are fewer surprises that way.
The coverage also looked excellent. East-facing routes typically have more snow as a result of the prevailing winds.
Thankfully, recent storms had refreshed the snow, and we found ourselves skiing powder rather than spring crust. Unfortunately, as we descended further, the warm temperatures and high sun affected the snow. Now that we’re into April, that’s just something you have to expect.
A short while later, we were back down at the car, stripped down to our base layers in the 50-degree sun, rehashing the day. We all love exploring new places in our backyard, and this outing checked that box for all of us.
It also presented some new objectives to aim for in the future. That’s part of the beauty of heading into the mountains. They can be so enriching, the simple act of traveling through them can inspire you to do more, to challenge yourself.
But before we got too wrapped up in what lay ahead, we were sure to take some time to acknowledge that, after years of talking about it, we finally skied Marble Daly.