Backcountry Gems: Seven Utes Mountain & Mount Mahler
An exclusive sneak peak into CMC's new bestselling title, Ski Touring Routes: Colorado's Front Range
Seven Utes Mountain and Mount Mahler rest in the Never Summer Mountains, in the Colorado State Forest of Jackson County. These quiet and challenging mountains are brimming with deep chutes, adventurous bowls, and spectacular summit views of Diamond Peaks, Medicine Bow/Rawah, Northern Colorado and the Front Range. With snow on the way, it's hard to think of anything other than spending an entire day on the mountain in solitude, gliding through fresh powder.
In the newly released title from CMC, Ski Touring Routes: Colorado's Front Range, readers are given regional maps, insider tips, and detailed directions on how to get there and what to expect from backcountry terrain across the Rockies. With a whole winter ahead, there's plenty of time to get as many vertical feet in as possible.
Below is a free chapter featuring backcountry gems Seven Utes Mountain and Mount Mahler.
from Ski Touring Routes: Colorado's Front Range
by Alan Apt and Kay Turnbaugh
COMMENT: These little-known mountains are nestled in Colorado State Forest at the edge of the Never Summer Range of Rocky Mountain National Park. They offer challenging trails with panoramic views of Mount Richthofen and the Diamond Peaks from the top of Seven Utes, and views of the Never Summer, Medicine Bow/Rawah, and Zirkel ranges from the top of Mahler. Climbing these mountains in the winter is an adventure—with avalanche risk—that should be attempted only by very experienced skiers who are prepared. Knowing how to dig a snow pit and evaluate avalanche conditions is a recommended skill. Neither of these peaks should be attempted during times of high avalanche danger. Even beginners can have a very nice, satisfying shorter out-and-back trip that affords great views of the Diamond Peaks. If you can venture just a mile or two uphill on the gradually steepening trail, you will enjoy superb views of the Medicine Bow Range. And the closer you get to Seven Utes, the more impressive it is. The trailhead begins at the former site of a failed cross-country ski lodge that has since been torn down. There are no signs or markers for it. Skiing this route to the summits is only for experienced skiers with AT or telemark skis and advanced ski skills, although less experienced skiers can enjoy an out-and-back short of the summits.
GETTING THERE: Take US 287 north from Fort Collins about 10 miles and exit west onto Highway 14 at Ted's Place. Take Highway 14 west 65 miles to Cameron Pass and continue west approximately 3.8 miles past the pass. Almost at the bottom of the hill, on the left/south side of the road, is a partially flowed drive angling to the southeast with a green gate. This is the former Seven Utes Lodge entrance. (If you reach the Ranger Lakes Campground, you have gone about 2 miles too far west.) Park in the driveway, or go down about another 0.25 mile to a turnout on the same side (south) and park there, then ski back on the road on the other side of the fence. The snow is likely to be deep enough for you to be able to step over the fence.
TIP: If you have trouble finding the trailhead, you can get directions at the State Forest Moose Visitor Center 2 miles west of the trailhead on Highway 14. It doesn't open until 9:00 am, however, so if you are planning an early start they won't be able to help you.
THE ROUTE: Take a look at your topographic map and the drainage you want to be in before starting; routefinding can be a bit tricky once you are in the trees and encountering lots of logging roads. The trail is just beyond the green gate, which is usually open. Go through the gate and take either of the next two trails you see on the right. They intersect after 200 yards. At first you go downhill for a short stretch, and gradually and then steeply uphill east and southeast on an old logging road. Ignore a trail going left/east near the crossing of the Michigan River, before the road steepens. There are no markers such as blue diamonds, but the trail is distinct even if you are the first one to use it.
Right after the trail gets significantly steeper, at about 0.75 mile, you intersect another wide, old logging road that is used by snowmobilers. Go to the left/east uphill on the road; you will see the continuing trail on the left as you round the very first hard right turn. It might not be well marked, so look carefully for it. Remember which drainage you want to in—the one just east of Seven Utes Mountain—and the route will be more obvious. When you turn off the road, you will be on a narrow trail rather than an old road, with a 30- to 40-foot drop-off on your left. This continues for about 0.25 mile. There is a spectacular view of the Diamond Peaks behind you to the northeast. This 1-mile point is a good spot for a photo and snack break. This also a good turnaround point for the inexperienced.
After approximately 200 yards, the trail crosses to the other side of the drainage, crossing the stream that is out of sight under the snow, unless your trip is too early in the season. The trail then goes east and south uphill and back into the tress, steepening considerably at a couple of big hairpins that straighten out at about 2 miles. It wanders around trees as you steadily make your way to treeline next to the drainage. You will see another ridge and peak to the right/west, which is Seven Utes. At intersecting trails, bear to the right. When you emerge from the trees at about 2.75 miles, you can see Seven Utes to the right/southwest and Mount Mahler to the left/southeast. From this point you can choose to climb either.
The shorter, easier, and somewhat safer choice is Seven Utes. There is a trail going to the right/west across the top of the drainage cirque; that is your route over to Seven Utes. Once you cross the top of the drainage, pick the least steep route up to the saddle at about 3 miles and avoid areas that look like starting zones or runouts for avalanches. There are definitely avalanche hazards on this route, but you can avoid them. From the summit at 3.25 miles, enjoy views of the Never Summer Mountains or Rocky Mountain National Park and the Medicine Bow Mountains.
Mahler is a much higher summit that can be climbed from the same drainage as Seven Utes. There are many avalanche hazards on Mahler but it can be safely climbed if you stay on the southern shoulder of the mountain, pick your route carefully, and confirm reasonable snow stability with a snow pit. When you emerge from the trees at about 2.75 miles, where you can see Seven Utes to the right/west and Mount Mahler to the left/east, bear left/southeast. Continue uphill, bearing straight for a little more than 3 miles south and then go left, making your way away from the obvious avalanche zones and toward the right/south side of the mountain.
Avoid the dangerous potential avalanche zones dead-ahead on the west-facing slopes. The south ridge is not without some avalanche danger. From the south flank, carefully pick your way up to the top of the ridge saddle in a little more than 1 mile and then right (south and east) to the summit at 4 miles.
Enjoy views of the Nokhu Crags to the northeast, Richthofen a bit farther southeast, and the Never Summer Mountains an Zirkel Range visible to the south and west.
If you want to learn more about backcountry routes, Never Summer Mountains, and get expert advice on trails, Ski Touring Routes: Colorado's Front Range is available now.