Steamboat Springs At the bottom of a final pitch on Hahn's Peak, where the spiny, white cornice that outlines the 10,839 summit begins, Tyler Bennett stands, with alpine skis strapped to his pack forming a giant "X" on his back, above endless green bumps of the Routt National Forest.
He looks down at his friends who are climbing up an exhaustingly steep, snowy stretch to reach him.
"This will make a man out of you!" he screams down to them, over the wind, with a laugh.
When the trek started with a snowmobile ride around the base of Hahn's Peak on Forest Service Trail 409.1A, the weather was warm and the wind was silent.
However, after ditching the sleds halfway up the mountain and setting out on foot, the higher the hike went, the windier it got. Now, the group is in a wind that makes the members sway like trees to keep balance.
At that point, the body feels slightly confused. The wind is cold, cutting through minimal clothing layers. Coat shells were shed in the beginning of the hike to stay cool.
The skies are still blue, despite the wind, and the sun's heat and the body's warmth from climbing overtake the cold during intervals of blowing wind. But when it blows, it's cold.
Brandon Tolman meets Bennett at the base of the final pitch. He's carrying a snowboard, which acts like a sail in the blowing wind, making him sway even more.
"Hello, Zirkels," he says, looking into the Zirkel Wilderness, where the Black Mountains rise like skyscrapers in the distance.
"From the top, they say you can see all the way into Utah," Tolman says.
The two walk around the north side of the mountain to inspect some other possible routes up and down. But their search is cut short by the evidence of a large snowslide, maybe two days old, that streaks the side of the mountain.
"We probably shouldn't go on that side of the mountain," Tolman says. "If you go any farther than those tracks, you could set another one off."
This sets off a twinge of fear. Though it hasn't snowed in a couple of days and slide danger probably isn't too high, the idea of the very ground falling out from under you and a vision of yourself tumbling along down the side of Hahn's Peak to be buried in snow can't be avoided.
So the group sets out cautiously, but optimistic, because the top is near.
This part of the hike is where most groups separate and get to the top on their own, said Karl Iacozili, who has climbed to the summit and skied down Hahn's Peak six times this winter. He skis from the trailhead, across from Columbine Cabins, all the way up.
"That's pretty much a scramble from there," he said. Mainly because it's steep, icy and there is no set way to get up.
Tolman personifies that theory. He sets out on a different path from Bennett, after they both pass a dilapidated fire-lookout cabin, abandoned in the '50s.
Fortunately, above that area, where the wind has blown dangerous icy spots on the incline, it also has blown rocks bare that helps for traction. But it's still dangerous on this part. One slip or the wind blowing you over can force an unwelcomed ride down the pitch, over rocks and down into trees.
Bennett reaches the summit first, where a lookout tower is located, and Tolman follows.
"It took us an hour and a half to hike from the sleds," Bennett says after Tolman arrives.
"And it will take us two minutes to get down," Tolman responds.
Jumping off a cornice, after making sure it is safe from slides, into fresh powder and an extreme vertical pitch and skiing down is special.
"This can change your life," Bennett says before making the plunge into the main chute on the mountain.
First is fear, skiing down the top and forcing yourself to drop in.
"That might be part of it," Tolman says before he makes his first snowboard plunge on the mountain.
But once you're in the controlled fall, falling maybe about eight to 10 feet down, the mind clears and there is no fear. Just a soft landing and a fast, fresh, conquering ride down.