The Mandall Lakes trailhead lies in the deep valley between the 12,354-foot Flat Top Mountain, far left, and Orno Peak.

Larry Pierce/File photo

The Mandall Lakes trailhead lies in the deep valley between the 12,354-foot Flat Top Mountain, far left, and Orno Peak.

Tom Ross: Lookin’ for winter adventure in the Flat Tops


— How much risk is enough? How much exposure to danger does it take to make you feel vibrant and alive? Is it possible to be fully alive without hanging one’s precious heinie even just a little ways over the precipice?

A buddy and I set out on a mild adventure in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area southwest of Yampa on Saturday so we could travel a little closer to the answer to that question. We’re the same two guys who flipped an 18-foot raft in the Grand Canyon’s Crystal Rapid in March 2007. We’ll probably be embellishing and refining the telling of that story until the day comes when merely launching ourselves out of a rocking chair will feel like an adventure.

Seriously though, fiftysomething dudes and dudettes who have spent their entire adult lives rambling around the Rocky Mountains are addicted to adventure, and it gets a little creepy to turn 57, look in the mirror and wonder, “How many more years remain before I have to give this stuff up?”

Saturday marked the farthest I have penetrated into the Flat Tops in winter. After a quick seven miles on snowmobile, I hefted my daypack and stepped into my skis.

The little pack was cramm­ed with a backpacking stove, fuel bottle, extra clothes, vinyl space blanket, a small foam pad, two-piece metal shovel, a small Thermos of hot tea and enough Wisconsin summer sausage, cheese and dried pears to sustain me for at least four days.

The hike to the Mandall Lakes is one I’ve made several times throughout the years — I’ve skied the avalanche run-out behind Slide Mandall in June and dodged lightning bolts on the trail during August monsoons.

Winter along Mandall Creek is a different experience. We were utterly alone except for the visible evidence of the passage of many small mammals.

Three hours later, after struggling through tight aspens and climbing almost 800 feet in approximately four miles (yeah, we may be old, but we’re really slow), we looked out over the white expanse we judged to be Twin Mandall Lakes and dug holes in the snow before settling in for our lunch.

To be honest, we weren’t in any danger Saturday; except for some sketchy steep traverses on the hard crust, the skiing wasn’t demanding. But we also knew that in an emergency, we would have no one to rely on but ourselves.

Is it wiser to sit at home on the couch and watch the NFL playoffs on a gray January day than it is to push into the uncertainty of the wilderness?

I suppose so. But I feel more alive in the high country.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail


Ken Reed 6 years, 3 months ago

With a little technology you can do both. Set that DVR to record the games, then go hiking, snowmobiling, skiing, whatever. Get home, heat up some leftovers, crack open a beer and watch the games, commercial free.


Jeff_Kibler 6 years, 3 months ago

Hopefully Tom and his buddy used two snowmobiles. If so, I don't see much risk. And yeah, we flipped a cargo raft on the lower Yampa, and lost about half of everything. It wasn't all that terrible to share tents and sleeping bags, most of the food was on a second raft. A splendid time was had by all, except for a medical emergency that took clever improvisation to get the victim to a hospital for 2nd and 3rd degree burns to her hands.

What I enjoy most is taking friends and family to the back country. After a few days of the hustle and bustle on the mountain, we do a simple snowshoe/xski trip. Most of them really love the quiet and isolation, if only for a few hours.


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