Places of Return

Considering place & coming of age in the San Juan Mountains

By Jamie Wanzek

I kicked one last turn to the top. My chest tight, my legs ached. As I stood up into my final step, I turned, looking down at the tracks of my skins on the crust of snow. I took a slow deep breath, the same breath I take in hopes the moment will remain a memory. 

Just as a river tethers time to a place, all my memories of returning here are connected. Backcountry ski days among the white cathedral walls of Red Mountain Pass are sacred to me. This is my place of return. 

On the tour up, passing old remnants of the mining industry’s history. Everytime I return here, I learn a new layer of my personal history and the history of others. — photo by Riley Wanzek

On this particular day, looking eye-level into the Colorado’s San Juan Mountains through a perfect, unobstructed sky, I am with my younger brother. We beat the sun halfway up the mountain.

It’s a dawn patrol. The morning is cold, the sky bright and pink. We pass by the old mining remains on our tour up.

Avalanche danger is moderate with a persistent weak layer in the snow on Northern aspects. To mitigate possible risks, we decide to ski a low angle gully. Here, from collected experience and trust, we know we can find soft, cold, and safe snow. 

Skiing with my brother makes me nostalgic. After all, he was my first and favorite backcountry partner. He is patient, quiet, and always conscious of the space around him. I learned my small set of alpine skills from him and my father. 

On the way up, just as they always do, my lungs had begun to tighten. I stopped to catch my breath, but my brother said, “No, sissy. Keep moving. You have to get past it. Find your rhythm.” I slowed my pace, deepened my breathing, falling into meditation. It reminded me of the many mornings I’ve had with my father and brother battling the skin track. 

These were the same mountains my father found solace at age 19 after leaving his childhood home. Now, through sharing his experiences, my brother and I could explore these mountains ourselves with ease. Sometimes, more than anything else, visiting this place felt like a space to understand our past. 

When I was in eighth grade, my father showed us backcountry skiing for the first time. It was a cold April day in these same mountains. The avalanche danger was low as we traversed forest service roads, avoiding potential avalanche terrain, to a small, low angle backcountry ski, just the ridge over from where we were heading.

As a middle school girl, I was blind to the seed my father was trying to plant. Instead, each step up the mountain with my heavy bindings and backpack hurt. I wanted to ski with my friends at the resort and enjoy the instant joy of alpine skiing.

My dad, an honest, working man, had invested in purchasing and renting the appropriate gear for us. I recall him beaming. As a middle school girl, though, I was blind to the seed my father was trying to plant. Instead, each step up the mountain with my heavy bindings and backpack hurt. I wanted to ski with my friends at the resort and enjoy the instant joy of alpine skiing. Backcountry skiing was hard. I cried out of frustration and pain. 

For much of my childhood, my relationship with backcountry skiing, mountain biking, hiking—the outdoors—hurt. It was uncomfortable, and above all, it wasn’t easy. This sentiment continued through my teen years, something hard not only for me, but for my father too. It took my coming of age to find the solace my father wished to share with me all those years ago.

Every time I return to Red Mountain Pass year after year, something new reveals itself—be it my relationship to this land, my father, the historical context of the people before me, the snowpack, or my relationship with myself, the mountains, my home. 

After returning from my first year of college, my father and I decided to ski the remnants of snow still high in the San Juans. But this time, returning to our place felt different. With new eyes, I could stare back at myself. I saw that this place and my father, through a lens of backcountry skiing, was a reflection of my foundation and me. 

Every time I return to Red Mountain Pass, something new reveals itself…

Following him across a familiar route, I began to slow with each step—each breath, falling into meditation. With a calm mind and strong legs and lungs, I didn’t feel the need to fight. Instead, I felt peace. 

When we got to the top, I sat with my father and our dog. We ate lunch and enjoyed a familiar view. We were quiet, until my father said, “Growing up, you know, we didn’t take you to the movies or the mall on the weekends. And I didn’t take you to church. But this,” he said, pointing to the view in front of us, “This is the church I brought you to on Sundays.”

The thing that reveals itself to me on this visit among the familiar peaks is that our places of return matter. These places that we hold close in heart, they hold us too. With force like a magnet, some places pull us back again and again for renewal, for perspective. 

My brother Riley and I, posing at Silverton Mountain, the basin over from Red Mountain Pass.

And so, my brother and I kicked to the top. There we lay, under a banner of blue and in front of a wall of white.

 With force like a magnet, some places pull us back again and again for renewal, for perspective. 

We transitioned our skis and stowed our touring skins. We looked over into Prospect Bowl, behind us Storm Peak and Velocity Basin in the far distance, other pockets of the San Juans we hold dear.

We shared a granola bar and water while meditating on the view for a while. After a discussion of where we were skiing, my brother said, “You first, Sissy!”

I clicked into my skis, took a deep breath, and pushed into the gully, falling into grace.


Photos courtesy of Jamie Wanzek unless otherwise specified.

What places pull you back again and again?

Jamie Wanzek, from Durango, Colorado, enjoys moving her bones and mind through traveling, writing, and the outdoors. Her writing has appeared on POWDER.com and in print for Moonshine Ink, North Lake Tahoe’s independent newspaper.   

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