We peeked through trees above a parking lot in State Forest State Park near Cameron Pass. Below my feet, between me and the asphalt, were nearly 80 inches of snow — a solid base for late March. The trailhead sign for nearby Lake Agnes was totally buried.
Looming above us were the cliffs and steep couloirs of Braddock Peak (11,982 feet) and Mount Mahler (11,960 feet) — an intimidatingly beautiful scene for what was only my third backcountry tour.
Matt Hartman calls this a forgotten part of Colorado.
“This place is National Park-level beautiful,” said Hartman, who is an IFMGA/AMGA-certified mountain guide with Colorado Mountain School (CMS).
Just east of our small backcountry group is the Nokhu Crags. The area, coined “Little Alaska” by CMS guides, is famous for the dramatic outcropping of spires that gives it a “big factor” feel, usually found much further north. The zone is named after the Arapahoe word Neaha-no-xhu, meaning “eagles’ nest.” Its couloirs and chutes are short but offer world-class spring powder skiing, and quick laps on some steep terrain.
Almost anywhere else in the state, this area would be bustling with people. But as we moved deeper into the mountains, there was nothing but the sound of our skins lightly sliding over eight inches of fresh snow. We hadn’t seen anyone outside our group since we left the parking lot. It was a refreshing reality contrasted to that of the I-70 corridor.
CMS has been guiding backcountry adventures and teaching backcountry skills at Cameron Pass for years. And I’m beginning to understand why.
Cameron Pass: A Brief History
People have been skiing in Cameron Pass for more than 100 years, according to Never Summer Outdoor School. Despite several attempts to put up official ski areas at Cameron Pass during the 1930s and ’40s, it has remained a destination for backcountry skiers drawn to its consistently deep snowpack.
Rodney Ley, a Fort Collins local who has skied Cameron Pass for 50+ years, recently authored the most extensive guidebook to Cameron Pass to date. It has detailed information about the area, from ideal uptracks and downtracks, to slope angles, avalanche terrain information, and more.
The CMS Backcountry Basecamp
I was staying at the Seven Utes Yurt. It’s an off-grid backcountry mountain lodge built and operated by CMS. An hour and a half west of Fort Collins in Cameron Pass, it’s far enough to deter most of the Front Range crowds. It has a fully stocked kitchen, wood-burning stove, solar panels, and space to sleep 16.
There’s also a wraparound deck. But you wouldn’t have known it given the snow piled to the top of the yurt’s windows.
The 40-foot yurt is CMS’ newest backcountry basecamp, built in the summer of 2022 with the help of guides like Hartman. This is the back end of its first winter in action, hosting everything from backcountry skiing trips like the one I was on, to avalanche training courses like AIARE 1.
Most of the time, Hartman said, when groups of friends book the yurt they will fill up the space with as many people as allowed. That helps split up the cost ($1,400 for 2 nights). But it also adds significantly to the experience, having more people to share it with.
An All-Season Experience
Come summertime, Seven Utes Yurt will remain open for people looking to hike the state park or check out the North Michigan Reservoir.
Hartman said that without internet access at the yurt, people tend to disconnect better and be more present.
“If you come up here, there are no other distractions,” he said. “You do it for three days and you go home.”
And you don’t have to be a mountain expert extraordinaire to enjoy yourself at the yurt. The guiding company also implements a course series geared toward the less-experienced adventurer called “Fundamental Mountain Skills” to help make the outdoors more accessible.
Hartman said his goal is to spend around 20 nights a season at the yurt. He enjoys being up there with groups for days at a time.
“I can be up here [all day] and just take people skiing,” he said.
Getting on Snow
In the morning, our group of five moseyed out of our individual cots without any sense of urgency. The warm smell of coffee filled the open room, shortly followed by the crackling sound of breakfast cooking on the stovetop.
Opposite the yurt’s kitchen was a seemingly random assortment of books, puzzles, and games (in case anyone needed some low-risk entertainment). I flipped through a guidebook to pass some time as I woke up.
Being just a few miles from the summit of Cameron Pass, our morning commute from the yurt to the slopes is pretty straightforward: open the front door. And our agenda for the day was equally simple: breakfast, ski, dinner.
It’s a perfect day for it. There are blue skies, fresh snow, and minimal wind. We started in Cameron Pass’s busy summit parking lot. But just a few minutes later, we were breaking a trail through some glades under South Diamond Peak (11,701 feet) and we couldn’t hear or see another soul.
Hartman reiterated that that’s pretty typical for this area.
Cameron Pass: Risks and Rewards
As our group was shedding layers on the way up, Hartman explained to us what was going through his head regarding safety and avalanche danger. He pointed out things like terrain traps, wind slabs, and lines he would and wouldn’t pursue as a skier.
He’s been guiding for 15+ years and has studied this snowpack all season — he knows it like the tops of his skis.
So far in the 2022/23 season, there have been 10 skier or snowboarder deaths in the U.S. from avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Historically, more of those fatalities occur in Colorado than any other state, partially due to the state’s notorious persistent slab that develops early winter and lasts until the warm spring weather.
The sport is also expanding. Numerous outlets reported SnowSports Industries America estimating there are more than 6 million backcountry riders in the U.S., a number that’s been on the rise in recent years. And, this year, ski mountaineering was also added to the list of events in the 2026 Winter Olympics for the first time.
We used Rodney Ley’s Beacon Guidebook to choose our routes for a few epic laps at the South Diamond peak. Then we traversed over to North Diamond Peak and chose a few more.
By the end of a few powder laps at 11,000 feet, I was tired — and thirsty. On the top of my last run for the day, I couldn’t decide what I was more excited for, more smooth powder turns or après and a warm fire back at the yurt before another day of the same.
Going on a CMS Adventure
CMS, founded in Estes Park in 1981, offers a variety of different adventures for every level of outdoor enthusiasts, sharing the power of the mountains with people who want to learn about and explore them.
The company offers experiences around the Front Range all year. From ice climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing in the winter, to climbing in Eldorado Canyon or Longs Peak in the summer — all accompanied by one of the company’s knowledgeable guides. One-day trips like the one I went on tend to be around $300 to $600. Multiday options can reach the mid-$1,000 range.
But the real bread and butter of CMS is education — all aimed at helping you progress in both the mountains and in life.
Some of CMS’ courses include Intro to Mountaineering, Wilderness Medicine, Climbing Movement & Technique, Intro to Backcountry Skiing, and more. Provided gear varies depending on each course or experience, so make sure to read through the program’s description. If you don’t have gear, you can rent from nearby outdoor shops like the Boulder REI, Neptune Mountaineering, or the Estes Park Mountain Shop.
To stay at the Seven Utes Yurt backcountry basecamp, you either have to reserve the entire yurt (a guide will stay with you for a day) or take a class based out of the yurt. Reserving the entire yurt is $700 per night, and the minimum is 2 nights. An upcoming Intro to Ski and Splitboard Mountaineering course at the yurt is $630, including 2 nights of lodging.
All classes and experiences can be booked through the CMS website. Check out individual course prices and upcoming dates for each on the CMS webpage.