Sometimes you just have to drop everything and drive halfway across the state for powder

By R. Scott Rappold, Funemployed Journalist

Somewhere out there in the murkiness, in the vertigo-inducing clouds, was the powder day of a lifetime.

It was Jan. 14 at ski area Arapahoe Basin, in the midst of the biggest snowstorm of the season to date, which would leave Summit County with triple-digit snow totals by the time it moved out.

If only I could see it. Riding the lower slopes was like skiing by brail. I knew everything underfoot was untouched powder, “balls deep” as their PR rep assured me. But to ski the upper half of the mountain? Terrifying. Montezuma Bowl? Out of the question.

Sensory deprivation is not a good thing on skis. Goggles froze only slightly more quickly than toes in these conditions. After four runs off Pallavicini Lift, it was beer o’clock.

As I sat nursing a beer, cursing the whiteout, I wondered, what was I doing here? Had I really dropped everything to drive halfway across the state in a misguided pursuit of powder? Would my efforts be rewarded or would blizzard-force winds wipe good snow away?

What was this folly?

***

It’s a hell of a thing when the snow misses your home mountain.

A hell of a thing.

Five hours and three mountain passes earlier, I was sitting on my sofa in the sunny San Luis Valley, cursing the fact that yet another storm had veered north and missed my beloved Wolf Creek, which in normal winters buries every other Colorado ski area in snow totals. Even Monarch Mountain, my other favorite hill, seemed to be just glanced by this storm.

Looking at that day’s snow report, it seemed like eons since I had enjoyed a powder day. So what was stopping me from getting in on the fun? Certainly not a job, one of the beauties of being a freelance writer. My wife? A powder hound herself, she sighed in jealousy and urged me to go.

Time began to speed up. It was already 8:30, the lifts would be running soon and I was still in Alamosa in my pajamas. I frantically began to throw clothes in my duffel bag. I grabbed Ramen noodles, Pabst Blue Ribbon and a ham sandwich.

I called my go-to spot for cheap lodging in Summit County, the Fireside Inn, a hostel run by a nice British couple in Breckenridge. The dormitory was full that night, and the cheapest room was $140, too rich for unemployed journalists. I jumped online and found a $70 room at the Snowshoe Motel in Frisco.

An out the door I went.

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It’s hard to explain just how long a 4-hour drive can seem when all you can think about is the fresh snow currently being chewed up by everyone else.

On a powder day, every little mountain town and lonely stretch of highway seems to have a speed trap, so speeding was out of the question. Hoosier Pass was agonizingly slow, treacherous with blinding sideways snow and terrified drivers.

Still, by 1 p.m. I was there. Loveland Pass had been closed for two days, so A-Basin was a ghost town. All the ticket windows were closed already, and most skiers had retreated to the bar. The snow report was 7 inches, but numbers are meaningless in such a storm. One spot might be a pool of fluff while another a wind-scoured icy death trap.

By 3:30 I had had enough. Sure, I had gotten my share of face shots and exhilarating runs through buttery goodness, but the cold, wind and visibility took their toll. I arrived at the motel somewhat discouraged, questioning the wisdom of this adventure, and set about drinking beer with the Lord.

Then I found encouragement on the Internet.

It seemed the weather had kept the upper lifts closed at many ski areas. At Copper Mountain, just 10 minutes down the highway, I had it on good authority the back bowls had never opened and there was a ton of avalanche mitigation to be done.  If I timed it right, I could follow the rope drops across the mountain.

I went to sleep with visions of freshies dancing in my head.

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There is a moment I hope every skier gets to experience at least once: that moment when everything comes together for one of the best ski days of your life.

For me, that moment was when I got off the Mountain Chief tow lift, maybe the fifth or sixth person to ride it that day, and stared into Spaulding Bowl. It was a blanket of untouched snow as far as I could see. The sun was out for the first time in days, shining on the jagged peaks of the Tenmile Range.

I wish I could describe more about the next three hours, but it’s a blur of non-stop laps and effortless turns in what felt like 3 feet of powder.  If I saw someone else’s tracks in my peripheral vision, I veered away, not wanting to ruin what seemed like wilderness skiing. I was alone, but laughing out loud all the same.

Just as one area of the bowls started to get tracked out, an avalanche bomb would sound, and soon new terrain would open. Finally by lunchtime, it was taking longer and longer to sniff out the pockets of freshies. My legs were getting sore and snow snobbery was kicking in. After that kind of morning, how could I ski in someone else’s leftovers? I skied down for lunch and a beer.

As fate would have it, after three hours of skiing black diamonds, I lost an edge while flying down a groomer. I fell out of both skis, landing on one and tumbling about ten feet. I pounded the snow in anger, then checked my throbbing right leg. There were two deep scrapes and the beginnings of a softball-sized bruise. My head and side ached. Still, nothing seemed seriously injured but my pride.

A nice Texan on vacation got my skis and made sure I was alright. I gingerly got back on and inched my way down to the base with wide, slow turns.

Sometimes you have to know when to call it a day. I had a beer and ate my pocket sandwich, which had been flattened into a pancake, and headed out.

As it turned out, the mid-January snowstorm augured in a long warm, dry spell for Colorado, with ski conditions that felt more like April than January. To be part of it, I would drive 400 miles and spend money I did not have.

Despite my bruises and empty wallet, my smiled lingered on long after the snowy peaks of Summit County had faded into the distance.

Freelance journalist R. Scott Rappold, formerly the outdoors reporter for The Colorado Springs Gazette, makes his home in the lovely San Luis Valley and writes when he needs money for beer and lift tickets.

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