Cross-country skiing in Colorado; March 2014

Monday 3/10; Clouds and Clunkers

"Cloudsandclunkers" by Peter Shelton

“Cloudsandclunkers” by Peter Shelton

In search of powder, Jean, Amy, our Outing Club guide Lance Young and I set out for a week of cross country skiing in Colorado.  We walked thru this interesting sculpture installation on our way to our gate.  (Click any picture to enlarge it.)

The flight from Seattle to Denver was mercifully uneventful.  Lance rented a Hyundai Santa Fe.  This all-wheel-drive SUV was a good fit for the four of us, our bags and skis.  It was a large, solid, comfortable car that drove well in snow; but it had issues.  The sporty style included rear windows tapered to little dart shapes that made a big blind spot for the driver.  And the windshield wipers froze to the windshield even tho the defroster was on.

We ascended a steep pass, and I saw fringes of snow blowing off the ridge-tops overhead.  That doesn’t happen in Washington; our snow is all frozen onto the mountains.  I knew the skiing was going to be good.

07 lounge

Lance Young in the lounge of Indian Peaks Residence at Snow Mountain Ranch.

We checked into Indian Peaks Lodge at Snow Mountain Ranch, which is operated by the YMCA Of The Rockies.  The lodge is Spartan, but in good repair.  The rooms are clean and have good bathrooms.  Our top floor rooms were so hot that we turned off the baseboard heaters and cracked the windows.  Lance and I used our window for a lunch food refrigerator; it was so cold outside that some of my food froze.  A balcony across from our rooms overlooked the lounge downstairs, featuring an impressive gas fireplace.  The Commons dining hall up the hill from the lodge serves a substantial, complimentary buffet breakfast; lunch and dinner are also offered.

Monday’s dinner was at an Azteca in Granby; it was also hosting a birthday party.  The owner served us.  He said he’d moved here from Kirkland because the Seattle area was getting too many Mexican restaurants.

Due to the high altitude, several liquids in our luggage leaked.  My latte syrups, laundry detergent and hand sanitizer leaked; so did Lance’s ski wax.

Tuesday 3/11; Snow Mountain Ranch

This was our first day of skiing at high altitude (9000 ft / 2743 m).  It was also a rather stormy day; we received several inches of fresh snow in the form of showers alternating with blue sky.  Colorado’s peculiar “fat pancake” clouds drifted over the peaks.  A short walk on unpaved road brought us to a ski trail that led us to the Nordic Center.  It had a shop with an uninspiring clearance corner; a fleece ear band was priced at $30, and new waxable skis were $270.

15 smrI headed west in search of hills.  The sun came out, and my skis promptly stuck to the snow.  I took them off in a meadow by the trail and got out a new bottle of glide wax.  I squeezed and shook it but nothing came out.  Finally I squashed the business end on my ski; the applicator popped down and wax oozed out.  The applicator must have a pointy feed tube designed to puncture a seal when pressed down.  I suppose there are instructions on the label about how to start a new bottle, but instructions are for wimps.

I skied several excellent trails, sometimes with wind-borne snow in my face, others in warm sunshine.  I worked myself up into some lovely woods and wondered if I should eat lunch.  Then I discovered I wasn’t wearing my watch.  How can I tell whether I’m hungry with no watch?  I found a sunny bank on the hilltop and decided to eat there just in case I was hungry; and I enjoyed it, so I must have been.  Then I plummeted down the exciting hill.

Overcast moved in, snowing and blowing nastily.  I could hardly see the trails, so I decided I’d had enough fun for the day.  I made my way in the general direction of our lodge, and came to a long apartment building that seemed to be in about the right place.  With relief, I took off my skis and pack in the lee of the building, and scouted for the front door; there was none.  It was back into the storm for me, circling the building until my real lodge came into view, higher up the hill and across a road.

Wednesday 3/12; Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Amy put Yaktrax on her boots (they’re like snow chains for shoes) for the walk to the Commons for breakfast.  They worked.  I made lattes for the ladies and myself, heating milk in the microwave and whipping it with my milk-foamer.  Everybody wanted hazelnut flavoring.

We decided to explore further, and drove to the Devil’s Thumb cross country ski resort.  We were alarmed by temperatures Lance read off the Hyundai’s dashboard.  Later we decided that the car’s thermometer was defective; still, it was just 11 F. / -12 C. when we arrived.  A German girl behind the counter in the resort’s ski shop told us that it would warm up later.

We passed the time by looking in on the two places in this posh resort where day-skiers are allowed indoors to get warm; the coffee shop and Heck’s Restaurant.  The lodge is charming in an overbearing way, with beamed ceilings, wood paneling, flagstone floors and oriental carpets.  A three-sided fireplace was the centerpiece of Heck’s; Lance noted that the building bore a strong resemblance to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, Orregon, a WPA masterpiece from the 1930s depression.

By 10:30 it was warming up a little; Lance pointed out that the sun would feel warm too.  So I decided to start skiing.  I was still cold, and I got off to a bad start.  I looked all around the north side of the resort but couldn’t find a way out of the snowplow berms surrounding the parking lot.  I finally took an access road toward the highway, figuring that a ski trail would cross it.  I saw a ski trail to the left and skied out to it.

The snow was somewhat consolidated since Tuesday, but it had a layer of powder on top.  Lance said the locals were grousing about the “wet snow.”  But by our standards it was still excellent snow; it was velvety, making every maneuver easy and adding a weightless, floating sensation to downhill glides.

My fingers stung from the cold.  I broke out a set of chemical hand warmers and put them in my gloves.  I also put on an ear band I’d found in the ski shop for $13.  It fit under my shade hat, a necessity due to the clear sky and brilliant sun.  I wanted to wear the scarf that Pat crocheted for me, but it wasn’t in my pack.  I knew I’d had it in the ski shop, where I’d put on my turtleneck fleece; I resolved to return there in time to reclaim it.

Half an hour later, after beginning a long hill climb, I started removing layers. I checked my thermometer and it was nearly 40 F. / 4 C.  Lance came back from his attempt at Marker Hill, which I’d been planning to try myself.  He told me that it wasn’t groomed and seemed to be closed.  We skied together around the hilly periphery of the trail system for a while.  I was still getting hot.  As a last resort to cool off, I zipped down the side zippers of my snow pants, securing the top precariously with belt-level Velcro strips.

Lance Young skiing uphill at Devil's Thumb.

Lance Young skiing uphill at Devil’s Thumb.

Finally I ran out of oxygen, bid Lance Godspeed and stopped for lunch.  Lance skied onward, leaving a well-crafted set of tracks for me to follow.  In the forested hills, I got cold again.  On checking the temp, I found it had dropped to 25 F. / -4 C.   So I put a couple of layers back on.  Wildcat, rabbit and elk prints crossed the trail here and there, disappearing into the woods.

I returned to the valley, thinking I would just pick up my scarf and ski back to the hills.  But Devil’s Thumb is a big place, with over 100 km of groomed ski trails.  The immaculate snowfields between trails glittered under the sun, casting a rainbow of colors.  I took a wrong turn and found myself heading back to the hills.  I asked a young lady coming the other way how to get to the lodge; she told me to keep right and watch out for a big hill.  At length I came to a little bump, such as would have thrilled me when I was learning to ski.  I’m glad it thrilled her.

30 dtDue to getting lost, I was ready to quit by the time I found the lodge.  The same German girl who was in the shop in the morning was still there.  I asked her about my crocheted scarf.  “When I saw it, I knew you’d be back for it,” she said.

I did some stretches and panted and drank water for a while.  When I was as presentable as I could be, I got a table at Heck’s, where we’d agreed to meet for happy hour.  It was very upscale, and there was no danger of our having dinner there.  I passed on the fried bar food, but draft beer was only $2; Jean and I had Red Stripe, a Colorado microbrew, very nice.  Dinner was later, at a hole in the wall pizza place Lance spotted in Fraser.  The setting sun highlighted the mountains pink under a layered purple sky as we returned to Snow Mountain Ranch.

Thursday 3/13; Rocky Mountain National Park

Today we drove north to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was 10 F. / -12 C. when we left; but by now I’d figured out the local weather and I didn’t let it bother me.

We stopped at the Visitor Center outside the entrance.  We were the only visitors; and Lance noticed that the last signature in the registration book was two days old.  The woman at the counter seemed delighted to see us.  We drove on to the end of the plowed highway and the Colorado River trailhead.  This trail to “Lulu City” traverses the headwaters of the Colorado River, which here is just a little creek.

The Colorado River at its headwaters.

The Colorado River at its headwaters.

After two days of skiing on groomed resort tracks, this was a hard day.  The snow had deteriorated further, resembling our notorious Cascade Cement.  During the day I found all sorts of snow; wind-packed crust, billowy wet snow, unforgiving ice and even pockets of powder.  Adding to the challenge was the narrow up-and-down trail thru hummocky woods full of whappy tree branches.  At times we had to take off our skis and walk.  All the people we met on the trail were snowshoeing, a smart choice.

Paul, Lance, Amy and Jean.

Paul, Lance, Amy and Jean.

Our little handout maps gave the impression that we would come to the unplowed highway; but in fact we never saw it, and Lance found out later that it rose far above our little valley.  We turned around at a small meadow; but Lance pressed onward and later told us we’d missed Lulu City’s fine meadows and views.  I made time to ski in meadows we passed on our way back.  Skiing meadows under the warm sun was much better than skiing in the icy woods; too bad a meadow wasn’t going our way.

Later we hiked to Adam Falls.  This was similar country, but we were walking.  Jean and Amy had the foresight to bring their YakTrax.  I saw a pair of abandoned ski poles in the parking lot, and borrowed them for the hike.  The chest-high stone wall and handrail at the waterfall viewpoint were just showing above the snow’s surface.  The waterfall looked dry; other hikers told us that the water was running under the snow.

Dinner was at Mavericks in Granby, a diner and bar that specializes in chili and hamburgers.  A banner hanging outside read “Welcome Ice Fishers!”  We tried a sample of the chili; it’s green, and one’s mouth stays hot five minutes after a bite.  Amy and Jean ordered a monstrous burger to share; I had a taco salad, very peppery.  We handed our cameras around and exchanged e-mail addresses; we only had one more day of skiing.

Friday 3/14; Snow Mountain Ranch again

I woke up with a cold.  Lance took Amy and Jean to a golf course we’d found Thursday that was groomed for skiing.  I curled up in front of the fireplace with my iPad, hot tea and a roll of toilet paper.

60 smrAfter lunch at the Commons (enchiladas, very tasty) I went skiing in just a long sleeved ventilated sun shirt and slacks.  The temp was 44 F. / 7 C.  The trails were newly groomed, but nearly deserted.  I toured all the hilly trails west of the lodge.  Sad to say, the warm weather had transformed the magical snow into northwest-style heavy, wet, consolidated snow.  Hilltops were crisp; the bottoms were mushy and glistened with surface water.  Shadowed snow was icy.  The fields no longer glittered with crystal rainbows.  The skiing was slow, but still worth doing.  I enjoyed the pretty woods and spacious views of the mountain-locked valley.

65 smr

… More pictures …

Snow Mountain Ranch

Snow Mountain Ranch

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