Blizzard Curls


Blowy and powdery at the top of the Breezeway lift at Monarch

I got waxed up in the parking lot around 10AM.

“It’ll be easier to turn,” assured my fellow boarder as he spread wax on my snowboard.

“But you might fall getting off the lift,” he warned and laughed, then, “Meet you back here.”

It was a powder Thursday in February at Monarch Mountain, just west of Salida, Colorado. It was also deathly cold, with temps on the wrong side of the integer line. I was layered in wool, fleece, then my Helly Hansen coat. After one walk to the car, I knew I needed a longer, bulkier outer layer for these conditions. I stopped by Mt. Shavano Ski and Snowboard Shop on the way to the hill for a new snowboard coat. I walked away with a Boulder Gear Serena Jacket. The description on their website is spot on–I was looking for something warm but not bulky; stylish but not poser-y; internal storage for cards and key; and a hood for dastardly windy days. Like today.

I learned to board at Monarch in the late 90’s. I had lived in Tahoe a few years earlier and tried, repeatedly, to learn how to dowhill ski on straight skis. I was an avid cross-country skier and couldn’t wrap my head, hips, legs, or shoulders around the “pizza french-fry” technique.

Blue runs off the Garfield lift

So I turned to snowboarding, graduating all the way to double-blacks ten years ago. But there have been head injuries, car crashes, and even a head-on collision with a snowboarder a few years back. Now I like to warm up on the blues, hit a few blacks, then warm-down on the blues. I prioritize empty runs, and if I find an empty run with enough challenge, I’ll start lapping the mountain.

And that’s what I did for two windy, chilly powder days at the end of February. I started on the eastern Breezeway lift, noted the empty trails on the chair ride up, and as prophesized by my parking lot friend, fell getting off the steep lift ramp. I dusted myself off, going through my top-of-the-lift ritual of tightening the Boa system on my snowboard boots, one cinch at a time. He was right, I was turning more easily, but only when I could see the contours of the trail. Which wasn’t often.

Black choices off the Breezeway lift

Blowy snow and overcast skies meant seeing the run, finding a line before you got there, was out of the question. I headed toward the fluffy bumps on Upper Halls Alley and B’s Bash, both empty but hard to see. I was being bounced around by large moguls, willing myself to find curves to turn into and keeping my tail up so I wouldn’t fall. As the days progressed, I moved west across the mountain, dodging loose trees off the Panorama lift and finding fun blues and blacks to drop into off the Garfield lift.

The uncovered parts of my face started to burn

I was having fun but I was working for it–huffing my way through invisible turns, thumping off the top of moguls, leaning back to keep speed up on the flats. My hands, face, and toes were alternating to win Coldest Part of the Body. Between the altitude (summit elevation is almost 12,000 ft.), the bitter cold, the wind, the too-tight sports bra, and the powder challenges, I tapped out after a few hours.

Great snow conditions, low light

I took my first snowboard lesson here at Monarch, and my Kiwi instructor, after watching me connect turns, noticed I was working too hard. “It’s the slackuh spawt, Tracey. You’re trying to hahd. Just point yaw shoulders and lean to turn.” Almost 25 years after that first day I was trying to point and lean, conserving energy for talking, slogging through the lift line, and driving back to Salida.

As I was trudging back to my car the second day, who should I run into? “Told you I’d meet you back here. How was your day?” We traded stories, preferred lifts and runs, and which parts of our bodies ached the most.

“It was hard to see.”

“Because of all that powder!”

True.

We dusted off our vehicles, blared the heat and music and changed into better footwear. I flipped down the visor to remove my contacts and noticed, just like after a day at the beach, that I had accumulated blizzard curls. I laughed at the hairy icicles. And my eyes had that faraway stare that comes with extreme physical exhaustion.

Skins on Backwards


Cuchara Moutain Park after a a few new inches

I am a proud member of the Great Resignation. I was working mostly from home, in expensive Denver, and big cities are no fun during a pandemic. So I moved to the Sangre de Cristo mountains where I had bought a small condo a few years prior. The condo is next to an old ski area, Cuchara Mountain Resort. The lifts stopped running in 2000 due to mismanagement, a lack of snow, and whatever else. There have been some improvements and a concerted effort to repurpose the area and maybe even open Lift 4, pictured above.

View of winter from my west-facing balcony

I bought the condo not with faraway hopes of living next to a lift-served snowboarding. I bought it for the views, serenity, and throwback feel. Runs on the lower part of the mountain are blues and greens, so I had been hiking up and boarding down. A tiring system in fresh powder.

Tips of the new setup

I was always running into someone skinning up after storms, and I thought it would be cool to explore more of the mountain with the right equipment. I met some splitboarding neighbors, so I invested in brand new Voile gear, the full Revelator setup. I figured I had at least the will power to start a new sport at 51.

Transition from climbing up to swooshing down

Backcountry snowboarding requires at least one costume change. From the car, the mohair skins adhere to the bottom, the boards split apart and change places, the bindings slide in and clamp down, and poles get extended. For the five times in my life I’ve been splitboarding, I’ve been wearing cross-country skiing gear and carrying a backpack filled with more snowboard-y mittens, helmet, and goggles. Once on top, I fold the skins, collapse the poles, and stuff all in the pack for the descent.

I’m doing (some of) it wrong

I try to get out on the splitboard in the morning after new snow, but on this Thursday it was going to have to be a happy hour skin up. I drive my car the quarter mile from my door to the ski area base of because I am not skinning up back to my front door. I’m just not.

The 90 second reward

The air was cold and windy, the light was flat and fading, and snow was getting tossed about on the lower mountain. It’s about 20 minutes to the top of Chair 4 and 90 seconds down. Gearing up and transitioning also takes about 20 minutes, so the ROI is kind of off. Today I’m focused on the single digit temps and my talkative lower back, and the complexity of my equipment outsmarted me. I put the skins on backwards and forgot to take the pole guards off. In fact, I think I’ve left the pole guards on almost every time I go out. And the clamped-down bindings looked wrong on my boots, arching over my boots instead of holding them in from the front. I was too cold to care. I trudged up.

The climb up was hard, but it’s always hard. The transition was messy, but what else is new? And the glide down was satisfying, awesome, and over too soon.

After the Storm


Castle Trail at Mt. Falcon Open Space after the storm

“I’m going snowsporting,” I told my friend as I headed out with the dog. A good 8-10 inches of the white stuff had fallen the night before, and I had six snowsports in my car, ready to swish or crunch: snowboard, splitboard, skate skis, classic cross-country skis, snowshoes, and snow cleats. Because our destination is a highly trafficked spot in the foothills of Denver, the snow cleats would be enough. In winter parlance, it was almost a bluebird day, sunny and blue skies with a few lingering clouds.

Mismatch is the new black

I assembled my adult winter garanimals: wool base layer, wool vest, snowboard socks, gaiters, duck boots from DSW, lined pants, scarf, crochet hat friendly to pony tails, $14.99 gas station sunglasses, and the ever-awesome suede yet waterproof, beaded, faux-fur-lined snowboard mittens. Instead of a fancy hydration system I had a simple water bottle holder that when unzipped, becomes a water bottle backpack. OK, maybe a little fancy. My days of GORE-TEX for neighborhood jaunts are over.

Top notch Christmas present from years ago

These mittens are old enough to have a Spongebob-themed birthday party. They’ve seen most of Colorado as well as the inside of a cedar chest while I was recovering for a few years. The thing about this particular trail in this particular bit of open space–it’s where I learned how to mountain bike. Mt. Falcon has a mix of intermediate and easy trails from the west parking lot, aka “from the top.” Once I mastered those trails, and even began lapping for the extra workout, I started riding the trails from the east parking lot, aka, “from the bottom.” From the bottom is hard-core: 2.5 miles and over 1,000 feet of climbing, some of it on loose rock. The first time I tried clipless pedals in the early aughts was “from the bottom,” and I fell going uphill just as the dropoff steepens. From the bottom rides were best done early in the morning on a weekday since the climb is completely exposed, and it gets jammed up on the weekend. At my hard-coriest, I would try to “clear” the climb (without stopping) to the top in under an hour. Always failed.

Castle Trail: Easy on top, hard party from the bottom

But as long as one is mountain biking or snow-sporting or really just enjoying themselves, one is not failing. And today was an ice-cleat dog-walking day. It had been many years since I pedaled or hiked Mt. Falcon, but I do remember mountain biking during the winter there before fat bikes were a thing. Back in the aughts.

Ivory overlooks charred remains from a long-ago fire

Many were partaking in dog-walking Saturday. Dozens of really happy Coloradoans or visitors were out, in their winter garanimals, soaking in the blue and white serene scene, with easy exercise and quality canine time. Me included. I marveled at how the morning light was bouncing off east-facing pine needles and the snowy carpet. Mountain bike memories poured forth, collapsing into one another to form a Mt. Falcon montage. One memory sticks out.

Everyone who plays in the mountains knows summer afternoon thunderstorms occur. Everyone. So get yer playin’ done by 1PM at the latest, and descend. After a fairly successful grind up from the bottom (didn’t clear but only stopped once), I caught up on water, a Cliff Bar, and socializing under a shelter. The shelter serves as an intersection of the hard-cores and the casuals, and general agreement is that everyone is out having a good time, getting their heartrate up, and earning some bragging rights. But on this particular early afternoon the sky darkened and thunder started clapping. I quickly strapped the Camelback on, clipped in, and readied for my usual 20-minute (whee!) descent in an effort to beat the lightning. Success! As I reached the parking lot, unclipped, and started mounting the bike to the car, these two dudes passed me going up.

Walker home ruins at the end of the Castle Trail, from the top

Back in the aughts I would not have been to content to leisurely crunch through three miles of mostly flat terrain to visit a hundred year old building. In the aught years I even had a Ten Sports in Ten Days series. But that was injuries, surgeries, grad degrees, exes, jobs, and reflections ago. Gratitude is the current name of the game, where I’m truly happy just to get out, collect some vitamin D, exercise the Ivory girl, and talk with other furparents.

Snowy trail
Ivory at rest

Global Pandemic Pages: Signs, Signs Everywhere There’s Signs


“(eff)ing up the scenery and breaking my mind”

Tesla, 1990
Sunny day on an abandoned ski hill

After eight surreal weeks living in the mountains of rural southern Colorado, it’s time to return to Denver. At least for a while. What’s been great: the fresh air, the limitless hiking opportunities, the simplicity of inconvenience, the mountain vistas, learning about wildlife, and cooking everything from scratch. What hasn’t been great: the small, cramped quarters of two people WFH, working from bed, doing laundry by hand, cold mountain mornings (and afternoons and evenings), and cooking everything from scratch.

Sturdy signage at the edge of the ski area

What I’ve noticed over the past two months is the amount of signage in national forest and wilderness areas. National Forest signage balances delicately between a sturdy and rural aesthetic. The signage at the abandoned ski area we’ve lived next to these recent weeks is less wayfinding, more boundary markers.

Top o’ the ski area to you

A ski area that has not experienced mechanized uploading in twenty years is bound to fall into disarray. Snowmaking equipment rusts into holes, fiberglass signs fade and degrade, chair lifts stand proudly still. As we zigzaggged our way up, across, and down ski trails, we spied signs of all kinds.

Fiberglass memories

Seeing decayed, broken ski trail signs brings out a sadness I usually do not feel when frolicking about. After all, what’s a ski area but wilderness cut up? Ski trail signs remind me that this used to be a place where families and couples bonded as they rode up together and shushed down. Sometimes when we’re happy hour hiking we’ll duck into the trees under the lifts and I look down to spot the line I would have taken. It’s at those moments that I think about how the ski area was closed more than it was open in the past 40 years. I’m heartened by the progress of the “Up the Hill” Project to reopen the bottom 50 acres to lift-served skiing in what was formerly Cuchara Mountain Resort.

The cross-country ski trails have remained accessible to anyone with navigation skills

Trail network adjacent to the ski area

In the meantime, there area dozens of miles of trails in the area and earning turns. I’ll miss the signs of the San Isabel National Forest and the wilderness areas of West and East Spanish Peak.

Trailhead to a thirteener atop West Spanish Peak

Global Pandemic Pages: Happy Hour Hiking and the Bridge to Nowhere Trail


Stormy late April happy hour hike on the Bridge to Nowhere

Those who enjoy the outdoors as a stable form of recreation will recognize the term “go-to trail.” It’s the nearby trail, somewhere between easy and moderate, that you return to when time is tight, you need something familiar, or you are not in an adventuring mood. The go-to trail is as reliable as hometown friends, non-craft beer, and the restaurant down the street. You know what to expect, and it’s comforting.

Looking up Chair 5’s path

On the Bridge to Nowhere Trail, one passes three chairlifts, and skirts along the base of the ski area, moving in a southwesterly direction. The initial climb up what was formerly a green “Walk It Out” is short and steep. We have renamed in “Walk Up It.” Walk it Out is flanked by aspen groves on either side, providing colorful surroundings regardless of the season.

Aspen in April
Aspen in fall

Predictability is key to a go-to trail, and after a few dozen times you learn elevation gain is just under 500 ft. over two miles, out-and-back. You pass the lift house of Chair 5 where the trail narrows and slowly climbs to the edge of the ski area, appropriately signed to get you back to Chair 5.

Passing Chair 5 before work
Chair 5 during golden hour

Signs abound along this abandoned ski area. Some recognizable, some washed away by time and the elements.

Chair 5 marker
Sign o’ the seasons

Then, there are nature’s signs.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Sometimes even your go-to trail holds surprises. Luckily, we ran into no one or no animal.

Junipers in spring

One delight of the Bridge to Nowhere trail is the super secret juniper garden. The homemade gin was delicious, thanks for asking.

Destination fall: Bridge to Nowhere
Destination winter: Bridge to Nowhere

Global Pandemic Pages: Magical Rock Garden


Wondering upwards

When living in the midst of the mountains and a pandemic, weekends become explore days. After six weeks of connecting to the world almost entirely by internet, my partner in crime and I have settled into a routine that appears to be working: Happy Hour Hiking after Zooming through work. We head out after 5PM not only so we can keep our day jobs, but also to avoid the unrelenting UV rays that burn and sap at 9,000 feet. Departures after 5PM still mean three hours of daylight–plenty of time for high altitude fun and necessary movement.

View of the mountains from across the valley

Weekends equal adventure time; we are weekend warriors incarnate. Most weekdays we venture out for two and a half to five miles and gain 500 feet in elevation. For this Saturday’s jaunt, which doubled as a celebration of finishing my first semester of library science school, we decided to go big: 7 miles and over 1500ft of climbing. This is an out-and-back trail a handful of miles from home. We were not going to go against Governor Polis’s safer-at-home policy. Alas, the Texas and New Mexico plates at the north trailhead meant not everyone was adhering to state policies. We had our bandanas with us, so we headed out at 2PM.

Conifers and grass tufts on the upper part of the trail. Hiking partner in blue.

The first couple of miles the trail is flanked by scrub oak with no canopy. The climb felt straight uphill. We have been averaging 22-32 minutes a hiking mile, and somehow today was no different even though it seemed steeper, relentless. After the first two miles, the flora changed to aspen and conifer and huge boulders that remind me of the glacier detritus of my New England childhood.

Lika-lichen?

Just as the trail seemed to flatten out, a side trail riddled with rocks appeared. My friend invited, “This looks pretty cool, Trace, and is probably worth checking out.” After navigating 50 steep feet of loose rock, we encountered a magical rock playground.

Boulders this way and that, striated, moss-strewn, lichen-covered. It was like a McDonald’s playground for adults with natural elements. We immediately began with what we had come for: senior photos.

Tree-leaning pose
Yearbook-ready

We snacked, marveled, frolicked, rested, breathed. The pandemic has really taught me to take one day at a time and be fully present. The magical mystery rock garden provided the perfect setting for that.

Perfect overlook into the neighboring county

We explored the outcropping and cave nearby, as pictured in the first photo of this post.

Cave resting

There’s something deliciously juvenile about being away all day, exploring, not watching the time, not glued to a screen, letting curiosity be our wayfinder. Destination: novelty and adventure.

Global Pandemic Pages: Happy Hour Hiking


Day 10 of mountain hide-awaying, and we’ve taken to light scheduled walks after the workday. The sun at 9,000 – 10,000 feet can be relentless, and we’re of Northern European stock. I love me some vitamin D, but I dislike harmful UV rays.

Spring comes to the forest

Off we sauntered in and around our favorite empty ski hill and federal lands. Nearest town: population couple hundred. Social distancing no problemo.

Not exactly spring skiing

March and April are mercurial months, weather-wise. Our snowiest months can also be our meltiest months.

Huffing up a green run

We’re learning, living at 9,000 ft., that less is more. Ski runs, even green ones, are not gently sloped. We’re also learning how to read melting snow, crusting snow, and crested snow and where one sinks to their knees unexpectedly. Hard to believe three days ago I snowboarded down an adjacent run.

Light, happy hour flakes

The bluebird sky gave way to light snow gave way to golden hour.

The colors of late in the day, late March
The top of Chair 4

We walked in and out of snowpack, wind, weather, and flurries on our way to Chair 4 and other ski runs. Hoping to explore more, we were stopped by deep snow.

It’s like Christmas on April Fool’s Eve

Hiking an empty snow-patched mountain is one of the best ways I know to compartmentalize and forget, for a needed 90 minutes, that we are living against a backdrop of a global pandemic. The likes of which very few living humans have experienced before. Spanish Flu survivors being the exception.

Happy Hour Smiles

Every day the mountains remind us how lucky and privileged we are to be hunkering down in a beautiful place. It’s a tricky balance between cabin fever, high altitude, creaky floors, low oxygen levels, stunning landscapes and no chance ever of pizza delivery. Still we smile.

Until next time…

Global Pandemic Pages: Snowboarding an Empty Mountain in Southern Colorado


It’s been just over a week since a friend of mine and I headed to the hills to hunker down right before the global pandemic was about to change our daily lives. For(alongtime)ever. After a couple days of high winds, teener temps, and cabin fever, I struck out to snowshoe up and snowboard down the abandoned ski area next to my place.

Chillin’ at the turnaround point

After last weekend’s debacle of Denver Front Range skiers crowding into SUVs then crowding closed ski areas or nearby mountain passes (with no avalanche mitigation), I was glad to be alone. Mine is a wee little hill, but it provides the necessary social distancing I have preferred most of my adult life.

Spotty coverage

It snowed a few inches the night before. Conditions were variable.

Country and western

This was not the maiden voyage of snowshoe up, snowboard down. I’d done it once before. All I needed were good fitting snowboard boots and a backpack with sunscreen, water, helmet and goggles, and bungee cords for the transition from country to western. Shoutout to High Society in Aspen. After two decades of snowboarding, this one is my favorite.

Late season obstacles exist

A winter’s worth of snow crunched beneath my snowshoes, but two to three inches of freshies had fallen the night before.

Bluebird Day
Happy

By early afternoon it had warmed up to the high ’20s. I traded in my hat hair for a helmet.

Nature’s bench

My goal was the top of Chair 4, but a dry log beckoned me and a patch of dry grass persuaded me. Triathletes call this transition; I call it a rest stop.

Soaking in the surroundings
Don the helmet, kids

Alone on an easy blue run, still wearing a helmet. Call me paranoid. Or cautious. Late season obstacles existed, and I didn’t know where or what they were. Too many head injuries to risk. I hear ERs might be crowded right now.

Good to go

After adjusting some bungee cords and catching my breath, I enjoyed my 74 seconds of freedom on the run formerly known as Francisco’s Revenge. Then a quick hike home and back to the casa.

View from my sunny balcony
Snow things

Total jaunt time: 75 minutes. Total downhill time: 74 seconds. Total bliss. I’ll take it.

 

Global Pandemic Pages: Indigo Backdrop


Connections to other places

No one told the sky to shelter-in-place. Early spring temperatures in Southern Colorado for our medical errand to town (not COVID related). The sky was a clear blue one.

Banner yet wave

The sandstone courthouse wasn’t exactly open for business, but still stately.

Big project in a small town

The wheels of the economy turn via construction projects.

Bowling alley closed

A cartoon character dreams of strikes

Snow melts

A closed ski area has patchy, crusty snow

Rooms for rent

Ski lift chairs layin about
Ski lift swing

Global Pandemic Pages: Hiking a TenTeener in Southern Colorado


Happy at the turnaround point. 10k feet

Trying to make the most out of a global pandemic. On Friday my friend and I high-tailed it out of Denver to higher pastures in the San Isabel National Forest.

Afternoon blue sky

View of West Spanish Peak from the trail.

Late March snow

We had snowshoes but opted for Yak Trax with spikes and poles instead.

Aspen backdrop
Lovely tribute to Mr. Johnson

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