A little bit of snow in Vermont and the Pacific Northwest means the rest of us are suffering with 2-3 foot bases at our local ski hill, hardly enough to justify a $50+ lift ticket. Or in the cases of the chic resorts here in Colorado, $100+ (really, Aspen? really, Vail?) Vail is sporting 19 inches at the time of this posting, which means each inch of crusted-over snow costs about $5. That’s expensive.
But temperate temperatures means that the tough start looking beyond the ski resorts for winter fun. No, I’m not talking about quick getaways to Mexico. I’m talking about making the most out of winter, right there in your own backyard.
Some of the more hardcore among us are up for adventures like mountain biking on snow (done right here at Rabbit Mountain a few years ago). But for the rest of us mortals, having sports we can out (almost) out our front door will keep us healthy and happy until the snow dances kick in.
It’s November 1, which means it’s the height of cyclocross season. I had a chance this past week, in my stint as a the Cycling/Mountain Biking editor at TrailsEdge, to catch up with hot-shot cyclist and queen of the dirt and mud, Georgia Gould.
Neat lady! All the humility of a sage but with the fierceness of the champ she is.
Normally Day 2 would follow Day 1 of a road trip, so here goes: On Day 2 SheSpoke awoke in a dank and dark smoke-stained room of an overpriced motel In Monte Vista, Colorado. (It was the only room available for miles.) She had spent more than a few hours of the previous evening researching the weather and camping options at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Cold and rainy. And by cold I mean sub-freezing and by rain I mean occasionally hardened into little sleetovals or even hail.
Now, SheSpoke is hardcore. She has camped out in single digits, blizzards, and really un-awesome conditions. But SheSpoke turned 40 last year and even though she’s got an extra coating (thanks to hormones and a slowing metabolism), camping out alone in weather that makes driving dicey is no longer her idea of a good time.
So as she drove east toward the Great Sand Dunes with dreams of sandboarding, she spied the familiar sheet of white in the sky, touching not-so-daintily down to the ground. This forced her to look west, which were boasting clear skies.
The southern end of the San Luis Valleydidn’t look much better and SheSpoke knew the northern end led to a mountain pass, so west it was. When in doubt, it seems, head west.
SheSpoke had spent all of her morning and some of her afternoon recounting the amazing powder day she had at Wolf Creek Ski Area the previous day, so she was feeling more indoors than outdoors, on this particular day.
But outdoors was what was in store, so she turned the Subaru around and headed west to drier but certainly not warmer climes.
A few hours of daylight lay ahead, which meant setting up camp in Penitente Canyon, across the valley to the west, would be done with relative ease.
Alas, although SheSpoke has lived for many years with just a fireplace or a wood stove as the only means of not-central heating, she had trouble getting the campfire going and missed the brilliant luminescence that the San Luis Valley usually provides as it ducks under the western horizon. Still, she snapped a phone picture before sunset and was glad the clouds were moving quickly east.
After a tenacious half-hour, the fire got going and the pierogies got hot and the tea got started. SheSpoke ate about 3 meals in one that day in anticipation of a cold night and a physically demanding day on Day 3 of the road trip.
Some time after sundown as SheSpoke was poring over maps of the San Luis Valley the coyotes started some eerie karaoke. SheSpoke drifted off until 8AM the next morning. A good 12 hours of camping sleep.
The next morning was prep time for a bike ride she had been anticipating since the prior spring on her last trip to Wolf Creek. She had heard about this trail years before from some blokes riding about on the trails in Durango. It was time to see what mountain biking Penitente Canyon was all about.
At the main trailhead I met up with Justin, who worked in the Forest Service in the nearby town of Sagauche (pronounced sa-watch). SheSpoke has been to Sagauche many times, as it is the gateway to beautiful Crested Butte, if one is into driving the backroad of Colorado Highway 114 and mountain biking the Continental Divide along the way. Buffalo Pass Campground is a cheap ($5) option for an overnight stay on 114. Driving into Sagauche one encounters some super cool topography:
On to the ride. Justin told me the way to go, as detailed trail maps can only be gotten from the Forest Service office in Sagauche, which was closed on this Columbus Day. The Loop A trail is north of the climbing trailhead and Grand Central of this particular outdoorsy playground. You ride for a mile or two on dirt road and just as you begin to wonder if you’re going the right way, a singletrack appears to your left.
Flecks of white appeared 50 yards away and even though my horror film warning light went off, I abandoned the trail, drawn to the out-of-place colors in the earth-tone palette of Penitente Canyon:
Horrifyingly, this little ball of fur was just a few yards away:
Folks overuse the word haunted quite a bit. But that’s how my ride started that day, until I came across more petrified bone, this one all eaten up and holey:
But rides are made to be ridden, so I set off with the kind of singlemindedness that hedge-fund managers would envy. I wanted to ride.
Road trips rock. Even Hollywood knows that. Pile all the hot folks into the classic convertible, have them eat gas station food, camp out in the desert (even though they didn’t pack sleeping bags), and run into all sorts of trouble on their way to their destination. For Hollywood, it’s about depicting the journey as the destination.
For snowboarding powder days in October, it’s about the destination.
It was Friday, October 7 and I was all packed for Moab. I had neat piles of boxes and bags in my kitchen. I had slept four hours a night for two nights, going over maps, cooking food, double-checking my toiletry bag. I hadn’t been to Moab since Thanksgiving 2008, and I had been missing it sorely. I was psyched to go. Mountain biking is my first love, after all.
But somewhere around Thursday night I had heard it was dumping at Wolf Creek, my favorite ski area. The knot-nag in my stomach was telling me I had committed to Moab and needed to push powder pipe dreams out of my head. I was going mountain biking, not snowboarding that weekend.
But then plans fell through. At 7pm on Friday, I was no longer going to Moab for the three-day weekend. I was free to go to Wolf Creek. I went to bed at 8pm (not hard, as I was working on maybe 10 hours of sleep for two days) and set my alarm for 4am. Two hours of cleaning and a little repacking, and I could be at the lifts by 11am and board until 4pm. Five hours of boarding powder for $33.
But the thing about snow dumps on your favorite ski area is that they’re not very cooperative with your driving schedule. And so it was, early Saturday morning on October 8 that I drove right into a snowstorm. It wasn’t snowing heavily and the conditions were not white-out, but the roads were icy. Driving on unplowed, icy, snowy, and dark roads is something I’ve done (a lot) and something I hate. I drove with an envy for the other, paved side of the road that only extreme dieters can understand. I white-knuckled it in places, slid a little here and there, and arrived at Wolf Creek by 11am.
Temps were warm, maybe upper 30s and I wondered if I hadn’t overdressed with three layers on the top and two on the bottom. My first run was off the Bonanza Chair, a long, winding, easy-peasy run that’s good to warm up on. It’s called the Great Divide and it’s a great introduction back to snowboarding after a three-month hiatus. But the trail was longer than I or my legs remembered and somewhere, about three quarters of the way down, it burned, burned, burned. That IT band, it burned, and the calves followed suit.
The iron deficiency thing I have kicks in just over 10K feet, so I was huffing and puffing like an emphysemic wolf at the straw house. I chilled out for a few minutes at the lodge before I headed over to the the Treasure Chair, where I would stay for the rest of the day. The Treasure Chair had the powder. That’s the beauty of Wolf Creek–the more eastern you go, the further away you get from the main lodge, the more powder you can find. And I found it by ducking into the trees along the Tranquility run. I was swishing and laughing, all by myself, forgetting that it was October, that I had driven five hours to get there, that I hadn’t sleep much that week, and that I was 41 years old. I forgot all that and used my x-ray vision to find more untracked powder even though it was getting on in the afternoon.
I found an open field of untracked powpowpow, which had what looked like pieces of straw sticking up. I leaned back on the board with my weary-heavy legs and shifted my weight back so I could literally surf over the snow. That feeling of gliding over snow is what makes skiers turn into snowboarders. Snow-surfing is surreal and full of quiet, save the the board fwapping over the straw in the field. I went back for more. And again.
Exhausted by 3:30, I called it after about 10 runs. I had packed my New Mexico maps just in case I wanted to duck south and do some mountain biking. I knew I wanted to mountain bike Penitente Canyon on Monday, but I love northern New Mexico I dream about it. Often. So I headed to Chama.
The drive down the mountain to Pagosa Springs is ridiculously scenic, so I pulled over, with a dozen other cars, to the overlook to click and capture some magical moments:
I took highway 84 down to Chama, New Mexico, home of the famous Cumbres and Toltec scenic railroad that winds through the countryside/mountainside just like back in the days of old. I was hoping to stay in Chama and ride my mountain bike nearby the following day, but there was no room at the Chama Inn. Or the Chama Motel. There were no beds on which to rest my weary head.
So I parked in town, watched the sunset, then drove north through another snowstorm.
The unbelievable opportunity I had on October 8 to go snowboarding in six inches of powder at Wolf Creek is still resonating in my addled mind. My favorite part was the sunshine and the clouds and the cold and the hot and the vibe and the folks and the excitement that snowboarding season is coming…slowly maybe, but coming.
For those of you chomping on the ski pole or last year’s mittens, read my ditty about what early season skiing conditions are like and what to know and do when hitting the ski run before Thanksgiving. What to expect when skiing or snowboarding in October. Hurry, there’s less than two weeks left.
Your only bike or your favorite bike is an extension of your personality: brightly colored bikes usually accompany upbeat personalities; stripped down bikes indicate a minimalist behind the pedaler; and high-end, unused components may point to a person with too much money and too little time to bike.
My recent foray into road cycling is changing the way I think about all kinds of biking. Mountain biking is such a grind: climb up over rocks and roots and hope the dusty, rutted-out trail is forgiving when it turns steep so you don’t lose all your momentum. When climbing on a mountain bike, it’s not unusual to have hikers passing you. It’s a tad demoralizing.
But slow and steady finishes the ride in mountain biking, and it’s a mantra so many mountain bikers need to adopt if they are to succeed in the mountain biking life. Seven uphill and technical miles on a mountain bike can take up to two hours, especially if you stop for food and rest. Think about it: most anyone can walk faster than that.
But mountain biking, except when you’re racing or blowin’ out, is not a speedy sport. It’s a sport with lots of work and little reward, and enjoying the scenery rarely happens, except during those much-needed breaks.(Note: there are people who do not stop for breaks during a ride and honestly, I don’t know what kind of VO2 max these folks have or what kind of macho trip they’re on, but riding with them is not really all that fun.)
Enter road biking, the opposite of mountain biking. You can road bike for 15 miles and not even break a sweat. You can ride for 30 flat miles, pedaling almost the entire time, and not pass out at the end. In fact, any reasonably fit mountain biker can put in 50 miles on the road bike (as long as they’re not mountainous) with relative ease. The biggest obstacle is the butt-numbing that happens somewhere around hour three in those hard saddles.
Adjusting to a hard saddle is one transition hiccup; handling a squirrely, ridiculously lightweight bike is another. Mountain bikers with competent technical skills in the way of balance and the ability to change directions while doing a trackstand and on rocks adjust with a little practice. That mountain biking skill allows fat tire folks to handle tight turns on a road bike while descending.
And there’s the rub, readers. When you work hard while you can (i.e., when you’re young and able), then challenges that you take on later in life will feel less like challenges and more like new, cool things that you do. This is true of sports, studying in school, and succeeding in the workplace and job market. Work hard as much as you can and while you can so, like a road biker who’s reached the top of a tough hill or mountain, you have earned the right to coast.
SheSpoke has also written about life lessons learned on the mountain biking trail for TrailsEdge.