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.

 

Aspen Gold!


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Brought to you in real time from the Meadow Trail in Evergreen, CO.

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Skiing and Boarding on the Cheap in Colorado Part 6


Sol Vista: Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sol Vista, which translates from the Spanish to English as “Sun View,” is more than just a misnomer. A more apropos name might be Condo Vista, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue and conjure up images of snow and sun-splashed slopes that way Sol Vista does.

But Condo Vista it was. I hadn’t put too much enthusiasm into the day’s outing, knowing that half of Coloradoans who call themselves winter sports enthusiasts (especially the weekend warriors along the Front Range) have never even heard of Sol Vista because of its lack of challenging terrain and because of its closer, more popular neighbor, Winter Park.

Sol Vista is located  about 25 miles north of Winter Park, where the famed Mary Jane sits in defiant silence, challenging even the experts with its many mogul runs. Mary Jane aficionados who need to brag stick the “No Pain, No Jane” bumper sticker to their Toyota 4Runners like an earned merit badge.

As far as I know, Sol Vista offers no bumper stickers. All it offers is a family-friendly ski hill, few challenges, and cheap plentiful housing along its base.

What it offered B and me, with our trusty Colorado Gems cards, was a free day on the hill in January. So we went for it.

We arrived just after 10AM, parked and walked the 50 yards to the ticket window, and hit the slopes. Condos clutter up the base of Sol Vista, which gives the resort the right to say “we’re a ski-in ski-out resort.” And like ski resort second homes everywhere, the condos at the base of Sol Vista were selling at a reduced rate, some for as little as $200K (boasted the big banner).

Over the past twenty years, ski areas have trended toward offering its customers an experience rather than skiing. This experience includes nearby housing, lattes, and kid-friendly slopes. But sometimes the skiing is forgotten.

Knowing all of this, I came to Sol Vista not only prepared to only work on my technique, but also prepared to carve down its slope in a cocoon of self-righteousness. Sol Vista looked like Vail Lite without the ridiculous acreage (5000!) and early season obstacles.

The coverage was bad (as little as 16 inches in spots), and winter grasses and baby pines dotted the intermediate trails off the Quick Draw Express lift. Most of the snow felt manmade, a bit heavier than the fluffy white stuff that Colorado is so famous for and I’ve become accustomed to.

There was powder along the trees of the High Roller trail, and no sooner did I look back at B and grin “ego snow,” that I sunk into the powder. The snow, full of water, hardened around my board, making extricating myself difficult. I swung my body around and dragged  myself to the dirty spots of undercoverage along the trail.

At the top of the Quick Draw lift is a Members Only warming hut, so we didn’t bother. B skied in and out of the kids’ section, with its Hollywood movie set-style cushioned Western facades along the green runs on skier’s left from the top of the lift. The signs said “No adults unless accompanied by a child,” and the door openings were flanked on either side by padding. Still, I passed and tried to avoid the dirty undercoverage all along the trail.

When we were sufficiently warmed up, we headed to the west side of the resort and the Conquest lift, which serves the intermediate and expert terrain at Sol Vista Basin at Granby Ranch (its official name). I hadn’t yet hit any blacks this season, but since Sol Vista’s blues reminded me of Loveland’s greens, I imagined Sol Vista’s blacks would resemble blues elsewhere. I was right.

We enjoyed the tight skiing along the South Forty trail and after having scoped out the run directly underneath the lift, set our sights on Desperado, a tightly groomed black. Most folks shy away from skiing the run directly under the lift, but there were a total of five other people on the Conquest lift that day. The lift op was even reading a Harry Potter book inside his warming hut, coming out only to help us load.

Desperado, the run below the lift, was nicely groomed, tight in spots, and had a double fall line. In other words, it was inviting and challenging. The double fall line begins at the start of the run, turning the first pole into a magnet and you into an iron filing. I fixated a bit too much on the steel pole that held the lift up, and I was invariably drawn to it.

Because of the double fall line, I picked up the kind of speed that made me wish I’d worn by helmet. The trees loomed near, and I tried to connect my turns. Then, I hit beautiful corduroy.  With the sound of kwrisssshhhhh in my ears, I went from muscling to gliding through the turns in an instant. That’s what a well-groomed trail will do for you. That’s why folks will insist on getting to the chair lifts when they open. They do it for the kwrissshhhhhhhing sound.

The last 50 yards of Desperado were steeper than anything I’ve boarded in quite a few years. I waited for B at the whale hump in the middle of the run, and then thigh-burned down the bottom, floated past the unopened half pipe, and looked forward to my next run down Desperado.

With each new pass down the run, my confidence began to build. That ski lift pole that would have crushed my skull on impact became an obstacle around which I finessed; the speed I picked up along the double-fall means now meant I was carving through the beautiful corduroy; and the black-steep last fifty yards that had kicked me down was now the crowning achievement of the run. I began playing on the mountain instead of just surviving.

Best part? We never shared the run with another person.

After almost four hours on the hill (most of it on Desperado), we drove away from the ski club with the little hill that could.

Although the condos obscured the ticket window, and although, as non-members of the condo association (or whatever it was) we couldn’t enter certain warming huts, the elitist, money-drenching vibe that is so common at other resorts was conspicuously absent.

Sol Vista was a refreshing surprise and a great follow-up to my last outing at Loveland. A great place for teens and families who don’t feel the need to be extreme and cool on the ski hill.

And the price was right.

FREE lift ticket

FREE Parking

Skiing and Boarding on the Cheap in Colorado


B and I decided this was the year we were going to take our mountain backyard more seriously. Within an hour of Denver sit a dozen ski areas at our binding-strapped feet, and this year we were going to play as much as possible for as little cash as possible.

Both of us are blessed with unorthodox work schedules, so we can play during the week. Such a setup is critical to really enjoying Colorado’s mountains. Driving the I-70 corridor on weekends through mountains with tens of thousands of other people is not only a time-waster, it’s treacherous. Interstate 70 looks like an SUV convention, and overconfident drivers, convinced that their four-wheel drive is failsafe, fly by around tight mountain curves (sometimes not lined with guardrails): sometimes in the middle of a snowstorm, sometimes with a couple of cocktails in their bellies, and sometimes both.

The amount of stress associated with just driving to the mountains on the weekends is too much for this East Coaster. I’m used to traffic. I’m used to black ice. I’m used to aggressive drivers. But take all three and toss in a weary day at the hill, and all of the sudden the myriad of benefits from the day’s activities of carving turns and boarding through glades hardly seem worth it. I arrive at home now not just physically exhausted, but mentally drained and wired all at once.

Years ago I dabbled with different season passes – midweek at Loveland, A Basin, and Winter Park. The problem is, between five and ten years ago folks either bought the five-mountain pass (now known under a different nomenclature that includes A Basin, Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek) OR the Superpass (Winter Park and Copper). Both of the passes allowed the user unlimited access (with the exception of Vail and Beaver Creek – there one only got ten days) to any of these mountains. These passes have risen in price over the past ten years, from $200 to $429-$459.

Now, with lift tickets at many of the aforementioned resorts going for almost $100, one can see why a blue-competent, ten-times-a-year snowboarder like myself might shop around. I like variety and even when I spent that glorious season 2005-06 going to the Mary Jane section of Winter Park every other Friday, I still found myself looking for variety. I wanted more out of my boarding experience than the even the magnificent glade skiing toward the base of Parsenn Bowl at Mary Jane.

I wanted different scenery, different people, different terrain, and a different vibe.
So this year I bought the Colorado Gems Pass, offfered by Colorado Ski Country. For $10, one has access to discounts at many of Colorado’s smaller resorts: A Basin, Echo Mountain, Eldora, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Cooper, Sol Vista, and Sunlight. Some of the discounts include a free day, a two-for-one deal, or $10 off the lift ticket. Many of the twofers are good only on weekdays, which perfectly matches my schedule.

I have tried taking advantage of the Gems card in years past only to be unmotivated by the lack of a playmate to make the drives with me up to the mountains. The reason the $400-plus multi-mountain passes are so successful is because they encourage car-pooling and group outings; folks spend much of their Thursday and Friday coordinating their weekend ski trips to the mountains.

This year I’ve got a playmate, B, and a sincere desire to become a more confident, more competent, and more graceful snowboarder. And I’m going to reach these heightened levels of confidence, competence, and grace as inexpensively as possible.

In the coming weeks and months at SheSpoke, I’ll be reporting on my progress as a snowboarder and on my varied experiences with some of Colorado’s lesser-known ski resorts.

Watch me carve!