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

Continue reading “Global Pandemic Pages: Hiking a TenTeener in Southern Colorado”

Walking on Wintry Surfaces

Pine Valley Ranch February 2020

It’s been a wintry one in Denver so far, which bodes well for us wintry types. In my last post, I celebrated the unexpected snow day for the educator. In this post, I’m going to share a few words and images of snow hiking in Pine Valley Ranch, one of many of Jefferson County’s Open Space Parks, the jewels of the Front Range.

Pine Valley Ranch sits about an hour south and west of Denver along the 285 corridor. It is adjacent to the Buffalo Creek trails, which are very popular with mountain bikers in warmer climes. Back when I was a serious mountain biker, I would pilgrim to these trails for my birthday ride.

Pine Lake at Pine Valley Ranch. Look closely to see hockey players creating a rink.
Winter designations

There were only a handful of cars in the parking lot when we arrived around noon after filling up on provisions at the local gas stations. My hiking partner and I had brought our snowshoes, but the couple leaving said the trail was tamped down well enough to just wear spikes, or in my case, Yak Tracks. The trail starts out easy enough, with a short beautiful walk around the park’s lake, where we passed ice fishers and hockey players, all in their designated spots. We decided to add a little strenuousness to the trail, opting to head into the Buffalo Creek trails, which I knew would provide us with some elevation.

We headed along the south end of the lake to the Buck Gulch trail

Buck Gulch, part of the National Forest Service and Buffalo Creek trails, wends it way through fire-ravaged forest from the Hi Meadow fire 20 years ago.

Fire ravaged snowy landscape

The hike up Buck Gulch was a burner for both the thighs and lungs, as well as a visual delight of rock outcroppings, black sticks for trees, fallen logs, hearty pines–all against an indigo backdrop.

Dead sticks among the living
Winter palette

Our original plan was Buck Gulch–Skipper Trail–Strawberry Field trail. I have mountain biked this route dozens of times, but the 600 ft. in elevation gain in the first two miles of Buck Gulch meant it was slow-going. Plus, we were trudging along on metal coils, not rolling along on tires. Ninety minutes in, I realized I had left my poles at the last pit stop, and we took stock in our options: original, intended route with only 5 hours of daylight left or measure our wins and turn around?

Point of return, head back the way we came

Smarter heads prevailed, as we determined that snow hiking 4 miles in 3 hours in quiet, serene National Forest was as good as it was going to get. We turned around.

Just snow and trees
The drive home along Platte River Road: Boulders in the South Platte

Snowshoeing St. Mary’s Glacier

This jaunt is not for the meek or for those prone to altitude sickness. But, it is a great workout and pretty scenic if you make it all the way to the top and it’s not blizzarding out. Parking will now cost you $5 at the self-serve lot, which also sports a port-a-potty for the colonically inclined. This is a good addition to the area and is worth the five bucks.

It's less windy down by the trees

The elevation starts out at 10,500 and the less-than-a-mile snowshoe to the top will take you some time. This is windy terrain, folks, and the snow gets crusted over. Still, it’s a beautiful, serene jaunt about an hour west of Denver. It’s perfect for getting your snowsports in when the snow is just not happening, like it’s not thus far this season.

You can never be too prepared for a snowshoe up a glacier. Snowshoeing will warm you up, fer sure, but bring your warmest mittens, thickest wool socks, gators, and 2-3 layers on the torso and legs. Bring a wind shell for the outer layer. It can get nasty up there.

Still a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, as my friends and I did a few weeks ago…

To get to St. Mary’s Glacier: Head west along I-70 from Denver and follow the signs. Begin to look in earnest after Idaho Springs. If you hit the Eisenhower Tunnel you haven’t been paying attention and you’ve gone too far.

It’s less than ten miles from the exit to the trailhead. And a very beautiful ten miles at that.

Read about another high-altitude adventure from SheSpoke: conquering the back bowls at Vail.

Colorado’s Bowls, Basins, and Secret Stashes

Fifteen years in Colorado means I’m not, nor never will be, a native. But I’ve driven the backroads, braved the I-70 corridor, and bared the frostbite to hit the hills we call mountains around the state.

In my new series for the Denver Examiner, I take a look at the secret places skiers, snowboarders, and other powder hounds like to call home.

The first installment includes a look at Vail’s Blue Sky Basin and Mary Jane’s (that is, Winter Park’s) Parsenn Bowl.

Head on over to my column as the Denver Snowboarding Examiner and take a look-read.

Next week’s feature will feature great places to ski and read at Loveland and Wolf Creek.

Skiing and Boarding on the Cheap in Colorado Part 5

Loveland: Friday, January 22

A few inches of fresh snow greeted us when we arrived at the usual time of 10:30AM at the base of Loveland. Even though the hour was late and the weather in the very agreeable mid-20s, we still parked fairly close to the base of the mountain.  One of the things I enjoy most about Loveland is not only its closeness to Denver (about 50 miles, depending on exactly where you live), but the closeness of the parking lot, the day lodge, the everything. Loveland is so great because it’s cheap (for skiing, anyway), close, convenient, big (enough, with 1500 skiable acres), and no-nonsense.

You can have an epic day at Loveland, and on this particular Friday I almost did.

Our routine at Loveland is the same. Warm-up on Chair 1.  In my last post, I wrote about how I was waiting patiently, this year, for that day when I felt comfortable and confident with ratcheting my boots ratcheted onto a board. Today was that day.

In fact, one of the scariest things about snowboarding for me still is getting off the lift with one leg not strapped and with no clue on how to dig either edge in to slow myself down.  Getting off the lift is particularly tricky with those old double-chair lifts, where the ramp off the lift is usually steep and short, meaning you pick up speed really quickly off the lift. It’s tricky, and I sometimes still fall getting off these lifts.

I owe my confidence in today’s outing to the snowboard videos I’ve been watching all week. I know I need a return-to-basics day, as I’m playing hit or miss with my weight shifting on the mountains, and I’m getting too much lift, particularly on my right leg on my turns to my heel side. Today, I vowed to myself, I was going to trust the fall line of the mountain (something I picked up from mountain biking), and work on my technique.

I was gliding, effortlessly moving from toe to heel side, connecting my turns smoothly. (I’m usually a brute on the snowboard, forcing my turns and relying on the well-developed muscles in my thighs to save me. Not today.).

We headed down Richard’s Run, and I got quite a few minutes ahead of B. Now, because she’s damned determined to learn how to improve her telemarking, she’s markedly slower than I am on a snowboard. But ten minutes had elapsed, and Richard’s Run is not that long.

I waited patiently at Chair 2, our next usual stop in our warm-up, for what seemed like 15 minutes. I convinced myself she had already gone up, so I boarded the lift. Chair 2, which warns newbies “This is not a beginner lift, the way down is over 2 miles!”, takes at least ten minutes. I knew if I stayed on Chair 2 runs I would catch up with B.

And then I spotted here. She was walking alongside the trees, skis and poles over her shoulder.  I told I’d be right down (but that would take at least 20 minutes). She had a loose bindings and would need to tighten it.  I screamed down the runs of Chair 2, found little pockets of powder off the trails on skier’s right from the top of the chair, and we set about getting her binding fixed in the repair shop, plainly but nicely labeled by the folks at Loveland.

I had appropriate tools at the car, but why walk five minutes when you don’t have to?

One more reason to love Loveland – they allow free use of tools in the shop.  In other words, they don’t charge you five to ten bucks to tighten a screw. They figure if you know what’s wrong and can fix it yourself, you have earned the right to fix it for free.  I know of places in Tahoe and along the I-70 corridor in Colorado where you’re nickel and dimed, and the repair shop is no exception.

Fully tightened, we walked the 10 yards over to Chair 2 and set about making some more turns.  This time we headed over to Chair 6, which is about halfway down the mountain.  We tried to do the South Chutes, on skier’s left from the the top of Chair 2, but at a 36-inch base, there just wasn’t enough snow.

We found pockets of powder along Chair 6, mostly right next to the trees. I turned slowly and deliberately, going with the fall line instead of fighting it. Gravity always wins, and I’ve got to start trusting my abilities or I will never get better at this sport. I will stay in intermediate land forever.

The day was almost epic for two main reasons: 1. Not enough powder (i.e., ego snow, or hero snow) and 2. The flat light that covered the mountain when the skies clouded over and it began snowing very lightly. Flat light scares me, because the crevices, icy patches, and other obstacles are difficult to see.

We frolicked in the powder, stayed on Chair 6 for a few more runs, and abandoned our plans to hit Chair 8, which is my favorite part of the mountain. Chair 8 is accessible via a catwalk off Chair 4 and offers awesome glade and mini-bowl fun. But the route back from Chair 8 is hairy and exhausting, so we ditched that plan on concentrated on smooth turns in pockets of powder.

Almost epic.

Although we did miss out on A-Basin’s twofer Tuesday in the month of January (not enough snow to justify even a $32.50 lift ticket, even though it’s literally right down the street from Loveland), tomorrow (Thursday, January 28, we are hitting the free day at Sol Vista that comes with our Colorado Gems Pass.)

There’s not much snow at Sol Vista (less than 20 inches), but FREE is FREE.

Lift ticket $29.50 with Colorado Gems Card

Parking FREE

Skiing and Boarding on the Cheap in Colorado Part 4

Loveland: Thursday, January 14

Conditions at Loveland today were cold and icy. Not Vermont icy, mind you, but there hasn’t been any new snow at Loveland or anywhere else in Colorado for that matter, in 11 days. Hence the terrain has been hard-packed by thousands of skis and boards for over ten days. We spoiled Coloradoans are usually the kind to wait for good snow, the good powder. Ego snow, this wunder-snow is called, because it boosts the ego of anyone who rides it.

Loveland and all the other Colorado resorts were suffering from a marked lack  of ego snow. But prima donna ways are directly at odds with the vibe at Loveland. I write this from the cafeteria, which I earlier had incorrectly referred to as the lodge. Ski lodges conjure up images of roaring fires, bulky wood furniture, and the heads of large game or at least Bambi. But this was a cafeteria with its large windows overlooking the slopes and chair lifts and huddled masses around; with its tray-grabbing and condiment areas; with its no-nonsense and affordable menu; and with its myriad of small round tables with a dark wood veneer finish.

I sat there in the cafeteria, sipping my home-brought tea from my trusty REI thermos and eating my cottage cheese, cantelope, and kiwi combination.

I was there among kin in the cafeteria, other Coloradoans, who, even though it was cold enough to make one’s fingers numb and even though snow conditions were less than ideal, we silently but collectively thought, “Even the worst day on the hill is better than the best day at the office.”

All chairs were open that day at Loveland, including the famed high altitude, high-speed quad, Chair 9. I’ve only braved Chair 9 a few times in the few dozen times I’ve been to Loveland, but I really love the bowl skiing. Chair 8, also one of the last to open, was also taking lucky folks up to the top of Zip Basin Street and Awesome, which has some fantastic intermediate tree skiing toward the bottom.

But today I would frolic about no bowls and amidst no trees. Today I was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration and only lasted two runs at Loveland, which has some of the shortest runs of anywhere in Colorado. We had arrived around 11AM, having filled our bellies, gassed up, and driven the 42 miles to the parking lot at the base of Loveland, which was, surprisingly, filling up.

We started, as has become my usual, at Chair 1. The fire inside the warming hut at the top was radiating burning wood, and the usual cluster of inconsiderate snowboarders were sitting wherever they wanted, strapping in and generally getting in the way. It burns my thighs to watch idiot snowboarders like these folks living up to the stereotype as self-centered speed demons who are constantly on the verge of getting out of control and proudly unaware of their surroundings.

I situated myself off to the side, cast a scornful glance at my inconsiderate knuckle-dragging peers, clicked in, and glided down the Mambo Run.

It is always my hope, when I have the rare opportunity to board two days in a row, that the muscle memory from the prior day’s activities will kick in and remind me that I know how to board. It is further always my hope that the initial feeling of awkwardness as I cinch down the ratcheting system on my bindings to the point where my toes are being squeezed, that awkwardness will lead to grace and I will swish and swoosh down the mountain.

Alas, Grace was not boarding with me that day. I meandered somewhat timidly down the run, trying to avoid wayward snowboarders and trying to use the gentle slope of the left wall for turning. I took the high ground around the hairpin turn and continued using the ski wall to turn, or ollie, in Tony Hawk terms.

I took my left onto the familiar Richard’s Run, a gentle blue, just short of wide enough to be called a bowl. I used the entire width of the run, avoiding newbie snowboarders practicing the falling leaf technique that is critical to snowboarding. After bombing down the run, I glided, quite confidently and while resting on my back (left foot), over to Chair 2.

Chair 2 is a long ride up – at least ten minutes. Not a problem in pleasant weather. At the top we headed down runs located to the skier’s right: I to Fire Cut and B to Drifter. Drifter is a little wider and a might easier, and Fire Cut was bumpy, almost mogul-esque if moguls were the size of Mini Coopers. Fire Cut is too steep and undulous to groom, so I was left to my own defenses to carve my way where thousands of skis and boards had gone before, and just in the last week.

Moguls, even low-lying seemingly innocuous ones, ring the death knell for my knees and thighs. This time the amount of energy exerted just to navigate this misshapen area was too much for an already wearied body. Dehydration, anemia, and general fatigue from physical activity took over. I began seeing spots.

Yesterday’s amazing day at Eldora had turned today’s outing at Loveland into a bust. No one to blame but me, and maybe the altitude (base elevation 10,600 ft).

Spots and dizziness had plagued me years earlier, and I combat them both with sleep, water, food, and physical fitness. But sleep, water, food, etc. are preventative measures, not band-aids. The only band aid for floating circles in one’s field of vision and imbalance is to call it a day and sit down.

Apparently I had not fully recovered with my bout of sicknausea from my surfing trip to Mexico two weeks prior.

So I sat down and sipped tea and nibbled on my cottage cheese and fruit while B tele-skied the runs off Chairs 2 and 6. And I wrote.

Lift ticket $29.50 with the Colorado Gems Card

Parking FREE