Chasing Southwestern Powder at Wolf Creek

Submitted by R. Scott Rappold on Wed, 01/20/2016 - 05:45
Jason Lombard, Wolf Creek Ski Area Jason Lombard, Wolf Creek Ski Area

By R. Scott Rappold

During ski season, my daily routine begins at 6:05 a.m. with a phone call.

When theres snow in the forecast, most ski areas post the snow report online long before the sun creeps over the horizon. Powder chasers can scan the totals and decide where to go or to head back to bed. But at southern Colorados Wolf Creek Ski Area, its sometimes 7:00 or later before its posted. Living an hour away in Alamosa, my butt needs to be in gear long before then if Im going to make first chair.

Hence the call. Instead of a recording I get an employee who sounds badly in need of caffeine. Whats the snow report? I ask, the powder hound in me hoping for good news, the lazy part of me quietly hoping its disappointing so my tired carcass can go back to bed.

Thus far in the 2015-16 season, I havent had much chance to be lazy.

As of mid-January, Wolf Creek had received 270 inches of snow. Thats 22 feet of delicious powder, leaving a base twice as deep as most of Colorado. Of course, located at a key point on the Continental Divide, huge dumps are not uncommon when the storms roll out of the southwest, and the area averages more than 400 inches a year.

Wolf Creek isnt the only ski area in the San Juan Mountains having a great year. Purgatory and Telluride are both 100 percent open, with healthy bases, and high, remote Silverton, as usual, is skiing deep. The El Nio weather pattern affecting the nations weather has favored these southern mountains with snow.

It all makes for a very, very good year to be a ski bum in southwest Colorado.

Too much snow?

When 23 inches have fallen overnight, a plan of attack is crucial.

I realized that early on Dec. 15, and instead of rushing for first chair, enjoyed an extra cup of coffee in the lodge. After 20 minutes, I casually lumbered up to the Treasure Chair, the initial point of access for most of the steep terrain.

Because with two feet of new snow, you dont want to go mellow. My decision was affirmed on the lift ride up, with skiers and especially snowboarders down and floundering all over the place, unable to keep up momentum in the powder as the terrain got flatter. I carefully picked a steep line down Alberta Face and laughed all the way as my skis kicked cold smoke into my face. I resisted the urge to keep charging the untouched powder as the slope evened.

On a big powder day at Wolf Creek, if theres a patch of trees or a glade where nobodys been yet, theres probably a reason why. Its a lesson many riders learned that morning, but I was thankful for their efforts breaking trail on the run-outs.

Thats how I spent the morning, skiing only the Treasure chair, expanding my perimeter farther to the left and right as snowboarders and other skiers broke trail. The snow was bottomless and the face shots endless. Smiles were on the faces of everyone braving the storm for such a rare powder treat.

Stress-free powder

On a powder day, many people go right for the Alberta chair, which provides access to huge areas of remote trees and the steep hike-to terrain of the Knife Ridge. Or they drag themselves up the slopes of 11,900-foot Alberta Peak. To me, this is incorrect. Why wear yourself out skiing the long traverse over to Alberta chair in deep snow or post holing up the peak when there is untracked snow everywhere? On days like these I also avoid the temptation to hit the lower trees or glades while skiing back to the lift. Stick to the grooomers down low. Save your energy for the steeps. Youll need it.

People come from all over Colorado and the Southwest to ski Wolf Creek, despite the fact it has no ski-in, ski-out condos or even a base village. The nearest hotel is a 10-mile drive away on snowy roads. Theyre so old-fashioned lifties still stamp your paper lift ticket. But thats the point. The remote location far from Denver keeps the crowds away, and lift lines are unheard of. If you dont mind hiking, then deep, fresh snow can be found days after a storm.

Thats if the storm ever stops. In late December, Wolf Creek got so many double-digit days that on Christmas Day the ski area never opened. CDOT had closed the pass in both directions. Some 6 feet of snow fell before the skies finally cleared.

Back on Dec. 15, on my 8th ride up Treasure chair I met a skier from Denver who made the 5-hour drive from Denver. Theres plenty of skiing closer to home, but Wolf Creek is worth the drive, he said, for its stress-free powder. You dont have to feel like its a race for the fresh lines because there are 10,000 people on the mountain. Theres plenty to go around.

After a hot lunch and a cold beer, I spent the early part of the afternoon skiing the front side, where most of the beginner and intermediate terrain can be found. Many expert Wolf Creek skiers eschew this side of the hill, but there are plenty of steep chutes and glades that were not even close to tracked out. My legs throbbing from the exertion of making turns all day in such deep powder, I called it an early day and headed home.

As for Wolf Creeks legendary hike-to terrain, well, tomorrow was another day.

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