By R. Scott Rappold
There's something special about springtime in the Rockies.
The air outside is considerably warmer and the sun higher in the sky than in the bitter days of January. The blue skies swarm with chirping birds and the pine trees chatter with squirrels emerging from the long, cold winter. These are days of T-shirt skiing and cooking out in muddy ski area parking lots for those who haven't put away their skis in favor of bikes.
Or, as we recently experienced in Colorado, these can be days of huge snow dumps and deep powder skiing.
On April 7 a huge Pacific storm system zeroed in on Colorado, which snow forecasters promised would bring double-digit snow totals. One meteorologist used the phrase "record-breaking amounts of moisture."
But my ski area closed April 1. So I did what any self-respecting ski bum would do: Hastily booked the cheapest hotel room possible within striking distance of as many ski areas as possible and hit the road.
Because ski season is over when I say it's over.
Since I live in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, my first stop was Monarch Mountain. This area has always had a special place in my heart. It's where I first learned to ski and where I learned to fear, then accept, then love deep powder. It has one of the highest base elevations around, making it ideal for a warm snowstorm. And it's affordable, with no ski-in ski-out condos or posh boutiques and plenty of free parking right next to the lifts.
Monarch did not disappoint, with 7 inches that covered the spring crust nicely and made for enjoyable turns in the soft, buttery snow. I could've stayed all day, but I had miles to go before I slept. Monarch closed for the season the next day, with another 6" of snow to mark the occasion.
Next on my list was an afternoon at Ski Cooper. Founded in 1942 as a training area for the 10th Mountain Division, this is family-friendly skiing at its finest. With just three lifts, mostly mellow terrain and just one base area, it's a place to bring the kids without blowing the budget or worrying about them getting lost.
Cooper also had a whopping 15" of snow from the night before, but I quickly learned I was about two hours too late to truly enjoy it. The morning, I was told, made for amazing powder skiing, but by lunchtime the spring sun and warm temperatures had turned it to mashed potatoes.
I worked through the slop for a handful of runs, then, reminding myself to save my legs for the coming days, adjourned to the bar. There I bumped into some skiers from my neck of the woods who, like me, weren't done with skiing even though the local ski hill was done with us.
As I put Cooper in my rearview mirror, storm clouds were already rolling in, which would dump another foot of snow for a memorable April 8 closing day.
Talk about going out with a bang.
I awoke in my hotel room in Silverthorne to my phone blowing up with snow alerts.
It was snowing lightly on the valley floor but a few miles away at Arapahoe Basin 9" of light, fluffy snow awaited. When it comes to skiing so near to the Front Range, the early bird gets the worm, so I hurried out the door.
There is something special about A-Basin in spring. Weekend warriors from Denver and Summit County ski bums alike come for the locals' atmosphere and partying on "The Beach," where the snow meets the parking lot and you'll find one of the largest and most raucous tailgate parties in ski country.
But this day felt like mid-winter and there was no time for partying. On top of the previous day's 9", the crusty snow was long since buried. A-Basin is not known as a mountain for beginners, and that was evident that Saturday as hordes of expert skiers carved fresh tracks on its steep chutes, hair-raising double-diamonds and, of course, the wide-open joy that is Montezuma bowl on the backside.
I wish I could write more about that morning but the first few hours are a blur of racing from one area to the next as ski patrol dropped the ropes. It was one of those mornings when the lift seems to run too slowly as you pick out your next line and hope nobody beats you to it. If skiers in my neck of the woods had switched to their bikes already, that clearly was not the case up here, to judge by the crowds.
By 1 pm the sun was out and it was time to join the aforementioned tailgate party. A friend of a friend had reserved a parking spot on "The Beach," so we kicked back for après' ski beers and burgers. If there's a better way to après' than kicking back with good friends just a few feet from the lift, while A-Basin's jagged mountain walls tower above, I don't want to know about it.
With the longest ski season in North America, A-Basin is often still open in June (and sometimes July!) so I knew I had not seen the last of this venerable, beloved resort.
I fell asleep exhausted from the day's endeavors, not overly optimistic about the next day's skiing. The skies were clear and I worried the storm had finally unleashed its last.
Then I awoke to a blinding snowstorm, with several inches on my car and 6" new at Copper Mountain, my final skiing destination.
This large resort, with nearly 2,500 acres of terrain, has long been my favorite of Summit County's mega-resorts. Sure, if you want to park for free you have to take a bus to the base villages, something I'm not used to, but it's a small price to pay for access to such a huge mountain. There's terrain for everyone, from groomed trails so long your music might cycle through two songs on the way to trees so deep you can find good snow well after a storm.
I have always loved the high alpine terrain and the back bowls, far up in the windswept tundra with amazing views of the jagged Tenmile Range of mountains. When the snow is good you can feel like a hero in a ski movie up here, and when ski patrol opened Union Peak an hour into the day, bombing down the steeps in several days' worth of snow was so special I did it four times.
Alas, the back bowls had closed for the season the day before. Plus, my legs were at that point barely functioning, so I bid Copper Mountain farewell as I headed south towards home. It was a melancholy drive. Copper's closing day is April 15 and I doubted I would be able to make it back before then.
Or would I? As of this writing another big storm is headed towards Colorado for the weekend, just in time for another round of resort closings, including Steamboat, Echo Mountain and Aspen Snowmass. Will it bring 2 feet of snow like this past storm? I don't know.
But I do know one thing: Ski season is over when I say it's over, even if every resort within 100 miles of me has closed.
Anyone have a floor I can crash on?