Photo Credit: Curtis DeVore, Copper Mountain
At most Colorado ski resorts, there’s a place where you can find powder days after a storm – a place you can reach without hiking a half hour to the outer reaches of the mountain.
We’re talking about the trees.
The forests, of pine, spruce, aspen and fir, make up a large part of the terrain at many resorts. It’s a special place to ski for many reasons: The shade keeps the snow softer. The challenge of skiing them keeps many other skiers out, leaving fresher snow. And there’s nowhere better to hone your skills of sharp turns and quick reactions.
But you don’t want to just go charging into the first snow-draped forest you see without being ready. So we’ve put together some tips for learning to love the trees as much as we do, as well as some of the spots at Colorado resorts to try.
“Trees don’t move.”
That’s what a ski patroller told me a couple of years ago while bandaging a gash in my leg from a stray branch that ripped an unfixable 4-inch tear in my brand-new snow pants.
I’ve bruised ribs when one ski caught a log under the snow, sending me sprawling right into a lodgepole pine. The point is that the trees are as dangerous as they are lovely and only confident skiers and snowboarders should try. Make sure you’re comfortable making sharp, concise turns on wide open terrain first.
And a helmet is a must too.
Many ski areas rope off tree runs until the snow is sufficiently deep. You need to remember that this is not just a winter wonderland, but a living, breathing forest under all that snow. That means stumps, rocks and fallen timber that could snag a ski or, worse, break a tibia. A good rule of thumb is to wait until midseason or when the base is at least 50 inches before venturing into the woods.
Tree runs come in all varieties of steepness, tree density and type of trees. It’s a good idea to start with more wide-open glades with more space between the trees on a gentler slope. Aspen glades, if your mountain has them, also make an ideal location to practice, as they tend to be more evenly spaced and a lot smaller if you happen to run into one. Try to keep the groomer in your peripheral vision so you can bail out if you get exhausted.
As you get more confident, start trying thicker forests with steeper pitch. Just remember, skiing a very steep grade in close trees is one of the hardest types of skiing.
There’s no need to act like you’re bombing down a chute above timberline. The trees are about finesse, not speed. And should you bump into one, you’ll be glad you weren’t shooting through the woods at top speed.
This may seem a no-brainer, but when flying through a minefield obstacles, the brain tends to focus on the obstacles. Look not at the trees but the line you’ve picked between the trees.
The trees are full of branches that can snag a ski pole, and you don’t want your hand stuck in the pole if it does. After all, isn’t it better to have to scoot back a few feet to retrieve a wayward pole than miss the rest of your season because of a dislocated shoulder?
A tree well is a soft spot in the snow directly under a tree that can suck down a skier or, especially, a snowboarder who falls into one. Then all the snow collected in the branches comes crashing down, further burying the victim. If you do find yourself falling into a tree well, fight like mad to keep your head above the snow.
It’s a great idea to always have a partner when skiing the trees. Stay in voice contact, keep an eye on each other and listen for any signs of distress.
Alberta trees, Wolf Creek: This southwest Colorado resort has plenty of groomers and wide-open bowls, but much of the resort is made up of a spruce forest. The tree runs off the Alberta Chair offer an almost limitless expanse of trees to explore, so deep and remote you’ll feel like it’s the backcountry.
Closets and Shadows, Steamboat: This resort is known for its amazing tree runs as much as its “champagne powder,” and you can find pleasantly gladed fun all over the mountain. A favorite is this area, reachable via the Storm King lift, easily accessible and bristling with lovely aspens for your tree-skiing pleasure.
Eagle Wind chair, Winter Park: This mid-mountain lift provides access to some of the finest technical tree skiing in Colorado. There’s no intermediate terrain here, just a forest that will seem endless until you burst back at the lift with a snow-sprayed smile.
Union Meadows, Copper Mountain: As the name implies, this area high on the mountain’s front side contains wide open meadows, but as you descend you enter a deep and untracked forest, full of steep steep chutes for bombing and tight trees for threading the needle. Don’t worry if they go on so long you get tired. Keep heading down and you’ll spill out at a groomer.
Upper Christmas Tree, Monarch Mountain: This is an open run, but the trees just skier’s left of the trail are a great place to hone your tree-skiing skills. The trees are evenly spaced and hold powder well into the day, thanks to light use. Some access this directly from the top of the Garfield chair, but take a 3-minute scoot uphill from the chair and traverse across the Christmas Tree run for the real goods.