Rekindling a Passion for Skiing in Loveland

Submitted by Scott Stark on Fri, 02/11/2022 - 09:36
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My parents’ love story began at Loveland, and it seems only fitting that a blog celebrating Valentine's Day would begin here as well.

Family lore tells of the day my father popped the question in 1983. My mom was certain that it was coming during that ski trip, she recalled—it was only a matter of when. She was by no means an expert skier and my dad, she remembered, wanted one trip down the mountain without any falls to set the mood. “One good run,” he’d said. Once that requirement had been met, he stopped a quarter of the way down their next run outside a small warming hut and pulled out the ring he'd been carrying all day.

My father has since passed away and my mom never managed to make it back to that spot, though it remained etched in her memory—but only there, since neither had a camera with them that day. If Mom could help me pinpoint on a map where they’d gotten engaged, I promised her I'd take a good photo of it.

Finding the cabin proved surprisingly elusive. The layout that was so clear in Mom’s memory didn't seem to align with what we were seeing on Loveland's trail maps. She was almost certain she’d identified the correct building, but the route leading to it seemed all wrong. The mountains may be eternal, but the lifts had changed in the intervening years: What was once a single trip up the mountain on Lift 2 was now split into two lifts, and the restaurant at the top was new too, further muddying the picture.

Once we'd puzzled all that out online, though, there was no mistaking the place: the E-Tow Cabin off the Ptarmigan Lift. Mom was sure of it. With a bit of squinting and a healthy dose of poetic license, I could even see that the two runs splitting left and right from the top of Ptarmigan formed a heart shape.

 

Originally the site of a basic towrope lift—labeled sequentially as the E-lift—that towed skiers up the mountain by a rope they gripped onto, the building is the oldest such cabin still standing at Loveland, dating back to the 1940s.

Originally the site of a basic towrope lift, E Tow Cabin is the oldest such structure standing at Loveland. It's where my parents got engaged in 1983.

Back in the saddle again

With a family story that begins on the slopes of a mountain, it seems only fitting that skiing played a notable role in my childhood. We didn't have the money to ski regularly—we were definitely an equipment rental type of family—but a natural athletic ability meant I was reasonably good, a moderate blue to easy black skier. When I recently moved back to Colorado, my home state, I realized with something akin to shock that it had been some 25 years since I last strapped on a pair of skis. It certainly wasn't a conscious avoidance of skiing, but just a natural result of neglect. I was eager to see if I still had it in me.

In retrospect, then, making a beeline for the E-Tow Cabin wasn't my smartest choice. My mom remembered the route as being an easy green, but it must be groomed differently now, because it’s a solid blue these days.

I was amazed at how quickly feelings long forgotten were remembered: It was love all over again as the chairlift quite literally swept me off my feet. The sky never seems so blue, the snow never so white, and the winter sun never so warm on your face as during those few minutes when the lift whisks you upwards. My dry spell away from the slopes had technically been snapped two weeks previously when I tried to teach my 11-year-old daughter to ski (check out that story here), but since we never made it off the bunny hill, that hardly seemed to count. And now I was staring at my first real slope in decades. Had mountains always been this steep?

Thankfully, long-dormant skills came back as easily as did the memories. Like riding a bike, it seemed I hadn’t forgotten how to ski, either. Truthfully, I was a little surprised at how little trouble I had. S-turns flowed seamlessly into one another, though I probably took wider lines down the mountain to keep my speed in check than I used to—I wasn't nearly as invincible as I used to be, after all. It's amazing what a couple decades does to one's conception of mortality!

Learning from a Ranger

When I saw the sign at the base of the Ptarmigan Lift announcing a Ski With a Ranger program at the top, I knew it was something I wanted to check out. One of the highlights of skiing for me had always been the opportunity to enjoy Colorado's beauty. Yes, the beauty was contained in an artificially groomed and maintained outdoor playground, but that hardly seemed to diminish it. A Ranger talk that promised topics on geology, ecology, wildlife, and history was simply too good to pass up. And I admit I was particularly interested to see how this would play out on skis.

Nancy McNab, a volunteer with the US Forest Service, led a mountain-spanning discussion of the terrain we were skiing down, the wildlife of the region, and the history of both Loveland itself and the surrounding area.

A volunteer with the US Forest Service, Nancy McNab was a masterful host for the talk. Nancy regularly produced laminated photos, animal pelts, a vial of gold flakes, and other props from her Mary Poppins-like waist pack. We started in a chilly, wind-whipped area far above timberline—the zone above which few trees grow. Those that do manage to eke out a life in this rarified air are small, gnarly, and twisted. What would seem a young bush at lower elevations might easily be 200 years old up here. Poles planted and skis angled against the nonstop wind, our group listened to Nancy talk about the landscape around all around us and explain how the alpine tundra at our feet differed from arctic tundra found in more northerly latitudes.

A scant three minutes of skiing took us several hundred feet lower in elevation and a world away from the nearly barren bowl above. With a thick glade of pine trees forming a natural break against the wind and the sun at our backs, it seemed downright balmy. It's the same temperature change that thousands of skiers disembarking every hour from the Ptarmigan Lift experience as they zoom down the mountainside. It was a delight to slow down long enough to properly appreciate the different climatic zones the mountain had to offer.

Pulling out a plush animal toy, Nancy introduced us to the downy chickadees that call this region home, and showed us the improbably large rear feet that give the snowshoe hare its name. As an actual lynx pelt was passed around, everyone in the group marveled at just how thick and luxurious the predator’s fur was.

Toward the bottom of the mountain, we paused near the spot where I-70 enters a tunnel and pierces the Continental Divide. Nancy shared the history of this monumental engineering project that, in 1973, created an alternative to the treacherous and winding two-lane Loveland pass that had until that point been the only route in this area through the Rockies. To this day, the Eisenhower–Edwin C. Johnson Memorial Tunnel remains one of the highest vehicular tunnels in the world; it’s also the longest mountain tunnel and highest point of the United States’ interstate system.

Top of the world, Ma! Lift 9 delivers riders to the very summit of the Continental Divide.

Check out Loveland’s Events page to find the next Ski With a Ranger date.

It's easy to love Loveland

Just 53 miles west of Denver, the family-owned Loveland is situated entirely within Arapahoe National Forest, and its location has made it a favorite of urbanites along the Front Range for generations. One thing that sets Loveland apart from so many other Colorado resorts—besides its 1,800 acres of terrain and copious amounts of snow—is its pure, unadulterated focus on skiing. There is no base village, grand resort, or 10-story hotel at the foot of the mountain. For some, that’s a reason to zip by it and keep traveling down I-70, but for anyone interested in a day trip, it’s what makes Loveland so special (and comparatively affordable).

That's not to say it's without amenities, of course: There's an eatery and pro shop at the base of the mountain, and a lovely restaurant at the top of Ptarmigan Lift.

Amusingly enough, those that do pass Loveland by still get closer to it than they might expect: they’re underneath it. Loveland actually straddles the Eisenhower Tunnel and several runs pass right over it, so next time you’re going through that long tunnel, consider that there are skiers carving the slopes hundreds of feet above your head!

A rock cairn marks the summit of the Continental Divide at the top of Lift 9. The four lanes of I-70 can be seen far below, shortly before it disappears into the Eisenhower Tunnel.

I was particularly excited to check out Lift 9, Loveland's newest addition to the mountain. Granted, ‘newest’ here means it was installed in 1998, but did I mention it's been 25 years since I've been skiing? When it opened, Lift 9 was the highest chairlift in North America, a title it held for only seven years before being surpassed. Regardless, though, it's still among the highest chairlifts in the world, offloading skiers and boarders at an impressive 12,700 feet.

To drink in the view in all its glory, climb up the 15-foot embankment that ensures no one can accidentally cruise down the wrong side of the Continental Divide (can you imagine?!). From here, you can see both ends of the Eisenhower Tunnel with ant-sized cars moving in and out of the east and west portals.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is no beginner terrain to be had at this elevation.

Calling it a day

Completed in 1884, the Historic Windsor Hotel is a charming and easily accessible choice for lodging.

Those looking for multiple days of skiing, or maybe just wanting a good night's sleep rather than tackling a dark drive home, will have to look nearby for lodging. To the east of Loveland are the twin towns of Georgetown and Silver Plume; slightly farther to the west, on the other side of the Divide, are Dillon and Silverthorne. I opted for the Historic Windsor Hotel in Silver Plume. A scant 10 miles from Loveland’s parking lot and mere feet from the interstate exit, I think it may well be the closest public lodging available. Built in 1884, the hotel is as much museum as it is lodging. It's said to have hosted both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla—though as anyone familiar with these feuding turn-of-the-century titans of invention could imagine, it probably wasn’t at the same time.

 

Yes, the floors creak a bit, and the stairs aren't quite as square as once they were, but that to me is part of the charm of a building only eight years younger than the state of Colorado itself. The bed was comfy, breakfast was filling, the innkeeper was gracious, and the wi-fi signal was strong. What more could a guy ask for?

Mountaintop Matrimony

Those looking to start their own love story at Loveland might want to consider the resort’s annual Marry Me & Ski Free mass wedding event. New couples are joined in matrimony and married couples renew their vows in a beloved tradition that’s pure Loveland. An après party is held at the base of the mountain for all participants and guests with wedding cupcakes and sparkling apple cider provided. Participating couples that pre-register will be eligible for 2-for-1 lift tickets the day of the event. Details about the 2022 ceremony are here.

 

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