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Legendary Cat Skiing at Cooper’s Chicago Ridge

Casey Day, Cooper / Chicago Ridge Casey Day, Cooper / Chicago Ridge

By R. Scott Rappold


I winced, imagining the core shot those rocks just delivered to my brand new super-fat powder skis. Why did I bring them up here?

And why, for that matter, was I here at all, endlessly traversing around a wind-scoured bowl at 12,000 feet, on snow ranging from merely crusty to bulletproof? Far below, the groomers of Ski Cooper seemed almost preferable, for the sake of my skis and quads already screaming from the non-stop traversing and rock-dodging.

Then it happened, the a-ha moment.

We stopped traversing and, led by our guide, dropped down the fall line into a slope of soft, buttery goodness, untouched by human skis, a blanket of older snow delivered by nature and just waiting for us to carve and make our own.

This is what we paid for! exclaimed a suddenly giddy skier somewhere behind me.

Welcome to Chicago Ridge, where skiers and snowboarders have been getting the fresh tracks they paid for up here for 28 years.

The Broncos had just won the Super Bowl the night before, but nobody was talking about football.Of course, only three of the 11 skiers in our group hailed from Colorado, the others on vacation from Back East. People come from all over the world for Colorados famous powder, but lets face it, Mother Nature can be fickle and when you book a trip months in advance, the only way to ensure fresh tracks is to prepare to head into the backcountry.

Casey Day,  Cooper / Chicago Ridge Casey Day, Cooper / Chicago Ridge

At Chicago Ridge, the backcountry is a 2,600-acre playground of bowls, ridges, glades and forests, about equal in size to the back bowls at North Americas largest ski resorts. There are never more than a dozen skiers a day up here, ferried by the tracked snow cat.

Ski Cooper, north of Leadville, has been a favorite among families since opening after World War II. While other ski areas expanded and added posh villages and shopping malls, Cooper maintained its small size and family-friendly setting. With four lifts and 39 trails, mostly beginner and intermediate, parents can let the kids loose without fear of them getting lost.

(Chicago Ridge) is different and a little bit of a counterpoint to Cooper and I like to think it really adds a lot, said Chicago Ridge director Craig Stuller, shuttling us up on the snow cat for our third run. Not a cat tour goes by that someone doesnt ask what the ski area is like. We give them the explanation and they say, I should bring my family here next time.

Some kids have been known to ski the Ridge, but for the record, its for advanced and expert skiers only.

For those unfamiliar with backcountry skiing and for safety reasons guides assume we all are the day started with a lesson about avalanches and the distributing of beacons for finding a skier buried under the snow.

Slides can happen on virtually any slope, and theseare monitored carefully by ski patrol within the ropes of resorts. Up here its all wild and natural, and help is a long way off, so when avalanche risk is high its better to be safe than sorry. We wouldnt be skiing any risky terrain this day.

Safety meeting over, it was time to head up. We piled in the cozy snow cat and began the long, slow rumble up the mountain. It was a brilliant bluebird day as the lodgepole pines gave way to the bleak treeless tundra. Off in the distance, Colorado two highest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, dominated the horizon.

As the cat struggled up an impossibly steep ridge, we could see tracks from previous parties. One particular set caught my eye, coming down from a steep 12,600-foot face.

You might be saying, Why arent we skiing that? It looks so good. Well, its not, said Stuller. The south-facing peak was amazing when it last snowed a week ago, but sun and wind had taken their toll.

Nor was the gentle slope of our first run much better, rock-hard wind ripples that had some of the old-timers struggling as we skied back to the snow cat. The second run was slightly better, as the crust up high gave way to softer snow below.

It turns out, in those first couple runs, our guides werent just testing the snow conditions. They were testing us.

Theres no skills test to ski the Ridge, so guides need to know the strength of the skiers in their charge. What better place to do so than a wide-open bowl with varying snow conditions and no trees to hit?

We must have passed the test, because run number three had us in a tighter gully with trees. Turns out, thats where the good snow lived, as frustration turned to smiles. On the fourth run, after a tortuous traverse, the smiles turned to hoots and hollers. Clearly, slopes sheltered from the wind and tree-protected glades would be the order of the day.

The fifth run was glorious, the kind of run that can make you feel like youre in a Warren Miller film. Nothing in front of you but a blank snow canvas, nearly effortless surfing turns and snow flying in your face with each move. Normally, skiers need to hit first chair in a resort on a powder day or skin far into the wilderness to get such runs.

When it came time for lunch in the mountainside yurt, I didnt want to stop skiing to nourish myself.

The three or four runs of the afternoon stick in my mind as a blur of happiness. We got to know our fellow skiers, giving each other a hand when needed, such as when my tip hit a buried stump and sent me sprawling. Strangers before who would be strangers afterward, we shared some laughs, skied alongside each other and talked excitedly about the line we hit. Nobody seemed impatient waiting for the slower among us.

Sure, there have been more epic powder days, but seeing as it had been warm and sunny for a week, I counted myself lucky to have had some amazing runs. Despite the small number of skiers on Chicago Ridge, it can get skied out, another reason we spent so much time scouting. We have to save some good lines for the people coming tomorrow.

With nothing but more sun in the forecast through the middle of February, Stuller said the cat probably had only a few days left before he would start calling people about the marginal conditions, giving them the option to cancel.

Finally, as the shadows were getting long, we piled in once more and lazed exhaustedly in our seats for the long ride back to Ski Cooper. A ride on the Chicago Ridge snow cat isnt a once-in-a-lifetime trip like heli-skiing British Columbia, but at $299 a person it can certainly be a once-a-year reward for yourself or a loved one.

Our small group was exhausted but happy as we returned to Ski Cooper for complimentary beers and snacks. It was a day none of us would ever forget.

And still nobody had mentioned the Denver Broncos.