By R. Scott Rappold
Not all powder days are created equal.
Sure, powder hounds like me live for those days when the snow falls deep and fluffy all night and the sky clears just in time for good light and amazing mountain views while floating down the hill on a bed of pillows. But Colorados weather is notoriously erratic. Snowstorms often create widely varying conditions from resort to resort and even run to run.
Which brings me to Feb. 23 and 24 at Monarch Mountain. After a long warm and dry spell for the entire state, this small ski area in southern Colorado became the king of powder. The 17 inches that fell in 24 hours attracted powder-starved skiers and riders from across the state.
In the San Luis Valley, one day we were riding bikes in t-shirts and the next we were shoveling out our cars and heading north, visions of the coming powder day dancing in our heads.
What followed was one of the more intense, challenging yet ridiculously rewarding experiences of my skiing career, one that would give me a new respect for the raw power of wind on the Continental Divide and how that primal force can take a ski area I know intimately and turn it upside down.
But Im getting ahead of myself.
For those who havent been, Monarch is a moderate-sized ski area located where U.S. Highway 50 crosses the spine of the Sawatch Mountains between Salida and Gunnison. It may be the quintessential locals hill, with no lodging, boutiques or nightclubs. Since 1939 skiers have been able to park and walk a short distance to the lifts, which rarely have lines. Passes are affordable and offer tickets or deals for nearly 20 other ski areas. On any given day, more than half of those on the mountain are day-trippers from the Pikes Peak region. That lone sentinel of a mountain can be spied in the distance from the top of the lifts.
Oh, and the snow. Its all-natural, an average of 350 inches a year. But that tells only part of the story. Unlike Summit County, it has no ski neighbors. As the only resort for 60 miles in any direction, every so often storms zero in on this stretch of the Divide and deliver powder that is the envy of Colorado.
I learned to ski on Monarchs bunny slope and many years later feel like I know the mountain like I know an old friend, its quirks, when to tread lightly and when to charge it hard.
At least I did.
I knew this would be no ordinary powder day before setting skis on snow. Monarchs snow-stake camera showed a wind-sculpted pillar of powder, created by 50-mph upslope winds from the east that accompanied this storm.
The wind was still howling like a mad demon at 9 a.m., so my friends and I decided to start with the more sheltered lower aspects off of the Garfield chair. We chose different lines and met up five minutes later sweating and panting.
Sometimes you have to feel out the mountain. And sometimes like when youre riding along in deep wind-blown pow only to hit a harsh scoured patch that that speeds you up and only to hit the next waist-high ripple of surprisingly dense snow that will drag you into a yard sale if not ready, the mountain feels out you. Worse, in the trees and protected slopes, the snow was so dense and deep that those chasing untracked lines on anything but the steepest slopes were likely to grind to a halt.
Clearly, we needed steeper terrain, so we headed to Panorama chair, which takes skiers to nearly 12,000 feet on the Divide.
Then came the next surprise. The wind had absolutely murdered the snow on the upper mountain. Wide-open runs where powder usually hides for days after a storm were crusty and unpleasant. Wind ripples like waves on the ocean were either bulletproof or so dense the legs burned with every turn.
This would not do.
So we tried our last resort, the Breezeway chair. Its often the windiest part of the mountain, hence the name, but the slopes are also sheltered from the east so it seemed to offer hope. Mirkwood Basin, Monarchs hike-to terrain above, looked like a scene out of Everest, so we hit the sheltered glades below, and finally found where all the snow had gone. Like a ski area within a resort, we spent the rest of the day with smiles on our faces and our skis and boards in deep powder off Breezeway.
We had met the mountain, and it was ours.
Blowing off certain deadlines in the name of powder, I headed back to Monarch the next day.
Yes, the Breezeway runs were mostly tracked out, but I had noticed the day before that skiers were avoiding entire parts of the mountain. Maybe I would find a few surprises.
The first surprise was, again, the wind. It was still howling but had shifted and was blowing from the west. Cornices loomed over sugary deposits below where the day before the snow had been crusty. Lower runs were tracked out just enough to keep your momentum between ducking into powder stashes on the edge of runs or in the trees.
But the chart-topper occurred when I spied some tracks from a distance in a gully in the Outback Bowl. This exposed ridge had been miserable the day before, but it looked like the mountain contours had created a 15-foot wide strip of powder. Returning to Breezeway, poled my way on the cat track around to where I had seen the gully.
It was crunchy and clattery on either side, but dropping into the slight depression revealed amazing blower powder, the kind flies in your face and coats your smile with every turn. With minor variations, I spent the rest of the day skiing this gully and looking for others like it.
These two days will long remain in my memory not for the 17 inches of snow, but the challenges and rewards of chasing it. This alpine landscape is an ever-changing canvas of snow. You never know what youll find, and there will never be a day exactly like this one again. Dont blow it off.