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Powder diary: A cross-Colorado trek and two big surprises 

12.16.19 Wolf Creek - Rosanne Pitcher
Wolf Creek Ski Area – Roseanne Pitcher

By R. Scott Rappold

Editor’s note: Our mountain correspondent and resident ski bum R. Scott Rappold missed several deadlines, did not respond to emails and his voicemail was full. We tracked him down in Steamboat Springs, where he had been sleeping on various sofas since it started snowing in early January, and convinced him to stop skiing long enough to file this report. Numerous threatening references to his editors have been omitted. 

Where to begin? 

Scott becomes one with the mountain when he is powder chasing 

The last week has been a blur. Did I really drop everything to drive 5 hours across Colorado, past no fewer than four other ski areas, in search of powder? 

Today was one of the best ski days of my life, two feet of snow at my home mountain of Wolf Creek in southern Colorado …. I should still be there, ripping powder and scoring endless face shots, but here I sit at this computer …. I should still be up there, braving the poor visibility and fierce winds with my friends who are still up there as I write this, skiing my lines and tracking up my powder. 

But here I am off on a tangent. 

It wasn’t like this here a week ago. Wolf Creek does boast the most snow in Colorado – 215″ so far this season – but like any ski resort, there are dry spells. Cruising groomers and hunting the last powder stashes are all well and good, and it’s always good to have a couple of days off the mountain to get work done and make sure my wife hasn’t left me. So like any ski bum, I can abide by the dry spells. 

What I can’t abide is when it’s snowing somewhere else in Colorado and I’m not skiing it. That’s exactly what happened Jan. 2-4 when northern Colorado resorts got up to 18 inches. The flakes didn’t make it south.

There are plenty of meteorological reasons storms hit some parts of the mountains and not others, but my degree is in journalism so I won’t try to explain them. I’ll just say it’s a hell of a thing when a storm misses your mountain. A hell of a thing. And I vowed not to miss the next one. 

Sure enough, by Jan. 7 more snow was in the forecast, and it looked like the storm would once again go north. So I decided I would have to as well. 

Making the plan

I have three rules for chasing powder: 

1) Never plan a trip more than 36 hours out. Mountain weather is difficult to forecast and long-term forecasts usually change so you want the best chance of being where the most snow will fall. 

2) Never pay for a hotel room. No ski bum can afford those, especially in high-end mountain towns. 

3) Always bring gifts for your host. Whether it’s someone you met online or a friend of a friend, you’re occupying their home and disrupting their life so bring a gift for God’s sake. 

It just so happens I have a friend in Steamboat Springs, which appeared to be in the bulls-eye for the upcoming storm. A few text messages later and I was packing my bag and loading the car for the long drive, 260 miles and three of the snowiest mountain passes in Colorado. 

Then I remembered the fourth rule of chasing powder: Make sure your spouse or significant other doesn’t mind. 

She didn’t, so off I went – after doing the dishes and laundry to ease my guilt for spending all our money skiing while she went to work. 

January 8

The snow was still a day away but I knew I wanted to be in place to get an early start on the powder day, so I left my home in Del Norte, in the San Luis Valley, around mid-morning, with a plan to stop by ski area Cooper, near Leadville, for a couple of runs to break up the drive. 

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The View from Cooper Mountain – Scott Rappold 

Cooper is known as a small, family-friendly area, which it is. It also has beautiful views of the two highest peaks in Colorado – Mount Elbert and Mount Massive – and great, wide-open, uncrowded groomers. An hour up here and I was refreshed for the second leg of my drive. 

It just so happened I had a cousin from Florida visiting Steamboat for the annual country music festival, and no, she and her friends wouldn’t mind if I slept on the couch in their condo for a night. 

As we caught up and tried to figure out if we had actually met in person before, moisture moved into the atmosphere over Steamboat. Water crystals began to freeze and attach to other crystals until the became heavy enough to fall to the earth. 

Snow. I almost cried it had been so long. 

January 9

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Steamboat Springs Lodging – Scott Rappold 

Unfortunately, we stayed up too late catching up over cocktails and rose slowly. By the time we got onto the gondola at 9:50 a.m., it looked like the 4 inches that fell overnight were tracked out. 

Steamboat is a massive resort, 2,695 acres, making it one of the largest ski areas in Colorado, so my cousin and I were still able to find plenty of powder stashes. She’s been coming here for years, while it was my first time, so she showed me around and I tried to learn the lay of the land. The sun was out, the snow was soft and I felt happy and content for the first time in many days. And for Floridians, she and her friends were pretty darn good skiers. 

Not wanting to wear out my welcome (and needing a more comfortable couch to sleep on) I headed for my friend’s house, where we talked and laughed and enjoyed too many beers and watched the next wave of snow move in. 

January 10 

Not wanting to risk missing the fresh powder, I woke up early instead of getting extra sleep like the day before. (Not that I didn’t stay up late enjoying cocktails with my friend. I just got less sleep than the night before.) 

I was somewhat disappointed. The snow report said only 6 inches and the snow in town had stopped. 

Steamboat Springs

Chasing powder can be a crapshoot. You win some and you lose some and I decided it would be fun to ski anything fresh after the dry spell I had weathered. So we made for first chair, hopping on only a few minutes after the lifts started. 

Then came the surprise: It was still dumping. It was pounding snow, nuking snow. On my very first turn of my very first run, I knew all the effort and money and strain on my marriage was worth it. Steamboat is where they coined the phrase “champagne powder,” and it was indeed some of the lightest and fluffiest snow I had ever skied. And it was deep, waist-deep in spots. 

I let my friend guide me around. When the named runs were tracked out we made for the trees. When the trees were tracked out we hiked. I heard from several locals it was the best day of the season so far. 

I love it when a plan comes together. 

January 11

It was time for me to head home since the house was crowded and more guests were coming. Plus I could barely walk after skiing 30,000 vertical feet. 

I thanked my friend and repaid him for the hospitality by shoveling his driveway (not to mention buying most of the beer during my stay.) It was snowing heavily on the mountain with more on the way, but it was time to go home.

Plus, snow was on the way. The wind had switched directions and was coming from the southwest, which happens to favor southern Colorado. So I drove right past Copper Mountain, despite the fact it was snowing heavily, and Monarch Mountain too. 

Chasing powder is a crapshoot like I said. Would I come up lucky? 

January 12

As I woke up in my own bed, the Wolf Creek snow report said 1 inch. Better than nothing, I decided, and dragged myself out of bed. As it turned out, the snow was just getting going. The report was 5 inches by lunchtime and it kept coming. Of course, after such a long dry spell, there was crunchy snow underneath, but it was disappearing fast and I was just glad to see flakes back in the sky here. 

Traveling is nice, but there’s nothing like skiing your own mountain, where you know the terrain and the people and know you get to sleep in your own bed that night. 

Then came the next surprise. 

January 13 

I got up early, as usual, to a snow report of 5 inches overnight. Not a huge powder day, but on top of the previous day’s total, I knew it would be fun. 

I helped my wife get off to work (behind every great ski bum is someone earning a steady paycheck) and raced up to the mountain. The forecast called for up to 12 inches so I grabbed my powder skis. 

It was snowing hard as if two weeks’ worth of powder pleas by us locals had risen into the atmosphere and burst as snow. By mid-morning, the snow report was 14 inches. By late afternoon it was 19 inches. That made my local hill the snowiest ski area in Colorado (or, for that matter, Utah.) 

It was one of the best days of the season, every turn blinding and choking you with snow, which for powder lovers is a good problem to have. “Hero snow,” someone called it because you can turn so effortlessly any skier can feel like a hero as long as you don’t fall and get buried. It kept dumping so hard the morning’s tracks were covered after lunch. 

I will be going back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. Because I thought of a way to end this story: 

“I wish I had worked more,” said nobody on their death bed ever. 

Scott Rappold

R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado’s beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott’s stories here