Tucker Mountain at Copper Mountain - Scott Rappold
By R. Scott Rappold
The powder was soft, deep and untracked in the back bowls of Copper Mountain. So why wasn't I satisfied?
It was Feb. 25, 2020, and the Summit County resort was experiencing its snowiest February ever, 88 inches (that's more than 7 feet of powder). It had snowed the day before and the flakes were still falling. It's the kind of conditions powder addicts such as myself dream of all year and the reason I drove three hours to get here.
But even as I enjoyed lap after lap in the wide-open bowls, some of the most spectacular above-timberline skiing in Colorado, my eyes kept drifting across the valley, to the new Three Bears chairlift the resort installed this summer, providing lift-served access for the first time to the wild, remote terrain of Tucker Mountain.
It was running but there were no people on it. It hadn't run since the last storm so the only tracks in the snow were ski patrols, as they conducted avalanche control on the ridiculously steep tree-lined chutes.
"It’s very weather dependent. I believe it’s delayed this morning. Tomorrow looks better," Taylor Prather, Copper's public relations manager, e-mailed me.
Still, I feared to ski down for lunch, for fear of returning to see this powder, which was rightfully mine - I saw it first! - tracked out. But the body needs fuel to ski, so down I went.
From snowcat to a lift
I had been eyeing this terrain since I first skied Copper 15 years ago. The back bowls, a giant cirque with cliffs, cornices, steep plunges and mellow powder fields, is bounded on the south side by 12,337-foot Tucker Mountain. When all my reliable stashes were tracked out, the chutes, trees and endless sweeps of tundra often remained pristine.
Before this winter, to ride this terrain required a grueling hike or getting lucky and catching the free snowcat before the line got too long. I was never energetic enough to hike or lucky enough to get to the snowcat pickup early enough in the day (it requires several lift rides to get here.)
Installing the Three Bears chairlift at Copper Mountain
This summer, the resort put in the Three Bears lift, using helicopters to ferry supplies into the remote area. The 273-acre expansion is the largest in Colorado this winter. There's no electricity to the top so the ski patrol hut is solar-powered.
"Tucker Mountain has long been considered some of the best expert terrain in-bounds at any Colorado ski resort. The north-facing slopes allow snow to remain pristine meaning powder turns long after the last storm. Coming in at 12,337 feet in elevation, the turns are as sweet as the views," says Copper Mountain's website.
But this is also avalanche-prone terrain, and with the heavy February snows, ski patrol had been very, very careful about opening it up. It was closed the day I decided to drop everything and drive across Colorado.
I knew it was a gamble, but chasing powder is always a gamble, and you must be present to win.
A lucky day
Three Bears Chair - Copper Mountain
After a hastily-eaten lunch I was back on the chair, bound for the top. Two other lift rides later and I was standing atop Copper Bowl, gazing across the valley. The lift was running ... but I still saw no people.
I began to hike around the bowls to one of my favorite spots, where I thought I could still find a couple of hundred feet of fresh snow.
Then I saw it. Skiers coming down from the Three Bears lift. And they didn't have red ski patrol jackets. Three minutes later I was on the lift, breathless and giddy.
This feels like backcountry skiing. The only trapping of civilization you can see (other than the chair lifts and ski patrol huts) is a single two-lane road heading up lofty Fremont Pass. The jagged spires of the Tenmile Range fill your vision, while the rest of the Rockies seem to go on forever in every direction.
But I didn't come here for the view. The first run down the lift line was sublime, the snow deep and pure, flying in your face with every turn. I don't know if I had ever skied deep snow so fast before, but it was a time to apply oneself. Half of the powderhounds on the mountain were already there and the other half were on the way.
Tucker Mountain - Copper Mountain - Scott Rappold
From the steep, tree-lined chutes you enter a lovely pine forest where you'll want to keep your speed up lest you have to walk uphill back to the chair, a good reason not to blaze your own path down here.
It's a different world if go right after you get off the lift. Here is a rocky expanse of wind-swept tundra that looks unskiable at first until you enter the sweet gullies holding all the snow. Feel free to spread your wings and get adventurous over here, but I wouldn't do it with brand-new skis.
Sadly, since the lift started so late in the day and closes early, I had but a short time to play. But having booked a room for two nights for just this eventuality, I planned to wake up early and be back for more.
And more I got, as ski patrol gradually opened more terrain. I briefly considered telling my wife I wouldn't be coming home because I had to live up here and ski every day as more and more sections of Tucker Mountain opened.
If you want to see the wild side of Copper Mountain, get yourself to Tucker Mountain this winter. Just time it right or you may be waiting in vain for the magical rope to drop.
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.
Explore 273 acres of terrain on Tucker Mountain with the new Three Bears chairlift which opened in the 2019-20 season. This three-person fixed-grip lift will access terrain that was previously accessible via snowcat or hiking only. The lift will come complete with a ski patrol warming hut at the summit.