By R. Scott Rappold
If you’re at a Colorado ski resort, you’re already having a good day. Just ask the 13.8 million skiers and snowboarders who visited a Colorado Ski Country USA resort last winter.
But there are challenges to being way up in the Rockies in the dead of winter: blinding snow, bitter cold, other skiers tracking up the powder that is rightfully yours.
Anyone who skis as much as this reporter (101 days last winter) has a bag of tricks, little things they do to deal with the elements and have a better day on the snow.
With a major storm bearing down on the Rockies this weekend and the promise of big snow totals, I decided to share some of my tips for surviving the nastiest weather and making the most of your powder day.
Make first chair
I recently skied Wolf Creek with a friend who has been skiing her whole life and is frankly a much better skier than me. She needed a ride up and I told her we’d be leaving at 7 a.m. sharp.
“Early bird, huh?” she said.
“Early bird gets the worm,” I replied.
It was her first time ever making first chair. I’ve since seen her several times up there bright and early.
That’s because, on a powder day, first chair is where the magic happens. To be the first person to plunge down a blanket of untouched snow is about as close as you can get to floating while staying Earthbound. Do it once and you’ll find yourself getting up earlier and earlier on cold winter mornings.
Have a ski quiver
The days of having a single set of skis or a single snowboard for all conditions are long over. Whenever I ski I have all three of my sets in the car because you never know what the snow is going to be like until you get up there.
I have my Head Kore 93s as my go-to, all-mountain skis that do well in any conditions. I have my Ski Logik Ullr’s Chariot, a wider and heavier ski that shreds the powder like nobody’s business but can still handle the chop in the afternoon. And I have my Rockstars, massive, 120-mm underfoot, rockered and light as a feather, for the days when it’s dumping and refills are free.
I’ve been known to ride all three sets in a day. My wife says I’m obsessive. I say I’m practical.
Avoid the lines – ride smaller lifts
When I used to ski Colorado’s larger resorts like Copper Mountain or Steamboat, I would take advantage of the fact you can get 3,000 vertical feet in a run if you go all the way to the base. But why was I spending so much time in line?
The base area quad chairs (and larger – I believe I’ve ridden an 8-seater in my time) is the fastest way to get up the mountain and get the most vert, but I no longer ride them except at the beginning of the day. I like the smaller, slower and more isolated chairs that take you to more remote terrain and untouched powder.
For example, when I ski Copper Mountain, I ride up on the American Flyer, a high-speed, six-person chair that even has a plastic bubble to protect you from the elements. Then I skate over to Sierra chair, a three-seater that takes you to some great steep terrain. When the back bowls open I spend the rest of the morning on Blackjack and Mountain Chief, both old two-seaters.
I can’t recall ever waiting in line on any of those.
Make sure you can see
I see it all the time: someone is in the lodge by 10 a.m. on a stormy day because they can’t see. That’s what happens when you have goggles designed to filter out the sun and snow on a day it’s dumping.
Most goggles these days come with interchangeable lenses, or they should. Low-light lenses are scientifically designed to help provide definition on the worst days.
Because any powder lover will tell you the worst days are the best days.
Keep goggles from fogging up
Another problem many skiers face on the stormy days is goggles fogging up. Heavy breathing and perspiration (it is an action sport, after all) trap warm air in the goggles, which causes ice when it meets the frigid air outside.
Avoid the fog by not tucking your ski mask into the goggles. And don’t put your goggles on your helmet – the heat from your head will just make it worse.
As any ski instructor will tell you, those goggles should never be anywhere but on your face.
You should also apply anti-fog material to your goggles every few days to help fight the ice.
Keep your phone alive
Modern smartphones are notoriously susceptible to cold temperatures. I’ve watched my iPhone drop from 90 percent life to 10 percent on a single lift ride.
So how are you supposed to take pictures, find your friends or email your boss that you’re home sick if your phone is a dead brick?
I like to use a peel-off foot warmer, sold in most grocery stores and other general retailers here in the colder regions. Just put it against your phone in a pocket of one of your inside layers.
Bonus: They’re also good for keeping toes warm, though not the most comfortable thing to have in a ski boot.
Pack the car the night before
I’m always amazed when friends show up late to the ski area because they had to load the car in the morning.
Except for ski boots, which should never be left out in a frigid trunk, everything else can be loaded the night before. Get your food and drinks together. Set out your ski pass. If it’s snowing, shovel the sidewalk the night before.
Because getting to the ski area as early as possible should be your goal.
See Tip Number 1 above for supporting evidence.
Don’t tighten your boots too much
Yes, we all like tight boots while riding, since having an ankle sliding around can make for sloppy turns.
But too-tight boots also cut off blood flow, and skiing can be no fun when you can’t feel your toes. So leave a little wiggle room.
Yes, this is one of the most important things you should do while exerting at high elevation, but it’s also easier said than done.
I’ve never found a ski hydration pack that doesn’t freeze on the nastiest days. Blowing in the hose each run may help but Mother Nature always wins. You could put it under your jacket, though it will make you feel constricted and make you look like the Hunchback of Summit County.
I like to bring a tiny plastic water bottle and just put it in my pocket. Anything too big will make your balance awkward and hurt on a fall, so I use a cleaned-out cough syrup bottle. Just a sip every now and then and refill every time you take a break.
It’s tough to stop when the snow is pounding and you’re getting fresh tracks every run, but we’re all human and need to warm up and rest sometimes.
If you’re at a larger resort, duck into a warming hut or upper lodge every few hours. At a smaller ski area, ski down to the base and take five. Being cold and tired is when mistakes happen, which is when injuries happen, so listen to your body.
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.