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The Storm that Saved Thanksgiving

Photo by Scott Rappold Photo by Scott Rappold

It was, admittedly, a strange feeling for Davey and Rosanne H. Pitcher, owners of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Thanksgiving was creeping up and, except for one trail off the beginner lift where they’d been making snow at night, the slopes were grassy and rocky. Wolf Creek boasts the most snow in Colorado, an average of 450 inches a year, and is usually 100 percent open by Turkey Day, the rocks and shrubs covered by a deep base of natural powder. But this year, the autumn drought that had plagued the entire West seemed to have another idea, and their snow-making capacity is just 5 acres. The original mid-November opening date was postponed indefinitely.

Ski area owners are weather watchers by nature, and Davey, whose family has owned Wolf Creek for decades, saw something he liked in a storm spinning over the Pacific Ocean.

“Davey kept looking at the weather models. He goes, ‘There’s a chance for this to happen.’ He kept following it,” said Rosanne. “He said, ‘It’s out there. It’s going to be our saving storm, our hail Mary storm.’ We were lucky it produced the moisture he thought it might.”

“We got lucky.”

So did the skiers and snowboarders who eschewed morning football and helping with the turkey to hit opening day Thursday. Thanks for 16 inches of wet, base-building snow that fell two days before the holiday, Wolf Creek opened for the season with four lifts running and 50 percent of terrain available for skiing.

Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

That’s why they’re called the ‘Rocky Mountains’

“Watch out for the hot spots!”

That was the advice from the liftie as I clamored onto the second chair of the day, of the season, Thursday morning. As I was wooshed up to the Continental Divide, I saw what he meant.

Yes, there was snow everywhere, but you could also see why they call them the “Rocky Mountains.” Boulders and jagged rocks threatened in many places, and in others the steep slopes had been blasted for avalanche control and to help condense the base-building powder.

Most ski areas, especially in early season, have ropes to keep skiers on specific runs where snow-making has taken place. At Wolf Creek, when an area of the mountain is open, you can basically ski where you want, with only your common sense, knowledge of the mountain and fear of core shots to guide you.

I’d brought my rock skis, so I threw caution to the wind and tried a steep pitch nobody had skiied yet. Oh what sweet goodness it was, to carve fresh tracks through the dense untracked snow for the first time since May. I felt a little crunch of a rock and laughed it off. I didn’t have to ski in anyone’s tracks until I got back to the lift.

The day before Opening Day. Courtesy of Rosanne H. Pitcher, Wolf Creek Ski Area. The day before Opening Day. Courtesy of Rosanne H. Pitcher, Wolf Creek Ski Area.

So it went all morning, feeling out places where I knew there weren’t boulders, experimenting in spots where I hoped there weren’t boulders, and dodging them when necessary. To be able to look up at a snowy ridge and trace your “S”-curves all the way down is a beautiful thing. To return to the same spot 20 minutes later and see nobody else has been there is a beautiful thing.

Skiing natural snow in November is a beautiful thing. I skied so hard that when I looked at the time, expecting the bar would be open, it was only 10:15 a.m. – 45 minutes to go. My tired legs groaned and I kept going, sniffing out different parts of the mountain, studying the rockiness and occasionally throwing caution to the wind. I avoided the trees, however. Even I know it takes more than one storm to cover the stumps and logs.

By the time the bar opened, my weary legs commanded me to call it a day. I felt no sense of shame. At most ski areas, opening day is confined to a handful of man-made runs. I could look up and see my fresh tracks all over the Continental Divide. There would be more storms. More of my favorite spots would be filled in.

After all, we were only getting started.

Offseason improvements

The day after Thanksgiving, the Alberta chair started running, opening another 30 percent of the mountain. Only the highest and steepest terrain remained closed, the rocks and boulders clearly too exposed, but that wouldn’t last.

Wolf Creek is positioned well to get massive dumps from storms that come out of the Southwest, which is why they get an average of 450 inches a year and can accurately boast “the most snow in Colorado.”

The offseason in short here – there were still several feet of snow on the ground when they finally closed for last season May 31 – but Wolf Creek workers were busy in the summer. Construction began on a new conveyor lift, the Lynx lift, designed to make it easier for beginner skiers and those in lessons to get around the base area. It may debut later this winter if the weather allows construction to be completed.

Wolf Creek also repaved the parking lots and upgraded their website so rentals and lessons will soon be reservable online. The burger shack at the base of the Alberta chair will be upgraded to a full kitchen.

The area has plans to expand terrain with a new Meadow Lift, but Roseanne Pitcher says not to expect that this season as they continue to focus on improving their existing infrastructure.

After all, Wolf Creek is and always has been about the deep snow, which I like to call “stress-free powder.” You don’t have to race thousands of other skiers to get fresh tracks that are all gone by lunchtime.

And after the “hail Mary storm” that saved Thanksgiving, things are looking up here.

Droughts, said Rosanne Pitcher, “happen sometimes. We’re not exempt from anything. It hasn’t happened for a while. We’ve been very lucky to have some early openings the last couple of years.”

“Having the later opening, we understand that happens every now and then. We just feel fortunate we got the snow we did and we think it’s going to be a really great season.”

“Having it snow is just the icing on the cake.”