By R. Scott Rappold
WOLF CREEK SKI AREA - Opening day of ski season in Colorado is typically more about the party than the skiing.
It's almost always in October, when either Loveland or Arapahoe Basin's natural snow and man-made snow accumulate enough to open a run or two and give snow addicts a fix before the big snows of winter arrive. Skiers come out in silly costumes, have some drinks, catch up with their winter friends and ski a few runs.
Mother Nature had a different idea this year.
Last week, a potent October snowstorm zeroed in on San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado and dumped 30 inches of snow on Wolf Creek Ski Area from Tuesday to Thursday. The shrubs, grass and rocks (except for the big ones) were suddenly buried under snow - the kind of snow you can ski.
The snow was still falling on Wednesday when the family-owned resort made the only decision possible: to be the first ski area in the U.S. to open for weekend skiing and riding, also the second-earliest opening in resort history.
"Because we got snow," said Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales, matter-of-factly. "That's usually our motivation, getting snow and we're ready to go... Once the snow is good we're pretty adamant about getting open as soon as we can."
For one weekend, this rustic, rural resort, 4 hours' drive from the Front Range was the center of the skiing universe. And more than 1,000 skiers and snowboarders from across Colorado came for the celebration.
"I can't believe southern Colorado is getting it first for once," said Nick Dillsworth, who with his friends drove from Telluride Friday to get good spots in line. They made second chair.
"We tried to sleep in the lift line but they asked us not to get run over by a snowcat," he said. "It's like 30 inches of cream cheese up there, like a good, dense base-building snow. It came in heavy and really started the season off right."
And after a hot, dry summer that saw several major forest fires in southern Colorado, the snow-draped mountains were a welcome change for the many locals who came out Saturday.
"It's a beautiful thing. It's greatly needed. We need to make up for lost time," said Pagosa Springs skier Elizabeth Kunz.
"It's crazy. It's like a dream come true. It bodes well for the rest of the winter, today does, for sure," said Colorado Springs skier Jeff Davis, who made a spur-of-the-moment decision Friday to make the 4-hour drive to Wolf Creek.
According to the National Weather Service, the snow that zeroed in on Wolf Creek was caused by "an early season long-wave trough that dug into the Great Basin for several days. This provided several days of moist, upslope flow into the mountains. The trough was just the right amplitude to provide adequate cold air aloft and still tap moisture from the south."
Such storms are no surprise to local skiers at Wolf Creek, which gets an average of 430 inches a year and justly claims "the most snow in Colorado."
The ski conditions were also what Wolf Creek skiers expect: 60 percent of the mountain was open, including expert-level hike-to terrain like Alberta Peak. Lift tickets were $50 with conditions that would have been amazing for December, much less mid-October. The sounds of laughter drifted through the San Juan Mountains as powder-starved skiers and snowboarders left their tracks on the untouched powder.
The snow was deep and dense enough to hide, but not necessarily cover, many obstacles, so skiers had to stay on their toes. Wolf Creek doesn't usually put up ropes and mark obstacles to keep skiers out of areas. Rather, you mostly go where you want, with only your common sense to guide you.
Most ski areas won't have 60 percent of the mountain open until mid-season, and being the first resort to open gave Wolf Creek's owners a certain sense of pride. It last happened in 2011, when they opened Oct. 8 thanks to a similar snowstorm.
"We're usually the first to open on all-natural snow. A-Basin and Loveland, they get their snow blowers out and they're usually the first ones but when Mother Nature heads this way, it's a good thing," said Haidorfer-Pitcher.
Those two resorts, which received some natural snow this week and continue to make snow, are targeting opening dates in mid-to-late October.
Arapahoe Basin CEO Alan Henceroth wrote on their website Friday that opening "is still a little too early to call."
"For now, go enjoy a weekend of skiing at Wolf Creek (kudos to those guys)," he wrote.
Plenty of people from other ski towns heeded that advice.
Jessie Unruh came down from Summit County and slept in the Wolf Creek parking lot. It was worth the effort.
"I think this might be the earliest I've ever ridden and it was so fun and it's a beautiful day," she said. "It's cool to live in Colorado and have an opportunity like this. My friends in Kansas are like, 'What the heck are you doing?'"
Wolf Creek will be open Saturdays and Sundays for now, with more snow needed before they'll decide to open seven days a week.
If the start of the 2018-19 season is any indication, skiers around here won't have to wait too much longer for that.