INTO ATHER THIN AIR

ONLY IN AMER­ICA’S ROCK­IES DO SKIERS BOOT UP IN BASE AR­EAS ABOVE 10,000 FEET. A WEIRD, WHEEZY ROAD TRIP TO THE SEVEN ANTI-DWARFS.

Skiing - - Adventure Guide - By Rob Story Pho­tos by Lee Co­hen

The ap­proach to Monarch Moun­tain ski area, whose base sits 10,790 feet above sea level in south­ern Colorado, causes odd things to hap­pen. On a trip a cou­ple years ago, when my car was la­bor­ing up the switch­backs east of the town of Sar­gents, a Therm-a-Rest sleep pad in­flated by it­self. A bag of Fri­tos puffed men­ac­ingly, like a mus­cle on steroids.

The slopes re­vealed other man­i­fes­ta­tions of el­e­va­tion (the area’s base is almost the coun­try’s high­est, just an of­fice cu­bi­cle shy of Love­land Ski Area’s 10,800 feet). On lift tow­ers, fre­quent signs warned, HIGH UV

ZONE: COVER UP! High-speed quads go too fast for tourists to catch their breath. So Monarch re­lies on fixed-grip crawlers that the lo­cals call “so­cial chairs.”

On that trip I won­dered: How many ar­eas start so high? We hear about moun­tains’ sum­mits but rarely their base el­e­va­tions. Turns out Monarch is one of only seven ski ar­eas in the Western world to rise from a base above 10,000 feet. And they all strad­dle the spine of the South­ern Rock­ies in Colorado and New Mex­ico.

Yes, many re­sorts through­out the White Planet cli­max higher than 10,000 feet. But other than the seven in the Rock­ies, only one be­gins as high. And it’s not Gul­marg in the Hi­malaya. Not Por­tillo in the An­des. Some may re­mem­ber that Bo­livia’s Cha­cal­taya did boast a base above 17,000 feet in the early ’90s, but lifts no longer run there, aban­doned by a re­treat­ing glacier. So the only ski field on Earth with a higher park­ing lot than Amer­ica’s Seven Anti-Dwarfs is 14,760-foot Jade Dragon Snow Moun­tain in China—a lame, rarely open hill served only by two rope tows. I don’t con­sider it a true ski area.

It just so hap­pens that you can take a road trip and hit all seven of th­ese rare-air ski moun­tains in seven days. So pho­tog­ra­pher Lee Co­hen and I took off in his 2013 Jetta, fresh with new-car smell, and did just that.

SKI SANTA FE Base el­e­va­tion: 10,350 feet

The road to Ski Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, ser­pen­tines up from its name­sake city, the high­est state cap­i­tal in the U.S. When Lee and I pass the mys­ti­cal 10,000-foot mark here in the San­gre de Cris­tos, we find a re­sort with a steep Taos-like lay­out, col­ored by green conifers and blue skies. I hap­pily note the pres­ence of mi­crowave tow­ers—a sign you’re near a re­gion’s high­est point.

Lee and I shoul­der skis and packs, then huff and puff across the tilted park­ing lot. The al­ti­tude sears even my lungs, which live at 8,750 feet. The San­gre de Cris­tos, or Blood of Christ Moun­tains, im­press us as they did Paul Si­mon. Ruddy and pre­cip­i­tous, they fall nat­u­rally into ex­hil­a­rat­ing cruis­ers and rhyth­mic mogul fields. While the re­sort’s in­fra­struc­ture wears more turquoise paint than most, the area is util­i­tar­ian and sim­ple, with seven not-soy­oung chair­lifts.

We duck in to Tote­moff’s Bar & Grill, a low-ceilinged joint filled with vin­tage ski mem­o­ra­bilia, in­clud­ing the first Lange Girl poster, in which a blonde in a red one-piece lounges above the cap­tion “soft inside.” As a child, I ogled this very poster in our neigh­bor’s rec room. We de­vour green-chile burg­ers be­fore ski­ing some equally South­westy slopes: Burro Al­ley, Lobo, and Tequila Sun­rise Glade.

Even­tu­ally we work our way up the Road­run­ner lift, which de­camps at 12,053 feet. Ski Santa Fe has blessed the Land of En­chant­ment since the 1930s—and it shows in the trail names. We’re caught a lit­tle off guard to find our­selves ply­ing some­thing named Gay Way. A less self-

as­sured re­sort would surely change the name (not that there’s any­thing wrong with it). On the other hand, if there’s one place that wouldn’t al­ter Gay Way, it’s prob­a­bly artsy, lib­eral, tol­er­ant Santa Fe.

The ski area is ac­tu­ally quite proud of Gay Way, as it’s an ideal in­ter­me­di­ate cruiser drop­ping along the South Burn area. We rip it fast and true, soar­ing weight­less over small con­cave drops. Do I let my wrists go limp? Do I sashay my hips a bit? Sing show tunes? Sure. It’s a slope called Gay Way, and I’m only hu­man. But it’s a su­perb piece of ski­ing. I don’t need to sport short shorts at a pride pa­rade to know the Gay Way is a re­ally fun way to go.

WOLF CREEK SKI AREA Base el­e­va­tion: 10,300 feet

Granted, 10,000 feet is an ar­bi­trary num­ber to get ex­cited about. Euros cer­tainly don’t bug out on 3,048 me­ters above sea level (the metric equiv­a­lent). Yet 10,000 is such a round, per­fect num­ber—first and fore­most of the five dig­its, ooz­ing base-10 dec­i­mal cer­tainty. Con­sider that Min­nesota calls it­self “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” when it ac­tu­ally con­tains more than 12,000. “Ten thou­sand” just rolls nicely off the tongue. Far as I know, no band ever called it­self 3,048 Ma­ni­acs.

An even bet­ter num­ber? Sev­en­teen. That’s how many inches of fresh snow blan­ket Wolf Creek when Lee and I ar­rive—and those 17 inches get pounded into the snow­pack by another nine over the course of the day!

A 26-inch dump is noth­ing to tri­fle with. Rid­ers ex­plore it with grim de­ter­mi­na­tion, silent within their drenched parkas. Though a few whoops of glee sound through the air, most pa­trons re­serve their lips for spit­ting out the bot­tom­less snow. Still, it’s tough not to gig­gle when my tails slap fluffy pillows still fat­ten­ing among over­whelmed spruce.

We spend hours strip­ing the stashes off Knife Ridge, find­ing face shot after face shot. On Bound­ary Bowl, Wa­ter­fall Area, and the re­sort’s other ex­pert runs, de­mand­ing fall lines are of­ten in­ter­rupted by flats. If its to­pog­ra­phy weren’t so stairsteppy, Wolf Creek would be leg­endary.

Wel­com­ing 430 inches per year, Wolf Creek boasts the most snow in Colorado. But it doesn’t want you to rush up for the goods. As it warns in the trail map, “Wolf Creek is a high alpine ski re­sort with high al­ti­tude sun. The weather con­di­tions can change rapidly. Take it easy on your first day, and drink plenty of wa­ter be­fore driv­ing up the moun­tain.” Flat­landers have no doubt learned the hard way.

As a Coloradan blessed with a two-foot dump, I don’t take it easy at all. And I know I’m go­ing to suf­fer for it. The next day, after all, be­gins Day­light Sav­ings Time. I will not only lose a pre­cious hour of slum­ber, but will be trapped in a con­gested room with the most ag­gres­sive morn­ing per­son known to man while los­ing said hour.

Sure enough, in Sal­ida that Sun­day morn­ing, Lee wakes well be­fore dawn and

starts or­ga­niz­ing his moun­tain of gear. He does this to any­one un­lucky enough to share a room with him. He thinks he’s be­ing quiet and sub­tle, but there’s a rea­son a friend gave him this nick­name one predawn morn: The Crin­kler.

MONARCH MOUN­TAIN Base el­e­va­tion: 10,790 feet

As lo­cal the­ory has it, Monarch is fre­quented by the spring break­ers and church groups of the south­ern Great Plains be­cause it’s one of the first real moun­tains they en­counter, easy to find on U.S. 50. “There’s a place in Kansas where you turn left, and then you’re here,” says April Prout-Ralph, mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor of Chaf­fee County. “Starter jack­ets are our dress code at Monarch.”

Jokes aside, the 74-year-old ski area is ac­tu­ally quite pro­gres­sive. Since it com­petes with Vail and the Sum­mit County moun­tains, Monarch de­vel­oped a fas­ci­nat­ing sea­son ticket. Called “One Planet—One Pass” and sold for $399, the pass wins lift priv­i­leges not just at Monarch but at 29 other re­sorts, in­clud­ing Alta, Utah, Red Moun­tain, Bri­tish Columbia, and sev­eral hills in Aus­tria and Ger­many. Each March, Monarch salutes the white­wa­ter her­itage of nearby Sal­ida by hold­ing a Kayaks on the Snow Boater­cross race. We also like how Monarch asks fans to stick its but­ter­fly de­cals all over the world and post the re­sults on so­cial me­dia. Lepi­dopteral mar­ket­ing.

Con­fi­dent with its lo­ca­tion high on the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide—un­threat­ened by the rains and early melts that cli­mate change wreaks on lower ar­eas—Monarch spent $2.3 mil­lion last sea­son dou­bling the size of its base lodge to 32,000 square feet. Soon it will add a new lift and more ter­rain to its back side.

For now, Monarch is small (800 acres) but sat­is­fy­ing, with ad­vanced and ex­pert runs ac­count­ing for 58 per­cent of all trails, bowls, glades, and ravines. The day after our end­less face shots at Wolf Creek, we choke on more pow­der at Monarch, es­pe­cially in dou­ble-di­a­mond Mirk­wood Bowl and Mirk­wood Trees, part of the hike-to ter­rain spread­ing be­tween the lifts and Monarch’s cat-ski­ing area.

With 350 an­nual inches of snow, rocks aren’t much of a worry at Monarch. Nei­ther are snow guns, be­cause there aren’t any. When the ice­bergs melt and the oceans rise, up­per el­e­va­tions in the mid­dle of the con­ti­nent will still get snow. Suck it, global warm­ing.

SKI COOPER Base el­e­va­tion: 10,500 feet

Leadville wants to make one thing per­fectly clear: It’s not nor­mal to get this high.

The gate­way to Ski Cooper, it’s 10,152 feet above sea level and the high­est in­cor­po­rated city in Amer­ica. It warns of an “alpine sub­arc­tic cli­mate.” Leadville’s recre­ation guide, “Win­ter at Al­ti­tude,” in­cludes an ar­ti­cle by a nurse that shrieks at the lack of oxy­gen in vis­i­tors’ blood. Along with the usual im­per­a­tives (“Stay hy­drated! Watch your al­co­hol in­take!”), the nurse con­tends “ac­cli­ma­tion may take… weeks.” Weeks?!

A few hun­dred feet higher than Leadville atop Ten­nessee Pass, Ski Cooper pre­dicts some “nau­sea” and “rest­less sleep,” yet it seems to carry a nor­mal num­ber of de­fib­ril­la­tors. This is by far

the mel­low­est of ski ar­eas with a 10K+ base. Com­pared to the oth­ers we’ve scoped, co­pi­ous greens and blues stripe Ski Cooper’s trail map. To get the goods at Cooper, one must hook up with Chicago Ridge Snow­cat Tours.

We, how­ever, stick to the lifts, which means Cooper is less about adren­a­line and more about his­tory. Leadville’s 19th-cen­tury min­ing boom brought grand ar­chi­tec­ture and, later, Na­tional His­toric Dis­trict sta­tus. In 1942, the U.S. Army built Camp Hale nearby. The Army’s famed 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion trained at rugged, moun­tain­ous Hale be­fore de­ploy­ing to Italy to bat­tle des­per­ate Ger­mans in the Dolomites. A mon­u­ment at Cooper’s en­trance de­clares “Fallen He­roes Trained Here” and mourns the 992 mem­bers of the 10th killed in ac­tion.

ARA­PA­HOE BASIN Base el­e­va­tion: 10,780 feet

New Mex­ico is Amer­ica’s fifth big­gest state and Colorado its eighth. Se­ri­ous mileage sep­a­rates the mem­bers of the 10K+ Club. As­phalt stretches up and over dis­tinct sub-ranges and then keeps go­ing, on and on. This is as much a road-trip story as a 10,000-foot tall tale.

Which is why I want to stran­gle Lee. He de­clines to let me drive his Jetta, then re­fuses to ap­proach 80 mph. He ex­plains he needs to “break in the en­gine slowly” be­cause it’s a rel­a­tively new car, which sounds like hokum some grandpa blath­ered in 1973. We are passed by Freight­lin­ers, mini­vans with Texas plates, and church ma­trons in Ford Tau­ruses.

Our trav­els bring us to a four-lane road­way in a com­mer­cial area. From a quar­ter mile away, I see a red light. The left lane is empty, though four cars are stopped sin­gle-file in the right lane. Lee, of course, pulls to a halt in the clogged right lane, for rea­sons only oxen and lem­mings could un­der­stand. Me, I’d rather die than per­pet­u­ate such slow-wit­ted mo­tor­ing.

We tur­tle our fifth day to Ara­pa­hoe Basin, the Sum­mit County clas­sic that rises 2,270 feet to the edema-in­duc­ing el­e­va­tion of 13,050. Know what likes high-al­ti­tude moun­tains even more than skiers? The wind. Old Ae­o­lus blows hard and of­ten atop A-Basin. Trees, as well as lift tow­ers, shiver. To­ward the top, soli­tary scrub pines spread far apart, the weak­lings long since weeded out by bru­tal gusts.

I’m en­joy­ing the open sight lines from the Mon­tezuma Bowl chair when a pa­trol­man be­low drops the rope bar­rier to Black Bear. At the top, I see my ri­vals sidestep­ping up the ridge to gain three more turns. Not me. I blast to the lower gate and be­come the third set of tracks to au­to­graph a slope of creamy vir­gin snow.

While Lee snaps pho­tos of lo­cals, I at­tempt A-Basin’s tra­di­tional test piece, huck­ing Pali Cor­nice onto Pali Face. I first skied this right after Pink Floyd’s The

Wall came out, on a high-school bus trip. Pali Face doesn’t ter­rify me now, as it did then. But it re­mains a com­mit­ting chal­lenge, proof that few moun­tains take your breath away like A-Basin.

LOVE­LAND SKI AREA Base el­e­va­tion: 10,800 feet

Just a touch north on the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide from Ara­pa­hoe Basin, Love­land is no stranger to wicked winds. In 2009,

Lee and I spent a win­dow-rat­tling night at Love­land’s 12,050-foot-high Ptarmi­gan Roost shel­ter. Re­vis­it­ing it now, we find it’s been com­pletely re­built, with stur­dier blond-wood walls and a huge deck. Atop the win­dows is a stained-glass pic­ture of a wind god­dess blow­ing on a moun­tain.

Love­land must be the most alpine re­sort in the Lower 48: a bald, white apex of 13,010 feet, the hunch­back of the Great Di­vide. The ridge run­ning to that 13,010-foot tip­py­top is so dra­matic and iconic, it bears the clever name The Ridge at Love­land.

It’s a per­fect March Wed­nes­day, with cobalt skies above and packed pow­der be­low. Lee and I ex­plore the en­tire breadth of Love­land’s 1,800 acres. Midafter­noon, we de­cide to split up: I’ll hike to and ski from the re­sort’s sum­mit, while Lee shoots from be­low. The boot­pack to barely tram­pled high-alpine snow is almost empty. The Den­ver throngs are likely at work. Per­haps the day’s tourists doubt their abil­ity to han­dle the Ridge: Judg­ing by li­cense plates in ev­ery sin­gle ski-area park­ing lot on our trip, this must be spring break in Texas. I drop a slot in the cliff band named Mar­mot, rel­ish­ing a mix of fluff, wind-buff, and glo­ri­ous soli­tude.

SIL­VER­TON MOUN­TAIN Base el­e­va­tion: 10,400 feet

After way too many Oreos, tor­tilla chips, crum­pled maps, and whiny Bob Dy­lan sanc­ti­monies (Lee pos­sesses no mu­sic cre­ated after 1975), we reach Sil­ver­ton, in south­west Colorado. If Sil­ver­ton Moun­tain isn’t the most fa­mous ski area in the 10K+ Club, it’s the most in­fa­mous. You’ve no doubt heard of its burly peaks, worm­hole chutes, lone chair­lift, and ut­ter lack of groomed or man­aged snow. Sil­ver­ton has no in­struc­tors and barely any pa­trol. Only cer­ti­fied moun­tain guides work here.

Sil­ver­ton wears its funk proudly. Its logo is a yel­low warn­ing tri­an­gle that de­picts a skier fall­ing face-first off a cliff. Its bath­rooms are crude wooden out­houses. Basearea fa­cil­i­ties con­sist of a dog-hair-lit­tered yurt called the Lodge. Most des­cents re­quire a lift back on a beat-up shut­tle bus with SIL­VER­TON MOUN­TAIN COR­REC­TIONAL

FA­CIL­ITY sten­ciled on the side. The ir­rev­er­ence plays well with the moun­tain’s cus­tomers: mav­er­ick ex­perts who laugh at dan­ger. They’ve been There and done That. They wear avy trans­ceivers here, though. Sil­ver­ton rises from the heart of the San Juan Moun­tains, the steep­est and per­haps the most slide-prone in Colorado.

Our guide, Chris En­gel­hardt, leads us off the lift (a time-tested veteran dou­ble that orig­i­nated in Mam­moth), past a cheer­ful sign pro­claim­ing, “You Could Die Here,” to a spot where we shoul­der our skis and com­mence hik­ing. The spring sun pen­e­trates our sweat glands, de­flow­er­ing them. Ev­ery hori­zon re­veals rocky be­he­moths sport­ing gi­ant alpine crowns and skinny couloirs.

As Lee shoots, Chris rails the White Wave from the Pope Face. We join him for hero turns down an idyl­lic cirque to The Lake. Says Chris, “After ski­ing here, ev­ery­one wants to come to the Lodge and revel in their con­quest.” Some pa­trons get squiffy quickly. “At 10,400 feet,” he ex­plains, “it doesn’t take much.”

Not want­ing to dis­re­spect the con­quest, I guz­zle a cel­e­bra­tory brew. Then Lee and I throw our boards in his cargo box for the fi­nal time. We de­part for the last of the 1,376 Jetta miles of our 10K+ Club trip. Lee puts the car in gear and put­ters down Sil­ver­ton’s gravel ac­cess road, slow­ing for a harm­less mud pud­dle.

The Jetta’s en­gine chat­ters, beg­ging for sus­te­nance.

“Hey, Lee,” I ex­claim. “That thing by your right foot is a gas pedal. Feel free to use it.”

Ski Santa Fe

Monarch

Monarch

U.S. 550

Monarch

Leadville

A-Basin

Sil­ver­ton

Monarch

A writer and a pho­tog­ra­pher set out to con­quer Amer­ica’s 10K+ Club—seven out of the eight re­sorts in the world with base ar­eas above 10,000 feet. They find it’s not at all like join­ing the Mile High Club, but the cli­max is sat­is­fy­ing nonethe­less.

Sil­ver­ton

Sil­ver­ton

Leadville

Monarch

Sil­ver­ton

Love­land

Lee re­torts » The al­ti­tude isn’t the only rea­son your lungs hurt, buddy.

Lee re­torts » If I didn’t get Rob up early he’d lan­guish in slovenly bliss. When we got this as­sign­ment I urged him re­peat­edly to call ahead a cou­ple of weeks and give our seven ski ar­eas a heads-up about when we’d be ar­riv­ing, but we wound up call­ing the af­ter­noon be­fore­hand at best, of­ten as we were en route. Rob can use all the early-riser ther­apy he can get.

Clock­wise from

left » Rob gets pumped to go the Gay Way at Ski Santa Fe; Rob gets his O face for the 17 inches that fell at Wolf Creek; a groomer waits for the snow to stop at Wolf Creek. Might be a while.

Op­po­site » Lee Co­hen’s new Jetta cau­tiously rounds a bend on Swan Moun­tain Road near A-Basin. If Rob Story were driv­ing, he’d al­ready be après­ing in Frisco.

The world

re­torts » Re­ally, Rob? So this means you’ll just re­treat along with the snow from the great­est chal­lenge our sport has ever faced? Help us out here.

Op­po­site » For­mer pro skier and Aspen

Ex­treme stunt­man Chris Car­son airs it out at A-Basin. Clock­wise from

far left » Monarch lo­cal Mark Co­hen; a typ­i­cal Love­land skier, who Rob says re­sem­bles Lee, searches for his car; Leadville, Colorado, is the high­est in­cor­po­rated city in the United States.

From top » A dog waits out­side A-Basin’s Sixth Al­ley Bar; Rob, who Lee likes to note is almost as bald as Love­land, hikes the up­per ridge; the el­e­va­tion of Love­land’s dirt lot is just un­der 11,000 feet.

Lee re­torts

» And die he might. Rob is uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged by all who know him as the most des­per­ate lead-foot ag­gro man ever to sit be­hind a wheel. For­give me for re­lax­ing dur­ing our Rocky Moun­tain high scenic cruise.

Lee re­torts » Ac­tu­ally, it was a brand-new car, driven off the lot the day be­fore the trip, and it did need to be bro­ken in.

Lee re­torts » I made the mis­take of let­ting Rob drive once so I could get a cou­ple of car shots, and he reck­lessly backed up into down­hill traf­fic at the top of Love­land Pass.

Lee re­torts » Not only did I have to lis­ten to Story’s bull­shit the en­tire trip, I get to re­visit it again here. Cer­tainly a word­smith such as he could find bet­ter filler than a run­ning com­men­tary on me driv­ing slower than he would like. Thanks, Rob.

Be­ing high is some­thing Rob Story has of­ten en­joyed, and not just for the pur­poses of this story. (See his col­umn on Amend­ment 64 on page 20 for more.)

» From top:

Sil­ver­ton’s high-tech skier trans­port sys­tem;

Sil­ver­ton coowner Jen Brill over­sees her min

ions; with turns like th­ese six days

after a storm, Sil­ver­ton guide Chris En­gel­hardt

finds am­ple re­ward for his

pa­tience.

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