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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
» 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