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Pre-season skiing in the Rockies
YOU CAN’T WAIT.
Every year it's the same story. Autumn aspens are still painting the high valleys their surrealistic shades of yellow, gold and red...weeks to go...and all I can think about is snow. Every cloud on the horizon promises snow, every dream is about snow, impatience grows. Finally, the peaks begin to turn white. First the "Fourteeners," the highest summits, then the satellite peaks, and gradually the snowline drops, drops, week by week, toward timberline, toward the valley floors, toward November, December, high winter at last...and skiing again!
In Colorado we're lucky. We can watch this slow, exciting arrival of winter in the high country, even from downtown Denver, instead of merely ticking off the days on a calendar. And we're lucky too in the number of early-season, actually pre-season, skiing and ski-touring options we can find long before any proper ski areas have opened, long before any slopes or tracks have been packed. For the fanatic, early-season skiing may be vital to mental health; for any skier it's a bonus.
How long do you have to wait? Where can you go? The strategy for taking advantage of the earliest possible snow in Colorado (and throughout the Rocky Mountains) is fairly simple. Many of the roads in this mile-high-plus state cross high passes at, or even above timberline. A number of these passes are closed in winter. But there's a wonderful grace period, before the snow becomes deep enough to close these passes or to open up good skiing and ski touring in the valleys below,a grace period when the avid skier can still drive up to a preseason ski paradise. Or almost a paradise, for in late October and early November snow conditions are variable and tricky, and one's ski bases often bring back engraved evidence of why these are called the "Rocky Mountains." But in a sense, all skiing is good skiing. And when you're hurting for an early season fix, any skiing is magical.
Which passes? Any Colorado road map will do double duty as an early-season skier’s guide book; but here are some tips: The easternmost passes of the Rockies, leading from Colorado's major urban centers up over the "Front Range," are less attractive for early-season skiing than the passes behind them. This is because of wind action which scours, devours and strips away the early snow cover. The Rocky Mountain National Park region around Estes Park, for example, is a complete washout because of typical high winds. And Guanella and Loveland passes just west of Denver (the one a minor dirt road above Georgetown, the other a well known pass above the Eisenhower tunnel on I 70) seldom offer early-season snow as good as the Vail pass/Shrine pass area, just one subrange further to the west. Some passes let you ski downward from the road, others seem to insist that you shoulder your skis or glue on climbing skis to climb another thousand feet or so before skiing back to the car.
All you really need to do is comb your map for passes around 11,000 feet or higher. Drive up and take a look, pile out with a grin on your face, and start skiing. In the Crested Butte/Gunnison area there are half a dozen such passes. In southwestern Colorado, Molas Divide, Red Mountain Pass, and Lizard Head Pass all offer early season skiing....
Both cross-country and downhill buffs can enjoy skiing from the roads that cross high passes in the Rockies, but they'll be heading for different slopes, pursuing different visions. The slopes leading downward from these high passes can be precipitous, suitable goals for Alpine short turners, or very accomplished telemarkers. Whereas the best early-season Nordic touring almost invariably follows the ridgelines that lead up and away from these passes. These meandering ridges are more scenic; generally less steep and technically challenging; and are a good deal safer than the steeper slopes, bowls and gullies dropping down from them. Remember, pre-season skiing, in the Rockies, or elsewhere, is skiing without the benefit of ski patrollers and their snow-safety expertise. Remember too that there is always some danger of unstable early-season TG snow (a perfect recipe for avalanches) on North-facing slopes at higher altitudes in Colorado.
In fact, avalanche hazard is the downside of all pre-season ski descents from high, vehicle-accessed passes. Early snow, in the Rockies especially, can be very, very unstable. No ski run is worth getting buried for. So I’d say that an avalanche awareness course and adequate avalanche rescue equipment, beepers, shovels, etc., are vital ingredients for this sort of early season skiing.
Complementing these annual, pre-season sentimental journeys back into the early days of my ski fever, are the skis I keep around for just such jaunts. I don't go as far as recommending such antique boards to anyone else, but please, don't use your best skis this time of year or you'll be sorry.
For me, early snow is the perfect excuse to touch base with the romantic, low-tech (or no-tech) past of our sport. By the time I break out my modern skis for the first lift rides around Thanksgiving, my skier’s balance will be fine tuned once again. I will have survived another long, snowless off-season. Amazing.
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