Autumn 2000   
Why ski the Rockies?
The snow, of course!
Regular readers of my Breakthrough On Skis site will know that when it comes to ski destinations, I seldom play favorites: I've been lucky to ski around the world - from the Alps to Japan, from Alaska to Chile. I'm not exactly a stay at home skier. But it's no accident that I settled in the Colorado Rockies, a very special place to live, and to ski. So I thought I'd begin this season's series of ski travel pieces with a few reflections, general reflections, on skiing in the Rockies:

Why ski the Rockies? Actually, I've got a number of reasons - all far more persuasive than George Leigh Mallory's reason for climbing Everest: "Because it's there." But the best reason may be: "Because the snow is there" And what snow!

Snow is at the heart of the matter. Rocky Mountain skiing is quite different than anything you can find out there (the Far West), up there (the Pacific Northwest) or back there (the East Coast), not because they attach lift tickets differently, or ski with different technique or different equipment, but because the snow itself is so different. To some degree snow is simply lighter and drier throughout the entire Rocky Mountain region than anywhere else in the country. And this is because the Rockies enjoy (and occasionally suffer from) an altogether different climate - a so-called "continental" rather than a "maritime" climate.

All other ski regions in the US, it turns out (and especially California's Sierra Nevada mountains) are quite close to coasts, to oceans. And water means wet, wet sand at the beach, wet snow at Tahoe, or at Sugarbush Vermont, or at White Pass Washington. But when storms travel a thousand miles or so, over intervening ranges and rain-shadowed desert basins, losing moisture all the way, what they finally drop on mountain ranges in the center of the continent is light dry fluff. The name's the same (only Eskimos, we're told, have over twenty different words for different types of snow) and so is the color, white on white on white, but there the similarity ends. Rocky Mountain snow is drier, lighter, fluffier than I can possibly tell you in words, than you can possibly imagine if you haven't yet been there, skied there.

You stand holding two hands full of snow, and squeeze them into two fists. In one hand, the moist clamy white stuff compacts into a hard heavy ball (the sort of snowball you might do some real damage with). In your other hand, light puffs of snow escape between fingers and you can't even make a snowball. That's the comparison I'd have you make, if you could reach across Nevada and Utah and grab a handful of Sierra snow in your left hand and Rocky Mountain snow in your right.

But what's the importance of such a difference in snow? Of light, dry "continental" snow versus wetter, heavier "maritime" snow? It's simple: you're going to ski better, much better, on light, dry snow. That's a promise. You'll ski better in the Rockies than you do at home. There. The cat's out of the bag. This is the real reason skiers from all over, from both coasts, not just the middle of the country, or our neighbors from Texas, tend to get hooked on Rocky Mountain skiing and return, year after year after year.

This promise - that you'll actually ski better in the Rockies - is not clearly articulated on the cover of any of the hundreds of thousands of ski/tourist brochures that tout the virtues of the ski experience in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana or even New Mexico. Yet an enormous segment of the tourist economy of these states depends on this particular promise being legitimate. And it is. I've never met a skier yet (myself included) that didn't fall for this delicious ego-stroking snow. You will too. No matter what your current favorite ski area, you'll eventually be tempted by the Rockies. Worse, you'll eventually become hooked. Perfect snow is strong drug.

A final personal confession: I'm a transplanted Californian myself, a ski instructor/ski writer who wandered innocently out to Colorado for a winter season almost 25 years ago. I'm still here. Ad the fact that I'm still here has a lot to do with the snow. I love this snow, these mid-continent mountains. I'm not sure I've ever met a skier who doesn't.

    Autumn 2000  
photo above:
The Rocky Mountains near Aspen, Colorado
photo © Burnham Arndt
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.