Saturday, April 5, 2014

China Peak, near Fresno, California

China Peak was a mixed bag.  I had several experiences here, both good and bad.

First the big surprise. Fresno is a big place, criss-crossed by at least 3 major multi-lane freeways.  It seemed larger and busier than I expected.  Traffic moved fast at about 75 - 80 miles per hour.

The road to the ski area, highway 168, began as a freeway, and traffic was moving so fast that I expected to cover the 50 miles in maybe 45 minutes or less.  But, the road soon narrows down to just 2 lanes, and then it gets very serpentine and hilly, forcing one to slow down to just 30 mph or less.  Thus, the whole trip took about an hour and a half.

All the way from Fresno, there were no signs anywhere for the China Peak ski area.  Only signs for Huntington Lake.  As it turns out, China Peak is within a couple of miles from Huntington Lake, but how would a visitor from afar know that?  The ski area could definitely use some more signage.

Even along the mountainous road, there were no signs to reassure you that you are on the way to China Peak, and one does need reassurance, because the road seems to hit a peak and then starts descending down the other side of the hill, and I wondered whether I might have missed a turnoff to the ski area.  The only sign I saw finally was a very small one, placed just 2 or 3 miles before the ski area, after many an anxious mile.

Thinking it would be a short trip from Fresno, I wasn't concerned that my gas tank was less than half full.  But by the time I got close to the ski area, the warning light came on, telling me I probably only have another gallon left in the tank.  I was in trouble.  I couldn't simply coast back down the hill toward Fresno, because the road went both up and down several hills.  Fortunately, I was able to get gas from a snowmobile renting outfit just 2 miles from the ski area, but they charged me $5.99 per gallon, at a time when the price of regular gas was around $3.80 or less.

Then came the most unpleasant surprise:  I couldn't get a free lift ticket as per the Powder Alliance deal because it was a Saturday (the one black-out day of the week)!  I had completely forgotten about that little detail.  I had originally planned this trip very meticulously to avoid visiting a Powder Alliance ski area on a Saturday.  But, my plans were messed up when ski areas started closing everywhere.  I was forced to come up with an alternate plan.

When Angel Fire (NM) and Arizona Snowbowl were both closed, I decided to ski Santa Fe (NM), Ski Apache (NM) and Sunrise Park (AZ) instead.  The reason I chose to replace 2 closed ski areas with 3 was that Sunrise Park was open only on Friday, Satruday and Sunday (this late in the season), and it was only the beginning of the week, so I had to fill in the days with other ski areas so I could hit Sunrise Park on Friday.  That worked well, but I forgot that this would place me at China Peak on a Saturday.

On some level, I can understand that the Powder Alliance ski areas would want to have Saturdays as black-out dates, but on the other hand, it seems a little pointless and even mean to do that.  The Powder Alliance ski areas are located so far apart from each other that it's very unlikely that anyone would simply hop over for just a weekend of skiing.

It is much more likely that someone like me would be on a long distance tour to take a look at all (or at least some of) the Powder Alliance resorts. In my own case, I had already traveled about 4,000 miles, and my last leg of the trip, from Sunrise Park (AZ) to China Peak (CA) consisted of about 12 hours of driving.

So, it came as unpleasant cold shower to be told that I now have to pay the full lift ticket price just because I didn't get there fast enough to make it on a Friday instead of a Saturday.

But I was there, and I didn't have the luxury to wait another day, so I paid the lift ticket and went to check out the ski area.

Some of the lifts were already closed for the season.  Another cold shower, ... but I was used to that by this point, as several other ski areas along the way were also only partially open.

One other unpleasant surprise was that China Peak has installed one of those infernal moving carpets at the loading station of one of their lifts.  It's supposed to facilitate loading, but it is awkward even for advanced skiers.  The carpet is made of non-slippery material that grips your feet and you can't simply slide your ski sideways if you lose your balance. Well, at least they stopped at doing this to just one of the lifts, as compared to Bridger Bowl, Montana, which installed these moving carpets on all their lifts. I really hope other ski areas will NOT follow suit.

China Peak seems to have lots of glades open for skiing.  There were glades everywhere.  But, there were also many tree stumps showing, as well as some downed trees.  One would have to be here on a really good snow year, when all these obstacles are well covered up.

There are lots of blue cruisers as well.  It was a warm, sunny day,  and it was almost surprising that there was still so much snow left despite the heat.  Down in the Fresno to Sacramento valley, the temperature was approaching 80 degrees, and even here at China Peak, it was in the high 30s.   And yet the snow stayed quite good, at least on the groomed slopes.

Huntington Lake was quite visible in the distance from the upper half of the ski area.  It is about 2 miles away, but it looks closer in some of the photos, due to the compression effect caused by the zoom lens.

There were lots of people on the slopes, but it didn't feel over-crowded.  People gave each other enough space so one didn't feel in danger of colliding with another skier or snowboarder.  In fact, there was a somewhat relaxed atmosphere, with people enjoying the sun and each other's company.

I would love to come back here again at a time when there is more snow on the ground, when all the lifts are open, and when there is enough snow coverage and good powder that one could ski all the glades and other ungroomed terrain, which there is plenty of.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sunrise Park (Arizona) - My best run on this whole trip!

Sunrise Park (AZ) is a great place and a wonderful memory. It is special for a number of reasons:

1.  It is the southernmost large ski area in the United States.  It is also Arizona's largest ski area (800 acres). Only Arizona Snowbowl beats it in vertical. Mt. Lemon (near Tucson, AZ) is father south, but it is comparatively tiny, with only one ski lift.
2.  Sunrise Park offers the longest season in Arizona. All the other ski areas in Arizona were closed by the time I skied here on Friday, April 4th. 
3.  It is on Apache land.  So, even though I didn't get to ski at Ski Apache (New Mexico), I still got to ski at a place owned and operated by an Apache tribe.
4.  I had one of the most pleasurable runs of the whole trip here, on the Maverick trail.

Sunrise Park is located near the twin towns of Springerville and Eagar in eastern Arizona.  The town of Springerville is on Highway 60, which connects Socorro (NM) on the east with Show Low (AZ) on the west.

The official mailing address for Sunrise Peak is in the small town of Greer, but when driving from Springerville along highway 260, don't turn into Greer.  Instead, drive another 10 miles farther west until you see a sign for "Sunrise".

Sunrise Park ski area consists of 3 separate peaks, named Sunrise, Apache, and Cyclone peaks.  Apache Peak is the highest, at 11,100'.  The other two are both at an elevation of 10,700'.   The base of the ski are is at 9,200 feet.   The vertical is the second highest in Arizona.

On a chairlift ride, I chatted with some locals.  I told them that I am here only because the Arizona Snowbowl is already closed.  They told me they had skied at the Arizona Snowbowl just 2 weeks earlier, but they added: "Sunrise Park is so much better!"

The ski area is surprisingly well developed.  The terrain is served by 1 high speed quad, 2 fixed quads, 4 triple chairs, 1 double chair, and 2 surface tow lifts.

It also has lots of lodges.  In addition to the main base area, there is also a mid-mountain restaurant where several trails meet, as well as a lodge at the top of Sunrise Peak. And there is another lodge at the base of the two lifts leading to Apache Peak and Cyclone Peak.

My best run of the whole trip was here, on the Maverick trail.  Most other trails were well groomed with typical Spring conditions, icy in the early morning, and then softening up later in the day.  But, the Maverick trail had not been groomed in at least a week or two (or more). There were signs of some very gentle moguls under a cover of a few inches of fresh snow.

Surprisingly, nobody had skied it yet since the last snowfall.  So, I had the pleasure of leaving my own ski tracks in the snow.  I stopped a few times to look up and look at my signature tracks in the snow.  Each time, I marveled at the fact that nobody else was coming down to leave their own tracks.

The Maverick trail starts near the top of the Sunrise Peak,  under the top of the express quad lift.  At first it is steep, but the slope gets gradually less steep toward the bottom.

Why was this trail left untouched for so long?  Most likely for a number of reasons:

1.  It is tucked away out of sight, away from the obvious fall line, so it requires some planning to get there. Anyone who simply follows the fall line from the top of the lift will end up on a long ridge that gradually curves back to the base area along the right side of the trail map. Lots of trails branch off from that ridge. That is where most skiers go, simply following the fall line.  But, to get to the Maverick trail, you have to turn sharply left, behind the restaurant at the top, and keep on circling to skier's left.

2. The Maverick trail is sandwiched between a blue trail and a challenging never-groomed and moguled black diamond trail right under the lift line.  Those seeking challenge will try to ski right under the lift (the black Lupe trail).  Those shying away from challenge, will prefer to stay on the blue trail (Crown Dancer).  The Maverick trail between these two is in no-man's land in between: not challenging enough for the tough crowd and too challenging for most intermediates (especially when it is not groomed).

So, that's how to find special secret spots:  go to places that are away from the direct fall line from the top of the lift and that are too much work for intermediates but not quite enough challenge for the advanced skiers.  That's where you will find your own personal paradise.

That's where I found mine! It just got better and better as I went.  I couldn't believe I had this slope all to myself!  I was giddy with pleasure!

Sking, driving, and writing this blog

Hi folks, 

If you are following this blog daily, I apologize for not having the time or the energy to update the blog in the past few days.  I will post these updates in a few days. 

There are 3 elements to this kind of a road trip:  the skiing, the driving, and writing the blog.  The skiing is plain fun.  The driving is fun in places, but it can also be tedious and long, but it's part of the equation, it's a necessity.  But writing this blog is a luxury, which I can't always afford.  I am simply not getting enough sleep. If I ski all day, and then drive until late into the night, there is simply no time left to write the blog, as much as I enjoy doing it. 

But stay tuned for the last few updates. I have had a few great days lately.  For example: 

1.  Sunrise Park (Arizona) was fantastic and surprising in many ways.  It's on Apache territory, and it is the only ski area in Arizona that is still open.  I left my mark on the mountain, on the Maverick trail.  Just wait till you see the photos!   I had here one of the best runs of the whole trip!

2. China Peak (California) was also a pleasant surprise, although it came with a side dish of a few unpleasant experiences.  Among other things, I got myself in the worst possible jam here, but it all ended well.  I will explain --- after I first get some sleep. 

3. Sierra-at-Tahoe (California) will be the last stop on my road trip.  I will ski there on Sunday. I have skied there before and already have a few favorite spots which I am planning to revisit. 

The weather has been great.  Plenty of sunshine, ideal for taking pictures.  It will just take me some time to process them and post them here. 

I hope to do most of this on Monday, ... so you might see these last 3 stories here on Tuesday. 


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ski Apache (New Mexico)

Ski Apache is near the town of Ruidoso, almost straight south of Santa Fe. After miles and miles of solitary driving from Santa Fe on straight 2-lane highways where everyone seems to drive 75 - 80 mph and there are no speed traps, and very few cars, you suddenly come across the town of Ruidoso - which means "Noisy" in Spanish.  I asked several locals, and nobody knows why that name.  Later, I found out it is because of a noisy river: Rio Ruidoso. To name the town, they simply dropped the word Rio. Ruidoso is quite a tourist mecca, a year-round resort, somewhat comparable to Bend, Oregon.

Ski Apache is quite a sizable ski area, offering almost 2,000 vertical feet, and served by a gondola plus 6 other lifts (not counting a beginner lift at the base).  The blue structure in the photo is the base of the gondola, located at the level of the parking lot, so no climbing is needed.  I like that!.

In addition to the visible part of the mountain, there are three other lifts that are not visible in the photo, one serving a ridge on the left (out of the picture), and the other 2 lifts are serving the side of the mountain on the right of the picture (out of sight).

Another disappointment for me.  The Ski Apache ski area has just closed a few days ago. Never ski the southern States after the middle of March.  By the 3rd weekend in March, most ski areas will be closing.  A new storm just last night brought a few inches of fresh snow to many ski areas north of here, including Lake Tahoe, Utah, Colorado, and just the northern part of New Mexico (Santa Fe, Taos, Angel Fire), ... but there was no trace of it here in southern New Mexico.

So, my visit here turned more into a driving and sightseeing adventure, but an interesting one.  I drove up the 12 mile road from Ruidoso to Ski Apache. It's a steep and winding road, beautiful, but a bit scary in places. It rises fast to the higher elevations.  It's amazing how quickly the temperature dropped in just those 12 miles, about a degree and a half per mile.

Ruidoso sits at an elevation of 6,900 feet.  The top of Ski Apache is at 11,500 feet.  At the start of the 12 mile road to the ski area, the temperature was 43ºF.  At milepost 4, the temperature was down to 35º, at milepost 5 it was 32º, and at the ski area it was down to 26ºF.

The road has been cut and blasted from a very steep hill that shows several areas of loose rock that had to be reinforced and stabilized so as not to slide down. I wouldn't want to drive this road when it is icy!  When you look down from the higher elevations, the view is just like from an airplane.

Many of the more prominent turns in the road have been given colorful names, such as: Horseshoe bend, Oak grove, Shady Lane, Texas bend, Axle bend, Cat House, Windy Point, and Spring.  By the time you get to Spring, you can see the ski area.

Much of the snow has melted, but the terrain seems interesting.  I would certainly like to come back some day to ski it, ... but I don't particularly like the very long solitary roads and the long time it takes to drive to this area of New Mexico. 

I am beginning to understand what John Andrew in his journeys to ski all of North America, has called the "mind-numbing" hours spent on the road.  Here are a couple of pictures of the endless road.  

There are many like it.  This one happens to be highway 60 about 50 miles west of Socorro. 

I stopped at thist particular spot on the long straight highway 60, because there was a good view here of the VLA -- Very Large Array radio telescope, consisting of 27 large dish antennas spread out over several miles and connected to form a radio telescope that is larger than its components. It acts as if it were a single telescope 22 miles in diameter.  Each dish is about 80 feet in diameter, weighs over 200 tons, and can be moved on rail tracks to fine tune the telescope and achieve various configurations.

In the photo, in addition to the big dish in the foreground, you can also discern two other dishes in the distance. This is where some serious space exploration is happening, including the study of radio galaxies, quasars, pulsars, supernova remnants, gamma ray bursts, radio-emitting stars, the sun and planets, black holes, and the hydrogen gas that constitutes a large portion of the Milky Way galaxy.

As for me, back on Earth, I drove west and stopped at the first town I got to in Arizona.  It's actually a set of two towns: Springerville and Eagar.  After miles and miles of desert-like nothingness, here is suddenly a town with several motels, a huge Safeway, and all the other amenities of civilization, such as gas stations, television, internet access, etc. 

Even though I am now in Arizona, this is still Apache country.  The actual county name is Apache County.  This area is described as "the coolest part of Arizona".

The Sunrise Park ski area is about a 30 minute drive south of Springerville.  And, yes, it's still open!   The last ski area still open in Arizona! I will ski there in the morning, and then head northwest to California.  My next destination is China Peak, near Fresno.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Santa Fe ski area (New Mexico)

The ski area is only 15 miles from the town of Santa Fe.  It offers 1,725 vertical feet, 660 acres, served by 1 quad, 2 triples, and 1 double chair, and that's not counting the beginner lifts.  The highest point is at 12,075 feet, but the view is better from another peak, the one served by the Santa Fe Super Chief quad chair, which is at 11,250 feet.

From that lower summit, you can see the town of Santa Fe below, and looking in that direction, you can also barely see two other ski areas in the distance: Sandia Peak (Watermellon) on your left and Pajarito (Little bird) on your right. 

I visited here on a Wednesday at the beginning of April, near the end of the season, and I saw very few people on the slopes. On an average run, I saw maybe just one or two other people.  On one occasion, I ran into a group of 4 friendly people who stopped for a breather right next to the trail sign for the "Lobo" trail.  Lobo means "wolf" in Spanish.   One of them, Paul,, a friendly man, took a photo of me next to the sign. 

I love it when ski areas get creative with trail names. 
Near the edge of the Santa Fe ski area, on the far right of the trail map, there are two trails side by side: 
a)  Desafio = "Challenge" in Spanish, and 
b)  Muerte = "Death" in Spanish

Hmmm, which one shall we ski? Well, I did them both.

I tried the Challenge trail first.  It turned out to be quite a challenge, because it was a mogul field top to bottom.  I survived it unscathed, but it was a workout. 

A young lady, the only other person I saw there, decided to take her skis off and walk down.

On the next run down, I embraced "Muerte".  Death was so much easier.  It was perfectly groomed, and it was obvious that they hold ski races on that slope.  I'll take Death any time over Challenge!!! 

Overall, I had a great time skiing here.  It was a beautiful bluebird day, and once the sun softend up the snow, you could ski almost anywhere. 

Santa Fe ski area also has lots of tree skiing, many of them steep glades.  On this day, nobody was skiing there, because in the shade of the trees, the snow remains quite hard and icy.  But, all these glades were so obviously all skied out.  It is obvious that the locals love to challenge themselves in the trees.

New Mexico Ski Areas -- Change of plans

New Mexico has brought me several surprises, both good and bad, forcing me to change my travel plans.

The first pleasant surprise came when I first arrived in New Mexico, driving down from Colorado toward the town of Questa, driving on Colorado highway 159, which turns into New Mexico highway 522. At Rio Costilla Park, right next to the junction with highway 196, there was a large sign that said something about ski areas.  My car went by too fast, so I made a U-turn and came back. 

The sign lists most of the ski areas in New Mexico. Not all of them, just the closest ones.  "Pajarito", "Sandia",  and "Ski Apache" are not listed.   Still, how cute!  And how welcoming to skiers!   I have not seen such a sign on any of the other State borders I have crossed. 

My main purpose in visiting New Mexico this time was to ski at Angel Fire, which is one of the 12 Powder Alliance resorts.  Unfortunately, the motel manager in the town of Questa, where I spent the night, told me that Angel Fire and Red River have both closed for the season just the previous weekend.. Bummer!  I had checked the snow conditions before starting the trip, and seeing that there was enough snow, I just assumed that the ski areas would remain open. 

But, now I had to re-evaluate the whole situation.  I found out that the Arizona Snowbowl (my next destination) was also closed. All closed the previous weekend, around March 23.

Now that I have driven all the way to New Mexico, it seems a pity to just go home with nothing, so I checked and found out that several other ski areas are still open, so I made a change of plans.

The Sipapu ski area, just about 20 miles from Taos, boasts the longest winter season in New Mexico, but they are now open only on weekends, and it is only Monday night as I am making these plans.  I can't stick around New Mexico that long.  So, instead, I made the following plan: 

Tuesday (April 1) -- Ski Taos, N.M.
Wednesday (April 2) -- Ski the Santa Fe ski area
Thuirsday (April 3) -- Ski Apache  (near the town of Ruidoso)
Friday (april 4) -- Ski Sunrise Park (Arizona)
Saturday (April 5) - Ski China Peak (near Fresno, CA)
Sunday (April 6) -- Drive back home. .  

Yes, I know.  It's a disaster.  I don't get to ski Angel Fire (NM), or the Ariizona Snowbowl (AZ), or the Mountain High ski area (CA), because they are all closed.   I also decided to skip Sierra-at-Tahoe, mainly because I have already skied there several times before, and also because I can already see that I will be very tired by the end of the week. 

But, on the other hand, the adventure gets more interesting with the addition of new ski areas such as Santa Fe, Ski Apache, and Sunrise Park

I am writing this on Tuesday evening.  As it turns out, I didn't ski Taos. I made a decisio9n to skip it for a number of reasons: 

a) I was simply too tired to get up early.  I just had to sleep in a bit.
b) I had skied at Taos before, so there was no urgency to revisit it. 
c) I wanted to at least take a look at Red River and Angel Fire ski areas, both of which were on a road circling the mountains on the opposite side of Taos.

Red River and Angel Fire are both all-season resorts, but I arrived during the brief change-over from Winter to Summer mode.  The skiers are all gone, but the mountain bikers, the hikers, andr the fishermen have not arrived yet. 

Red River town and ski area came up very quickly after I left Questa.  The short ride was beautiful.  The road followed a river, appropriately named Red River, and the trees along its banks were spaced so wonderfully apart that it looked just like a park.  There were several campgrounds along the river.  A sign posted along the road said that this is one of the most beautiful areas of New Mexico, and I agree. 

Red River ski area was perfectly visible from the road.  It offers some surprisingly steep terrain, 1,600 vertical feet, 51 trails, 30% of them advanced, and served by 2 double chairs and 3 triple chairs.  

The slopes I saw from below, seemed to have enough snow to ski, but I guess they just didn't have enough guests to keep the lifts running.   The town itself has a definte Bavarian theme (just like Leavenworth, WA).  Many of the restaurants and shops have German names.  For example, I stopped at a market to get some food and drinks, and the place was called the "Markt" (German word for "Market").

At the bottom of one of the ski trails, there is an old Tucker sno-cat machine, which was apparently made in Oregon, maybe in Medford (though the letter "M" is missing). 

  Angel Fire is about 30 miles south of Red River.  It is also a resort town, but it feels very different.  It's not Bavarian, and it's not enclosed in a narrow canyon.  The town of Angel Fire is sprawling in an open plane, at the end of which rises the mountain with the ski area. 
From a distance, Angel Fire ski trails seemed mellow.  From close up, I was impressed by how very long their main chairlift is.  That lift takes you to the top of the mountain, from where you have a cluster of black diamond trails then followed by blue trails that take you all the way to the bottom. 

There is one more lift somewhere at the far end of the mountain, out of sight.  On top of that, there are a couple of shorter lifts serving beginner and lower intermediate terrain near  the base area. 

The big white slope that is most visible from the base area seems fairly sizable, but it turns out that this is only a very small corner of the ski area.  Most of the other trails are somewhat narrower but very long. The wide patch of white at the base was now showing some brown sports and the snow had melted from some parts of it.  But, according to a local I chatted up there, all this melting has happened within the last week.  He said: "What a difference from March 23, which was our last day of operations!"

The one thing I didn't like about Angel Fire is the same thing I don't like about many other ski areas as well.  They make you climb uphill a long ways carrying skis, breaking up a sweat before you even begin skiing.  The parking lots are on a gently sloping terrain.  The later you arrive, the longer uphill trek you will have.  And when you have finally walked uphill  the length of the whole parking lot, the terrain then gets steeper and you are faced with a wall of base area buildings towering above you.  You have to negotiate a relatively narrow path between them still going uphill, and then followed by several sets of stairs. 

Obviously, many others are displeased by this long climb, and parents with kids would love to be able to shuttle the kids up to an unloading area next to the last set of stairs.  But, no, Angel Fire doesn't permit dropping people off.  There is a sign on the approach road that says so. I am not sure why they don't allow this.  There seems to be plenty of space for cars to quickly unload their passengers and then turn around and drive back to the parking lot. Everyone has to endure the uphill trek and the stairs.The ones in the picture are just the last in a series of stairs.

But, overall, for my taste, both Red River and Angel Fire look like fun places to ski.  I would have loved to have skied them both. 

If you come to New Mexico, I would recommend that you spend a week and do the whole circular tour, starting with Santa Fe, Sipapu, Taos, Red River, and Angel Fire.  After skiing at Angel Fire, you can complete the circle by driving back to the town of Santa Fe. Just make sure you do it before the middle of March.

As for me, I am off to ski at Santa Fe tomorrow, and then Ski Apache the next day.  Ski Apache is farther south, near the town of Ruidoso, and it is not part of the above mentioned circle of ski areas. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Living in my ski clothes! Part of my routine!

During the first 4 days of this road trip, I have been living in my ski clothes, taking them off only to slip into my night-wear at the motel at the end of the day. 

I have been doing this on my day trips to the mountain for ever.  I simply don't like having to chaqnge clothes more than necessary.  I am going skiing, so ski clothes is all I need.  I put them on in the morning, and I don't take them off unttil I return home.  For those rare occasions when I get soaked wet due to the weather, I usually carry some spare clothing in my ski bag, but I hardly ever use itt. 

In the past 4 years or so, especially since I have been doing more Spring SKiing, where I often get wet from the inside, from my own perspiration, I got into the habit of carrying my street clothes with me, and I now often do change somewhere at some secluded spot on the way back down from the mountain.  I prefer showing my naked behind to the birds and the bees than to change clothes in some smelly restroom.

But, on this road trip, I wentt back to my old practice of living in my ski clothes. Several reasons.  For one, I don't feel the need to change. I am pacing myself for the long journey, so I am trying not to break a sweat. Also, there is always an urgency to keep driving on. There are usually many hours of driving to the next destaintion, and I want to do most of the driving during the day time, ... so no time for changing clothes.  I just remove my ski boots and my ski jacket, and I am ready for the road.

Even when I got somewhat wet from the drizzle at Snowbasin, the wetness was mainly on the outside of my clothing, and whatever wetness was on the outside of my ski pants had completely evaporated and dried out long before I reached my next motel. I was comfy.

Only on the fifth day of the trip, once I reached New Mexico, the temperature reached the 60s, and it was just too hot in the car to drive in my ski pants, so I was forced to change into my street clothes.

But putting on my ski clothes first thing in the morning is part of an overall routine of mine. The idea is that by the time I get to the ski area, I want to be ready to go skiing, and not fiddle with a dozen otther things in the parking lot.  So, as soon as I wash my face and shave in the morning, I always put on sunscreen, regardless of the weather.  Being part of my morning routine ensures that I'll never forget the sunscreen.

I also have a "final touch-up" routine on the first ride up.  Unless there's a blizzard raging, I am usually too hot to zip up everything just for the long walk through the parking lot. So, I usually finish getting ready on the first chairlift ride. That's when I finally pull up all my zippers, and also reach into my pocket for some vaseline3 lotion with an SPF of 15, to protect my lips from both the sun and the wind.  

And that's also when I usually put on my gloves for the first time. Up till that first ride up, my gloves are usually dangling from my ski jacket, where I found a way to attache them to one of my pocket zippers using one of those plastic loops used to hold a lift ticket.

When visiting a new ski area (or even an old one for me), I always ask for a trail map, and the best time to consult the map and plan the next run is on the chairlift.  Too many people don't even start thinking about where they want to go next until they unload from the lift at the top.  It may be cold and breezy at the top, but that's where they congregate to talk about where to go next. To me, that's a waste of precious time. There's more than enough time to consult the trail map during the ride up, and to talk to your ski buddies about it while still on the chair...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Crested Butte (Colorado)

Crested Butte is a world class resort inconveniently located for most Americans.  It offers 2,775 vertical feet of lift served terrain, plus another 300 feet of hike-to terrain.   It has 1,547 acres, served mostly by high speed quad chairlifts and a couple of T-bars to access the highest peaks.

The terrain truly has something for everyone. There are at least 3 lifts serving long beginner trails. There are long intermediate, blue cruisers, some of them marked as "double blue". There are a few black trails, but there is an abundance of double-black terrain, trees and moguls. If you want challenge, you'll find it here for sure! 

On top of that, the resort is located at a high altitude. The base area is at 9,375 feet, and the summit is at 12,162 feet.  Skiing hard or hiking at that altitude will leave you out of breath very quickly.  But it also means that the snow will be pretty dry and fluffy.

There are just two bad things:  location and atmosphere. 

Location.  The place is hard to access.  It's a long drive no matterr which direction you come from.  It's 228 miles from Denver (a drive of over 4 hours).  Driving from Saqlt Lake City takes about 7 hours.  You can fly into Gunnison airport, but winter flights are notoriously unreliable, and then you still need to rent a car to get to Crested Butte. 

Atmosphere.   For lack of a better word, this is a combination of factors contributing to the overall "atmosphere." of the place.  The place feels like it's made for rich people.  Creste3d Butte is the most "posh" and exclusive of the 12 ski areas forming the Powder Alliance.

Sure, Snowbasin has its beautiful day lodges with the fancy carpeting, but that is all openly shared with everyone equally. It was mainly an effort to put on our best face for the world when the Winter Olympic Games came to Utah.  And, yes, the lift tickets at Snowbasin are expensive at $86, but Crested Butte charges a $98 lift ticket. On top of that, Crested Butte is full of restricted, private parking, private condos, private "clubs", exclusive communities, none of it very welcoming to the first time visitor.

Here are a few more examples of what creates the Crested Butte "atmosphere".

a) The lodging gets more and more expensive the closer you are to the ski area.  Even lodging in the town of Gunnison, 30 miles away, is more expensive than in other local towns, such as Montrose that are farther away. 

b) At the ski area, real estate is at such a premium that you have to pay $10 to park in the public parking.  I can't think of any other ski area that charges for parking. 

c) The buildings around the base area are either retail space (and there are quite a lot of shops) or expensive condos, which probably work best for well to do families with lots of kids who want to park themselves there for a week or two. Sure enough, at the end of the day, as I skied to the base area, I spotted a young family with 3 kids. They all took off their skis and while the dad carried most of the little boy's skis, the boys, ages around 7, 8 or 9, ran ahead, far ahead, out of sight ahead and disappeared into the base village.  They were obviously eager to get somewhere, and they knew where they were going and were familiar with the place, and their parents didn't seem to mind that the kids ran off, one by one, as soon as they were freed from their skis.

d) There are young people (teenagers from rich families) who have obviously parked themselves there for a prolonged period of time and don't feel the need to ski every day, if at all.  You see them walking around, talking, sipping their lattes, probably feeling a bit bored, because there isn't all that much to do except skiing.  This photo was taken within just a few steps of the first chairlift around 11 am, and none of the people in it are dressed for skiing. In fact, they all have a cup of java in hand.

e) Regular adult lift tickets cost $98. 

f) The gas station in the town of Crested Butte doesn't advertise their prices with a large sign, the way most gas stations elsewhere do.  It's almost like they are silently broadcasting the message: "If you have to ask how much gas costs here, you can't afford it."  Oh, and "We won't bother the well to do people with mundane issues such as gas prices."

The village around the base area has grown quite large.  Even the rich have to walk quite a distance from their condos to the lifts.  

The town of Crested Butte is a few miles down the road.  People staying there have to take a shuttle bus to the ski area. The main access road goes right through the heart of town and the imposed speed limit there is just 15 miles per hour. 

A few miles lower down the road, there is a whole other large cluster of houses.  I was a bit confused at first.  Are there 2 or 3 separate towns of Crested Butte?  At the end of the day, as I drove past it again, I slowed down to take a better look.  It turns out that this lower settlement is actually a "club", the Club of Crested Butte, basically a private little town or a gated community, depending on how you look at it. 
See what I mean by "atmosphere"?  There is a certain amount of exclusivity in the air, something I am really not comfortable with. 

But the slopes are great.  Especially great for those who want to challenge themselves.  You can spend a week here, finding ever more challenging steeps, moguls, and trees, as well as combinations of all three -- steep bumpy terrain in the trees! 

On this trip, I am trying to pace myself and leave some energy for other ski areas I'll visit, so I wasn't planning to explore the double blacks this time.  But, I misjudged the layout of the terrain and ended up on the steep double black "Headwall".  From below, I spotted a steep but perfectly doable smooth trail that obviously came from the direction of the upper T-bar. But, what I didn't realize is that to get to that trail one has to unload from the lift at the mid-station, whcih quite a lot of people do.  Instead, I went all the way to the top.  I still could have found my way to the slope I was aiming for, but it was roped off for some reason.  So, there was no other way out of the situation other than to hit the double black Headwall. 

It was interesting to notice that except for some die-hard experts who kept pounding the challenging terrain, most of the other trails were almost empty.  It's true that it is getting close to the end of the season, but it is also Spring Break, and the weather was gorgeously sunny and pleasantly warm, and the snow was good. So, where were all the skiers?  It probably has something to do with the fact  tthat getting to Crested Butte is not easy, ... and it's not cheap either. 

By the way, what a difference a day makes in the weather!  It rained the previous day in and around Salt Lake City and Ogden.  The winds were pushing the storm eastward, toward Colorado. There were some very strong gusts of wind along the way.  I felt as if tthe storm and I  were heading east at about the same speed.  So, I was really surprised that the next day turned out to be a completely sunny and calm day.  The storm must have continued its eastbound journey over night, and by morning, all the bad weather was gone.

The locals don't always know best

Sometimes it's best to ask the locals.  But sometimes the locals really don't know much and may give you the wrong information.

I had topped for the night in Montrose (Colorado), after skiing at Snowbasin (Utah) and on my way to Crested Butte. Google Maps said that the drive from Montrose to Gunnison is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and then there is another 30 minutes to the ski arrea.. Thus a total drive of 1 hour 45 minutes.

But, I thought the locals might give me better information.  So, I asked the night manager at the motel in Montrose how long will be the drive from Montrose to Gunnison.  She said: 2 hours, maybe even 2 and a half!  With the additional 30 minutes to the ski area, that would be a total of almost 3 hours!!! 

In the morning, I asked the day manager the same question. She said:  It's 45 miles to Gunnison, but it's a windy road, so it will take you about an hour.  That was a bit closer to the truth.  But, when I drove out of Montrose, after driving at least 60 miles per hour for about 20 minutes, I spotted a road sign saying: "45 miles to Gunnison". Add to those 45 miles the 20 miles I had already driven, and it turns out the total distance from Montrose to Gunnison is actually about 65 miles, ... and it takes 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive.

In this case, Google beat the locals!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Snowbasin (Utah)

Snowbasin became famous when the Winter Olympics came to Utah in 2002.  The downhill skiing competitions took place here.
My first visit to Snowbasin was the year before the Olympic Games.  Quite by chance, on the day I came, a Men’s downhill training was supposed to happen, but the training got postponed for another day because a foot of fresh powder had fallen and the organizers didn’t have time to prepare the course properly. The area around the start was totally ungroomed and buried in snow.  But, the lower slopes were nicely groomed for the downhill.  So, I tried to pretend that I am a downhill racer and I let it rip on the more gentle lower slopes.  I quickly picked up so much speed that I was worried for my safety and my life.  I have no idea how the racers manage to run this course starting from an insanely steep hill that I had skipped. 
Snowbasin is a large ski area with lots of high speed lifts, a gondola, a tram, varied terrain, and some great views from the top. But, it seems to suffer from inclement weather, or else I have been particularly unlucky here.  

I have visited Snowbasin at least 4 or 5 times in recent years.  I have not had much luck with the weather. It seems to be foggy, rainy, and windy here quite often. Today was no exception. A light rain at the base area and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  I was told that it was snowing at the top (and it was) and that the forecast was for a drop in temperatures later in the day. That colder front didn’t happen, or at least not fast enough.  I was quite wet by the end.

But, I had some fun before calling it a day.  At the Season Pass desk, they took my photo, asked me to sign a liability release, and then handed me a 3-times pass that comes free as part of the Powder Alliance deal to any season pass holder from any of the other 11 ski areas. 

I won’t be able to use all 3 days, but the pass with my picture on it will be a nice souvenir. 
In the center of the plaza at the base area stands a bronze moose.  I overheard a lady chaperoning a bunch of little kids telling them that it is customary to touch the moose for good luck.  The kids did it so fast I didn’t have time to whip out my camera.   

So, instead of photographing the kids, I touched the moose myself. 

A visit to some of the new lodges, built for the Olympics, is a must.  The on-mountain lodges have such luxurious wall-to-wall carpets, even in the restrooms, that I feel guilty stepping on them in my ski boots. But, nobody takes their boots off.  It’s not required.  Apparently, the carpets are durable enough to withstand the ski boot traffic. 
On the slopes, I enjoyed the fast carving on the groomers next to the Strawberry lift, and I also found a fun little canyon there. 
Unfortunately, on this day, the snow was unusually grabby, just like it tends to get on a hot, sunny, spring day.  But, the unusual part was that there was no sun at all on this day.  I guess the 40 degree weather was enough to make the snow so grippy.  It was the kind of grabiness that makes the snow unpredictable. One minute you are sliding down the hill without a problem and then suddenly it feels like you have run over some heavy molasses that won’t let your skis slide freely.  It’s like something grabs your skis and won’t let go.  But then a second later it does let go, so your skis speed up again, only to be gripped again two seconds later.  This makes for some very unpleasant jerky skiing that is hard on one’s leg muscles. 
Another thing I missed is the fantastic view from the top of the ski area, where you can look down to the town of Ogden below.  I saw this impressive view both from the top of the Allen Peak tram as well as from the top of the Strawberry lift, but the view was unobstructed only on my very first visit.  Ever since then, I have always experienced fog, heavy clouds, and sometimes very strong winds. Today was no exception.  
The rain, the fog, and the grabby snow made me beat an early retreat from the mountain.  It’s just as well, since ahead of me was one of the longest legs of the Powder Alliance road trip. From Snowbasin (Utah) to Crested Buttte (Colorado) there are 484 miles, which would take just a little less than 8 hours to drive. 

But I didn’t drive the whole distance in a single day. At first, I was planning to drive only to Gunnison, the nearest town to Crested Butte.  But, a quick internet search for lodgings revealed that staying in Gunnison is expensive.  I guess it’s a resort town. So, I decided to spend the night in Montrose, about an hour and fifteen minutes before Gunnison.  Crested Butte is another 30 minutes from Gunnison.  So, tomorrow morning, I will need to drive for 1 hour and 45 minutes from Montrose to Crested Butte.  That’s comparable to what I normally drive from Salem to Mt. Hood. 

Staying at Montrose has several advantages:
a)    Cheaper lodging is available than in Gunnison.
b)    The drive from Snowbasin was just a tad over 6 hours (instead of the 8 hours to Crested Butte.)
c)    I will drive the last 1 hour and 45 minutes during the day tomorrow morning, instead of driving it in the dark.  So, I will be able to see the scenery.
By the way, the scenery between Snowbasin (Utah) and Montrose (Colorado) was quite interesting too, with several interesting mountains, mesas, and rock formations eroded by the wind and the rain.