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. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Pebble Creek, Idaho

Pebble Creek is located just a little south of Pocatello, Idaho. It offers 2,200 vertical feet, topping at 8,560 feet, and 53% of the terrain is advanced.  In addition to the groomed and ungroomed trails, there is also quite a lot of tree skiing here.

Pebble Creek is not one of the 12 Powder Alliance areas, but that is exactly why I visited here today, Saturday, March 29, 2014.  Saturday is the one day of the week when the Powder Alliance season passes are not valid at ski areas other than your home area. On a week-long road trip, one is bound to hit at least one Saturday, so I looked for a ski area that is exciting to ski, close to my route, and hopefully not too expensive. 

Pebble Creek fits the bill perfectly. It's right on my route, it offers lots of terrain, and lift tickets are regularly priced at $40.  But, I was in luck today.  An all day ticket was just $25.  I am not sure why.  Maybe because of Spring Break, or because it's the last full weekend of the season, or because the snow is getting a bit thin in places. 

We who live near a ski mountain that is close to a large urban area and gets lots of snow, as
Mt. Hood does, are so lucky and spoiled in that we can ski all of April and May, and even June and July.  For me, it's still the middle of the season.  But for Pebble Creek, this is the last full weekend.  They will just open next Saturday (April 5) for one last day. 

I love how this ski area marks its trails. I always felt that a scale of just 3 or 4  steps (Green, Blue, Black and Double-black) is not enough to describe ski terrain well.  In Europe they use Red to designate trails between Blue and Black.  At Pebble Creek, they use intermediate designations such as:
a) Blue-Green  (a harder greeen or easier blue)
b) Blue-Black (a more challenging blue).

Pebble Creek ski area towers over a dry valley through which the I-15 freeway runs from Pocatello, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah.  In some way, it reminds me of Mt. Bachelor, which towers over the dry plains of eastern Oregon, or Mt. Rose (Nevada) which overlooks the dry Nevada scenery just south of Reno.  I assume this means they often get light, dry snow here.

Even today, on a Spring like day, the snow was pretty good.  You could almost read its history just by looking at it.  There was some fresh white snow that must have fallen recently, covering up the slightly brownish snow underneath, which was probably the result of wind-deposited dust whipped up from the surrounding dry valley.

The day did not begin well for me.  My stomach hurt a bit, probably because of something I ate the day before.  But, things got better with every run. I started off easy, then progressed to some steep trails, and finally skied some trees as well.  By the end of the day, I felt great!  Ski area magic!!!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bridger Bowl (Montana)

Bridger Bowl is quite a large ski area, with 2,600 vertical feet and 2,000 skiable acres. Its layout  reminds me somewhat of Mt. Hood Skibowl, in that the lower mountain is great for beginners and the upper mountain offers some of the steepest terrain anywhere! It is located just 16 miles from the town of Bozeman, MT.

My first impressions were not all that great. Even though it was a work day (Friday), 6 of the 11 parking lots were full.  I thought it would be crowded, but the mountain is big enough to absorb the crowds and in many places I felt almost alone.  But, the parking lots are all arranged in horizontal strips in such a way that each successive strip is lower and lower on the mountain. The farther out you have to park, the more you will have to climb.  There were no shuttles in sight. 

So, hufffing and puffing up the hill, I finally arrive at the ticket counter. They couldn't process my
Powder Alliance pass directly.  They sent me into the building to the Season Pass counter. There, the lady made me take off my ski jacket. Why? Well, my season pass was attached to the jacket with a cord, so I wouldn't lose it.   I handed her the season pass card, but the lady said she would rather that I detach it from the jacket. This wasn't easy to do, since it was attached not by some sort of quick clip, but by a ring similar to a key ring.  I couldn't detach it withone hand, so I had to take my jacket off.  I thought she w2ould have to scan it or somehing. B ut, no, she just read a number (or my name) o9ff of it.  Hey, she3 could have done that without me having to detach it! 

Then she gave me a separate little card, essentially just her approval of my season pass.  I had to take this back to the ticket window2, where I finally got my Bridger Bowl lift ticket.  I was lucky it was mid-week and the end of the season.  On a busier day, I would have had to wait in 3 separate lines.

So, I finally have my ticket. Now let's go ski. Butt not before you climb another set of stairs. And even then, the climbing is not yet over.  You still have to carry your skis a bit higher onto the snow to reach the lowest level of the ski lifts.  Phew!  I was out of breath!  

Ready to ski, I noticed that Bridger Bowl had received at least 4 inches of new snow just the night before I arrived. 

And then came the big surprise!  Instead of the regular lift loading we are all used to, Bridger Bowl has installed an infernal contraption that I have so far only seen in Val d'Isere, France. It consists of a gate and a moving "carpet" made of some sort of hard plastic.. The gate doesn't open at all unless you are standing right next to it.  I missed a couple of chairlifts because I was standing a few inches too far from the gate.

When the gate finally opens, you push off witth your ski poles, and your skis move from the snow onto the hard plastic moving carpet, whcih is not slippery.  Stepping onto it, it feels like your feet are suddenly encased in cement.  You cannot move your skis. You are stuck. Better not lose your balance while the carpet moves you forward about 6 or 7 feet, to position you in the ideal spot for the oncoming empty chair.   It doesn't save the lift operator anything, because he/she still needs to slow down the chair a bit f.or you.  I just hate the contraption.  It's not part of the natural environment..  It's not snow. Stepping onto it is an unsettling, unpleasant experience.  And it requires you to be very careful about your balance when you step onto it, at least until the chair then sweeps you off your feet. 

Bridger Bowl did not install this on just one chair, to see how people liked it.  They installed it on ALL their lifts, so there is no getting away from these moving carpets. 

Would there have been a better use for all the money spent installing these contraptions?  Yes, of course!  They could have paved their very muddy and pot-holed parking lots, to make their guests feel more welcome.

But, let's get to the good stuff.  This mountain has at least 2 different "faces".  Except for the fact that everyone gets tripped by those moving carpets, this mountain is ideal to learn how to ski. The lowest two lifts and the Alpine chairlift above and the the right of them, offer acres and acres of gentle, rolling terrain that will be a delight to any novice or lower intermediate skier.  Even the ungroomed snow is easy to ski there. The Powder Park lift also has some easy cruisers, but the terrain there is a bit steeper, a bit more upper intermediate.

The more advanced skiers will tend to head to the left side of the ski area (looking up at the mountain).  The Bridger, Pierre's, and Schlasman's lifts offer amazing amounts of super-steep double-black diamond terrain that is never groomed.  Schlasman's is pretty much all ungroomed and all very steep.  The other two lifts do offer alternatives for intermediate skiers. 

In other words, just like Mt. Hood Skibowl, Bridger Bowl offers lots of options for both beginners and experts.  The upper intermediate skier or the advanced skier who doesn't like to ventrue into the ungroomed snow has somewhat fewer choices.

Overall, I had a great time exploring the mountain, and I would come back to Bridger Bowl at any time.  A regular adult lift ticket here costs $51, which is the second lowest price among the 12  Powder Alliance  ski areas.  Only Mt. Hood Skibowl is about $2 less expensive. 

I even found a trail at Bridger Bowl called "Emil's Mile".  That's how it is marked on the trail map.  The only sign I saw on the trail itself simply said "Emil's".  So, naturally, I had to ski it!

I was surprised to hear that Bridger Bowl was supposed to close for the season just a week from now (around April 7th or so).  However, due to the exscellent snow that keeps falling, they have decided to extend the season by an extra week, thus closing around April 15th. 

We Oregonians are really lucky (and spoiled) that we can ski on Mt. Hood all through April and May, and sometimes even into June.  And if that is not enough, we can always come back for some summer skiing in July and August. .

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Drive to Montana

I started my road trip to visit the 8 other Powder Alliance ski areas that I have not skied yet by driving to Bozeman, Montana, ... a total drive of a little over 12 hours of driving (not counting the stops). This is the longest leg of the journey, and the only where I didn't ski at all.  Just drove all day.

Man, I drove past several ski areas without stopping!  I drove within 45 minutes of Mt. Spokane. Then I drove within a mile of the Silver Mountain gondola, and then within 200 yards of the Lookout Pass ski area. This is very unusual for me. Normally, on my road trips, I like to break a long drive by skiing at least one of the ski areas along the way.  Thankfully, I have already visited all of the above 3 ski areas on earlier occasions.

This time, I am focused on just the Powder Alliance ski areas, where the skiing is free for me, thanks to the Fusion Pass.  So, tomorrow morning, I'll be skiing at Bridger Bowl, Montana, less than half an hour from Bozeman.  I've heard a lot of good things about it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mt. Hood Skibowl

Mt. Hood Skibowl has some of the steepest terrain among Mt. Hood ski areas.  The Outback terrain is never groomed and is a delight for powder skiers.  At the same time, Skibowl has some great beginner and intermediate terrain, perfect for families.

Skibowl also offers a lot of interesting surprises for the skier who reads the trail map carefully and goes in search of hidden little corners.  Last year, 2013, during one of the "Show Me Something New" days organized by the Mountain High Snowsport Club, we were able to find more new surprises there than at any of the other local ski areas.  Skibowl has a lot of hidden gems, offering them only to the determined seeker.

How many times have I raced on the Dog Leg trail!!!  And yet, how few times did I venture into the trees above the starting gate!!!  The Powder Keg glades.  It's all well marked, both on the trail map and on the slopes, but few people seem to discover these delights.

Too many people simply point their skis down the hill at the earliest opportunity and thus miss out on the hidden corners that require a bit of planning to reach them.  The Outback area is full of such hidden gems, but even within the boundaries of what is normally perceived as the easier side of the mountain, there are hidden gems, such as Upper Surprise and Stumpgarden (for advanced skiers), or Fire Hydrant, Wildfire and the Roundhouse for the more moderate crowd.

And then there is the "Daddy Killer" trail, which isn't even shown on the map, but many a curious kid has discovered it.  As for me, I never even knew this trail existed until my friend Sally told me about it.  How about that?  A trail than kids can enjoy but that will "kill" their daddies!!!  If you are curious, go search for it off of the Roundhouse trail.  It's a shortcut between the Roundhouse and Broadway trails. But chances are you will ski right past it without even noticing it.

When at Skibowl, stop for a warmup and a refreshment at the historic Warming Hut mid-mountain, and let yourself thaw near the fireplace.

Mt. Hood Skibowl also happens to be the largest night-ski area in the United States. It is open for skiing till 10 or 11 pm.