Good news out there: Trees are in!
Mona was the first of all my backcountry friends to take the risk. She called me later with the good news: “Trees are in. I skied all the way down. Only sunk a bit at the bottom.”For the past seven-plus winters now, or whenever that tramp El Niño waltzed into the mountains, backcountry skiers and riders have suffered. We’ve managed to milk the turns up high off our peaks and bowls, because there is always snow here, but eventually those high-alpine snow spots turn hard from wind and sun. Long, long ago, it used to be a nice change of pace to ski a couple short laps in the glades.Small storms, long, cold dry spells and too much sun for seven years have delivered a real beating on our backcountry, but nowhere has it been as bad as in the shade of the trees. Nothing is more frustrating than that first attempt each winter of hiking uphill, heading for your favorite woody grove only to find yourself sinking down to the dirt, thigh deep in rotten sugar snow that can’t support your weight. This is classic bad Colorado snow.
The morning after I heard from Mona, I went to see for myself. Mona had skied on the west side of town, in the Tenmile Range, and I thought I should stick to that side of the valley as well. The snowpack is generally better on the west than the east side anyway, probably due to wind direction and because the Tenmile does seem to attract more snow.Quandary has some nice northeast glades that are fairly easy to reach, and I figured this would be a good testing ground. Last year, at this same place, my husband Jeffrey and I pointed our skis straight down the fall line … and didn’t move. When we finally waddled our way over to what we thought might be a more supportive place, we managed to get a little downhill momentum but underneath our skis scraped over logs and rocks. It was sad. Once that happens, you don’t ever want to go through it again, and trees are out for the rest of the winter. You have no choice but to stick to the higher turf.
On this day I skinned uphill, telling myself to be prepared. It could be really, really bad. Even though this winter is turning out to be pretty darn amazing (knock on wood), I was conditioned for rejection. The couple early big storm cycles we’ve had – much bigger than recent years past – have helped, and even that warm spell helped stabilize things. But for seven years now I have had to go through the numbing process on the day when I sink and realize that all those limited secret tree stashes will have to wait Three turns down, life felt good. Floating about boot deep level, the turns came easily. I chuckled out loud as relief swept through me. So many seasons of avoiding the woods, and finally they were back. There were a few weak spots in obvious places – next to logs or rocks where air pockets collect – but for the most part, the 10-minute descent was perfect.Not all the trees are in yet, but this is still early. Mona tried the west face of Baldy a few days later and it was horrible. As popular as Baldy Mountain is for backcountry, much of it faces the wrong direction for good snow conditions. The key is to head for the aspects and zones that have received the most snow – Vail Pass, the Gore Range, the Tenmile, anything facing north and east will be the light fluffy stuff.
Jeffrey and I had a great day on Monarch Pass in their trees, and while touring on the Gore Range Trail a week ago, I stepped off the packed trail and actually was able to cruise around through the dense woods with ease. Nonetheless, it does seem like you need to climb to 10,000 feet before you’re able to stay on top. No guarantees here, but give the woods a try. Because there is nothing more beautiful than a sunset ski whipping by the englemann spruce, always a better rush to float than flounder.Breckenridge resident Ellen Hollinshead writes a bi-weekly column on the outdoors.
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