Worth the wait: A day in the life of a Front Ranger seeking out a Summit County ski day
Special to The Daily
Cram granola bars into pockets, load skis into the car, fill up the gas tank — as a Front Range skier, these are some of the items on the checklist of things that must be done in the dark hours of the morning before hitting dreadful Interstate 70.
The ski-commute struggle is indeed real for weekend warriors such as myself and my band of friends who make it a habit during winter weekends to find our happy place: Skiing lines at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
I’m sure you Summit County locals see the traffic on I-70 westbound in the morning and eastbound at nights during winter (and spring) weekends. I’m sure you notice the increased crowds on the Summit County ski slopes on a Saturday and Sunday. And I’d imagine you’ve thought once or twice about how grateful you are you don’t have to make the commute from 5,000 feet up and over the Divide just to go skiing. That said, hopefully my story of the trials and tribulations of a Front Range skier — like the stories of many of those other skiers and riders jam-packed into neighboring cars on I-70 — will shed light on the lengths to which we flatlanders go to ski.
For a Front Range skier like me, the sun is slowly making its way up as you are quickly making your way west on I-70. We’re racing time, and racing all of the other outdoor enthusiasts en route to claim the scare commodity that is a parking spot at a High Country ski area like A-Basin.
The distance between Idaho Springs and Georgetown may just be the slowest thirteen miles on any American roadway. If you’re still in bed at 7 am, well, then you might as well hit snooze and try again next weekend. That’s how crazily congested the ski traffic gets.
Once at A-Basin, the engine finally goes silent after, if we’re lucky, two-plus hours in our car. As we buckle our boots, two fluffy malamutes wrestle on a nearby snowbank. The background noise for their tussle is comprised of tunes from the 1970s blaring from a nearby pickup truck and the sound of ski boots echoing off the metal stairs. The stairs lead our steady trickle of skiers through the Basin’s cavernous pedestrian tunnel to our first sight of our very own little slice of ski heaven.
This is a good morning from the hustling, bustling High Noon parking lot at A-Basin. If you’re here, it means you have a great deal of patience for traffic, and took the first opportunity to escape the cluttered interstate, fleeing toward signs for Loveland Pass. And, when the process of getting to the mountains is as draining as it is coming up from the city, it’s nice to escape somewhere that feels secluded.
To me, there’s nothing quite like A-Basin in Summit County. Though there are other ski resorts and ski areas, I appreciate the Basin’s feel, one stripped of glitzy frill. There are no condos encroaching on the base, no lodges, no hotels. The only towering presence around is that of the lovely Loveland Pass, the winding, wondrous road which shows off nearby jagged peaks that shadow hairpin turns in shaded blue at dawn and sunny gold at dusk.
A-Basin’s unique location — up close and personal with Lenawee Mountain and Arapahoe Basin peak — is rather Swiss Alps-esque. That’s just one reason as to why the limited number of parking spots are gone in a flash on those crazy weekend mornings — sometimes as early as 8:30 a.m. It was that crazy this winter.
The people who arrive promptly enough for the Early Riser lot, which is situated right at the base of the mountain, are the motivated, sunrise-chasing people we admire. If you’re making that multi-hour morning trek on the highway, you’ll be counting your lucky stars to be graced entrance into the Last Chance lot. Here lies what many would describe as a blessing and a curse of A-Basin — though I, personally, choose to look at it as more of a perk. The Basin, frankly, can only hold so many skiers. So, if you’ve put in the work to secure yourself a parking spot, you’re much less likely to have a dud day spent in the lift lines once on the mountain.
Talk about wide open spaces. A-Basin’s East Wall is a grand visual. Most mountains make you really break a sweat if you want to get away from defined trails and float free in powder. But the East Wall is situated so that, I’ve found, all you have to do is bumble along a bouncy traverse to reach your spot. My friends and I chat while we coast along the narrow track, eyeing untouched snow in the distance at the very end of the wall.
Though no one wants to make the taboo “last run” call, there comes a time in the day where you and your not-what-they-used-to-be knees have to call it. Despite the limited parking at A-Basin, I’ve found the ski area’s nestled location allows for the avoidance of much of the catastrophic clutter that is the western slope of the Eisenhower Tunnel. While Denver-bound skiers sit in parked cars further along I-70, you get to cruise the Loveland switchbacks and catch golden hour from the top of the Continental Divide.
Sunlight lingers on the top of each peak surrounding the valley. This ride is both beautiful and peaceful, a contrast against the fact that steam will be coming out of your ears once you get back to the inevitable bottleneck in Idaho Springs.
So instead of rushing to get on the road when the ski day is over, I’ve found it’s best to stay a while. One of the most popular aspects of A-Basin’s casual culture, especially this time of year, is “The Beach.” There’s no ocean, but it’s the best beach you’re going to find in Colorado. People book months in advance, or wake up at an ungodly hour, to park their cars along a strip of snow right at the mountain’s base. On any given sunny day in the late afternoon, there’s music humming, grills smoking and people lounging in plastic camp chairs. A-Basin’s chief operating officer Alan Henceroth admits that the mountain often has a love-hate relationship with the lively beach. But, ultimately, it embodies the spirit of the skiers who trek to A-Basin each weekend.
“It’s awesome when people get together and have fun with the grills going. We love that,” Henceroth said. “Swinging by for a bratwurst and hanging out with your friends — that’s just another way (A-Basin) is one of a kind.”
Even if you don’t know anyone there, the friendly beach-goers will welcome you with open arms and open drinks. It’s this relaxed, old-fashioned atmosphere, enhanced by places like The Beach, that I feel make it worth the time and effort to commute up to the mountains.
It’s been questioned recently in the Colorado skiing community whether A-Basin itself will lose its integrity as the mountain expands and renovates with new additions, like the recent addition of The Beavers ski terrain and chairlift. Henceroth said the mountain will update and expand as they see fit, but he believes A-Basin will never change its beloved atmosphere.
“We don’t strive to be old-fashioned,” he said, “we like to be progressive with our facility enhancement. Some (ski areas) are focused on being the way they’ve always been. We’re not preserving the artifacts of the past. We’re preserving the culture and vibe.”
In my mind, there’s few remaining mountains that maintain the authenticity, laid-back atmosphere, and humble attitude of ski culture like A-Basin. Places like this make it worth the early-morning wake up, and remind you what skiing is all about: chasing adventure at high-altitude alongside good pals.
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