The first thing you notice is the quiet. This is a ski resort. One of the finest in the land. The home of X-Games, shiny grooming machines, blue Colorado sky and a summit restaurant view that holds up to mountain vistas anywhere in the Alps. There are ski lifts of course, fast ones I’ll admit I hop now and then. And there is noise, normally. Lots of noise. But now the lifties are gone. Their blaring music is muzzled. The chairs they ever so carefully position under thousands of skier’s rear ends hang from a stilled cable, parked, swaying in a light breeze. Yet it is winter, still the height of the ski season.
This is resort skiing in the time of Wuhan.
Colorado Governor Polis had just laid down the law. Despite the Aspen Skiing Company’s plan to keep their lifts spinning, he wielded his mighty pen of power and shut down our entire state’s ski resorts. Rightly so, the idea as I understand it being to slow the spread of corona virus, keep people apart. Lift skiing, well, you ride lifts. You sit next to people, the air is cold, dry, they cough. On the gondola, or the tram.
Driving in, my first view of the resort was the frontside, split by the enormous half-pipe. Small black specs contrasted with the shining snow of a bluebird day. People, dozens of uphillers. There were as many tour skiers as you’d see on a slow day of lift skiing! I laughed. Look what happened, I thought to myself, what the human-powered ski industry has done.
Who knew in, say, 1980, that in the space of a few decades we true believers would create an entire mainstream sport? Weird, wonderful, humbling.
I was in a ski movie once. About forty years ago. Part of the flick gave a nod to ski touring. They enlisted me as a spokesman. Even back then we were rocking adhesive mohair skins, purpose-built backcountry skis, and boots that switched from uphill to downhill modes.
“Man, you don’t need ski lifts, all you need is climbing skins,” I said with the snide lilt of an invincible 20-something, as I fondled a pair of mohairs, the first self-adhesive Coltex ones. “Skins are my ski pass, mannnn.”
Fast forward. Bypassing the resort’s front-side, I drove an extra five minutes to Tiehack, a 2,000 vertical foot shoulder extending off the east side of the mountain. Tiehack’s my favorite place for uphilling. Perfectly angled for medium heel lifters, with a marked route the ski patrol requires you to use during operating hours. It’s a nice ascent which follows the sides of ski runs for safety, then ducks into an aspen forest for an aesthetic finish.
As I popped our hatch-back and grabbed my skis, I kept laughing. The place was maxed. At least 45 cars jammed the asphalt, every one of them an uphill skier. Or two. Or four. On the hill above, a literal mob was attacking the first pitch. I counted forty people on that part alone. Was this “social distancing” of the sort recommended by the experts? Some folks were only five feet apart? The slight breeze and sunlight probably makes things safer? Eat some alpine UV and swirl away, freaking coronavirus.
Being in the over 65 risk group, I waited for the closest mob to gain distance ahead, then entered the fray like I was merging into rush hour traffic. I found my pace and grokked how special this was.
Groomed corduroy layered the slope, ripening to perfection in the March sun. A steady stream of skiers dropped to my left, one every three minutes or so. Some came close, as if sliding by to say hi. When a good one schussed past, tilting refined carves on the velvet surface, I nodded internally and smiled. What a dance, and all the better they’d sweated for it.
I’m not fast these days, so I get passed. Today’s passings occurred at extra polite distance, but not too far for greetings.
“Doesn’t get any better than this!” I said to a pretty lass, as she jogged past me on a pair of Atomic rando race skis.
“You bet, this is incredible, our own private resort!” she replied.
A burly, black bearded guy stomped by, burning vertical on a Marker Kingpin setup, breathing like a packhorse, his billowing hard-shell pants unzipped to his waist. He smiled too. I was envious, thinking how strong he must be. I watched as he chased the Atomic lady. She pulled farther ahead. I allowed myself a grain of guilty pleasure at the sight.
The novelty of the crowd wore thin. Easy to remedy. Today, resort not operating, no need to follow the designated route. I wandered left, found my own line. The quiet settled around me, gently broken by my steady breathing, the faint vowels of people chatting far to my right. I heard a far-off snowboarder, invisible on another run separated from me by an aspen forest. The hollow scraping sound of the deck rider’s turns sifted through the trees like seeds scattered on the wind. I would never meet this snowboarder. I was glad he, or she, had a ski pass.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.