Feb 25 2012

Working the Winter

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Nothing like a winter wonderland

It’s been a tricky winter for Colorado Front Range powder hounds. Unlike last year, when there was record breaking snow totals close by, this year has required some real effort to find the fresh. Fortunately for me I’ve had the flexibility to chase some storms and good luck when the snow did fall locally.

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Morning alpenglow on the way to Silverton

One part of Colorado that has not lacked for snow has been the Southwest. Silverton Mountain seems to do well no matter where the storms are coming from but does particularly well in southwest flow which has been our main weather pattern this year. Having not been there for several years and desperate for some deep I headed there in late January to see what was new in their world.

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It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Silverton's latest toy...

As it turns they have added some major additions to their repertoire. The milk truck has been replaced by buses with comfy seats but more notable is the helicopter that now permanently resides there. This allows access to terrain which previously would have been unreachable unless you wanted to hike the entire day.

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Nothing like a little morning stroll...

As you can see from the photo below Silverton has some excellent sustained pitch and plenty of snow. My issue has always been the required group guiding – invariably I end up with some folks who don’t belong on the mountain and this trip was no exception. We started our day with a 1000′ vertical hike (photo above – we hiked to just below the billboard at top) which led to the terrain in the photo below. The hike was challenging and the run fun but by 2:00 I had only gotten in one other run and was a tad frustrated. At that point I switched to the helicopter (they were running a two for one special) which got me to some new terrain but nothing to write home about (or more accurately, not necessarily worth driving 7 hours for).

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Been there, done that...

I was supposed to spend two days at Silverton but couldn’t bear to spend another full day getting just 5 runs and besides there was a storm coming from the north so I decided to head back. I originally intended to check out Powderhorn but when Vail called 12″ and still snowing I changed tracks and drove like a madman to catch the opening of the back bowls. I don’t have any footage or pics from that day because the snow was so sweet and deep that no one wanted to waste time taking footage so you’ll just have to believe when I tell you it was truly epic.

Eldora Rules Again 2/3/12

And speaking of epic, while I have flown all over North America sampling powder I have never ridden any better snow than the 24″ in 24 hours that Eldora got on February 3rd. The video above doesn’t do it justice but anyone who was there will surely agree that it was as light as it gets. This was my third great day at Eldora this season as those same storms that pound the southern mountains often deliver big upslope snows to the front range.

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It's good to be home...

One place that had been notably missing from my usual winter rotation was Berthoud Pass. Besides the fact there has been very little snow, what did fall in the early season has become a very shaky and dangerous base in the backcountry. By this time I would normally have quite a few days on the pass but this year my first was in mid February when the avy report finally lowered the danger rating to a tolerable level. As always, like the picture above indicates, there was fun to be had but the terrain options were severely limited. It still was mighty nice to visit one of my favorite spots and the photo below gives you a good idea of why I keep going back there.

In the white room

But no matter what the year there is always one place that comes through for me and that is Wolf Creek. This year of course every one has heard about the great snow that falls during a southwest storm track and I have never seen so many front rangers on the mountain. Still if you’re willing to hike there are always fresh lines to be had so my friend Kevin and I made a pilgrimage to the shrine to pay our respects.

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Bitten by the Wolf once again...

Just to remind myself that these trips don’t always work out as planned I tried to go to Vail this past Thursday when they called 12″ at 5:00 am. The only catch was that I-70 was closed at various spots but managed to make it to the tunnel before being shut down for 90 minutes. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Vail later downgraded their report to 2″ (never seen that before). Instead I ended up at Loveland where the snow was sweet but was so damn windy and cold that there was no chance I’d be taking off my gloves for any pictures. All in all it’s been quite a month, full of long road trips, a small taste of the backcountry and some amazing (but infrequent) local powder and as always, well worth the effort…


Mar 25 2011

Helmet Cam Fun – Berthoud Pass 3/23/11

Who needs a photographer?

Got to admit I’ve been slacking lately on updating this blog. It’s been a combination of less than epic conditions and spending time breaking in new gear. I finally broke down and bought a split board (Voile Mojo RX 66) after one too many post holing sessions in the backcountry. It’s a lot of fun and lot easier to use than I thought and is opening up a whole new range of possibilities. So between testing out the new board and my lack of luck at the resorts I’ve been spending a lot of time at my favorite local haunt – Berthoud Pass.

Laying tracks on "Outlaw" - Current Creek, Berthoud Pass

The other piece of gear I’ve been experimenting with lately is my helmet cam (Contour HD). What I quickly discovered is that without a person in the shot the helmet cam footage gets old quickly – you really need to be following someone else or get yourself in the picture somehow to give some perspective and visual contrast. In looking around the web, I saw all sorts of clever ways to do this including Joel Bettner’s reflective googles trick. But clearly the most frequently seen approach to better utilizing a helmet camera is mounting it on the end of a ski pole like I do in the video below.

Berthoud was fun as always even though it was probably the least snow I’ve ridden there all season (that’s the other problem with the helmet mount – the face shots on a good powder day obliterate most of the footage). But now that I’ve got my equipment dialed in all I need is a good storm which could happen as soon as this weekend. Worse case, I’m headed up to Alaska in a week so with any luck I should get some good footage there – I’ll keep you posted…


Nov 30 2010

A Snovember to Remember

Better than a field of gold - Berthoud Pass - photo by Joel Gratz

Alright – I’ll admit it – I’ve really been slacking on the blogging thing. After three years where the I didn’t get out in November due to poor snow conditions, this year has been a very refreshing change of pace. Steamboat set a snowfall record for the month and numerous Colorado resorts were way ahead of typical year to date totals. I was personally lucky enough to get in 6 days 5 of which were legitimate powder days. So why no posts?

Getting up early has its' advantages - on the road to Vail 11/19/2010

You know the old saying “powder has no friends” – well actually in my case while powder has lots of friends – most of those friends have jobs and can’t ski/ride during the week. Thus I often end up riding by myself and that doesn’t make for great photo opportunities and this blog without photos is just a lot of cold air. Opening day at Vail was a perfect example of this because despite giving my ski associates plenty of notice, no one was able to make the trip with me. Vail opened with over a 1000 acres and bless their hearts, groomed very little of it. I immediately headed to Game Creek Bowl and was pleasantly surprised to find all the northside trees totally rideable so spent a very fun hour or two laying down first tracks through the woods some of which I captured on my camera in the video below.

Opening Day – Vail 2010

Vail has since opened almost the entire mountain with the exception of the new chair 5 lift which will open this Friday. I caught the opening of China Bowl the day before Thanksgiving and even though I had company on that trip it was so cold that the price of getting any pics or video would have included frostbite which is where I draw the line for my faithful readers. Sadly, I missed the opening of Blue Sky Basin this past Friday but heard it was quite fun – all in all, Vail is off to a great start.

Jean Francois bustin' it at Berthoud 11/17/2010

All my other days this month were spent at my favorite backcountry paradise, Berthoud Pass. I’ve documented many a fine day at the Pass on this blog so I won’t go into any details here other than to say the hill is already in great shape and am looking forward to future fabulous forays in the coming year. Thanks to everyones’s favorite forecaster, Joel Gratz, I was able to put together the footage below of a typical run down Hell’s Half Acre. And none of those whoops were added in in post.


Nov 13 2010

Back in the saddle again – Berthoud Pass 11/12/10

Welcome to "Hell's Half Acre" 11/12/2010

As much as I enjoy summer and mountain biking in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, I’d be hard pressed to not trade it all for one good powder day – that’s why they call it an addiction. So when I saw shots of knee deep snow from a late October storm floating around the internet I knew my mountain biking days were numbered. In particular I heard rumors that Berthoud Pass was once more open for business and after a warmup day at ABasin earlier this week, I decided it was time to see if the rumors were true.

It sure felt like winter...

I had heard from my favorite weather forecaster that while there was good exercise to be had at Berthoud, I shouldn’t count on a big powder day. Thus when I casually headed down the first run with sunglasses on I was pleasantly surprised when my first big turn blew up enough snow to blind me the rest of the way. Thanks to Hell’s north facing exposure the snow stays soft for a long time and because it takes some effort to get there, there is generally untracked left when you arrive. Today was no exception as that old good time feeling came flooding right back – back in the powder again.

Ah, the blessed virgin...

Of course, one good turn deserves another so we were raring to get some more as soon as we could overcame the biggest challenge of the day – procuring a ride back to the parking lot. Winter Park not yet being open is a double whammy; more locals on the hill combined with reduced traffic over the pass means the thumb line tends to stack up and pickup trucks with friendly drivers are your only hope. Eventually our ship did come in and round two was even better than one as we now knew what to expect and this time I had my goggles on for greater viewing pleasure.

I'm the little red dot between the trees - happily contemplating my future...

This is not to say that there were no rocks or hidden obstacles – my copilot Mike was rudely tripped up and I added a few new scratches to the bottom of my board but certainly nothing to keep us from seriously considering not taking a third run in the sweet early season powder. Since Hell’s was so good we didn’t consider going elsewhere although they were tracks headed out in every direction. As John Candy once put it “when something works for me I stick with it” so back up to the top of Hanging Meadows we went for one more photo session.

Hanging ten in the Hanging Meadows

The third time was definitely the charm as well I’m sure the  fourth, fifth and sixth times would have been had we had the legs and time to hike it again, but we were more than satisfied with what the snow gods had given us this day.  After all it’s only early November and while I’ve ridden Berthoud in October before, the last two years my board didn’t even come out of the closet till December so I’m counting my blessings.  Once again, I got a little taste of heaven in Hell’s Half Acre!


Mar 2 2010

The third time’s the charm – Berthoud Pass strikes again

Lifts? We don't need no stinking lifts...knee deep in the 80's at Berthoud Pass, Colorado

There were a lot of surprised front range skiers and snowboarders yesterday because despite all the weather reports calling for a few inches tops, Monday mornings ski totals included 11″ at Loveland and 16″ at Winter Park. According to the CAIC’s morning avalanche report, Berthoud Pass received 5″ in one hour Sunday night and 12″ in three – that’s some serious snow coming down which no one anticipated. I, unfortunately, did not discover this until it was too late to get to either resort but knowing there would be plenty left at Berthoud on Tuesday helped ease the pain.

First one to the road wins - looking down the 90's, Berthoud Pass

Because of all the new snow, the CAIC  issued a avalanche warning for Monday which means natural and human triggered slides slides are likely – not the kind of day I want to be out on the pass. By Tuesday, they had lowered it to considerable which in layman terms means you can go out there but be really, really careful. Thus on the ride up I was very surprised to see tracks way out in Floral Park which is not only steep and exposed but it also has heating/freezing issues as it is southern facing. We immediately decided to pass on that and later talked to a very shaken snowboarder in the parking lot who got caught in a slide out there and was lucky to escape with only some ripped pants and some very bad memories.

The crappy view on the way up to Hell's Half Acre, Berthoud Pass

We decide to opt for the Hanging Meadow in Hell’s Half Acre which is lower angled and treed thus making for a less risky proposition. The snow was beautiful – deep and relatively light, making for some fabulous riding. While there had been plenty of visitors before us, there were still huge swaths of untracked which we took immediate advantage of hooting and hollering down to the road. We got a ride as soon as we hit the road and got dropped off at the ditch trail so we could do some Current Creek runs.

Frank enjoying the fruits of his labor on Vigilante, Berthoud Pass

The nice thing about the ditch trail is that after the tough hike up to Hell’s, the walk out to the Current Creek runs is quite leisurely and the rewards still plentiful. We started with a 90’s, which is pretty much a straight shot to the road with the top full of sweet deep untracked and the bottom still super soft if no longer pristine. It was so good that we immediately did another but this time moved over to the 80’s which had yet to be explored. I started getting flashbacks to the days when Berthoud had lifts and this was one of my favorite late day runs. There are some large rocks that sit atop the run (see first photo in this post) and although I passed for the most part today because of some avy concerns, I could see that the snow cover was getting to the point where some big fun could be had soon.

Not bad for 2:30 in the afternoon - Vigilante, Berthoud Pass

After a quick snack in the parking lot, it was back to the Hanging Meadow followed by another Current Creek. Both were fabulous and could have easily provided several more powder laden runs had we the time. As it was we felt blessed to have been out there at all – did I mention it was a warm, windless, bluebird day and even though the parking lot was full in the morning, by mid afternoon it was back to just a few happy campers. This was my third trip to Berthoud in the last month and each one has been better than the last so while I don’t see how it could get any better, I’m looking forward to trying to prove myself wrong…


Feb 16 2010

One good turn deserves another – Berthoud Pass Snowboarding part II

What would Jesus ride? Snowboard shrine atop Hell's Half Acre, Berthoud Pass

I pride myself on catching any resort powder within two hours of Boulder so was mighty conflicted when I saw Vail called 9” in 24, 14” in 48 on Sunday morning as I also pride myself on not getting trapped in weekend traffic on I-70. As anyone who has spent 5 hours getting home on a Sunday night can testify, I-70 can really ruin the buzz of a good powder day. So, since I was going solo and it was already snowing in Boulder further complicating the drive, I reluctantly decided to pass. However, I was now totally infected with the powder bug and thus by Monday had to go get some tracks and knowing the resorts would be long cut up I once again headed up to Berthoud Pass for some fresh turns.

Boot pack and skin trail up the east side of Berthoud Pass - always well worth the effort

Two weeks ago I posted a blog about a leisurely tour I took of Berthoud but since this time the majority of snow had fallen on Saturday and Monday was a national holiday, I knew the pickings would be slimmer and would require a lot more effort to find untracked. Sure enough, on the drive up I could see that Floral Park had been heavily tracked particularly where it opens up skier’s far left. Still it seemed worth a shot and decided to hike way out but cut back skier’s right into the thicker trees to get some freshies. It worked like a charm at the top, got that sweet powder feeling going and thus didn’t mind when I ran into a lot more tracks down low.  Got a ride fairly quickly and decided to head to my favorite Berthoud area – Hell’s Half acre.

Pick a chute, any chute...Hell's Half Acre, Berthoud Pass

Hell’s has everything I want in a ski area – gladed trees, steep chutes and lots of powder that is constantly being refreshed by the wind. I usually head to North and Sentinel chutes first as the the Fingers, Choke and Knuckle need a ton of snow to be rideable and now that no one is bombing them are incredibly avalanche prone. I generally pass on the Mines as well because besides being another avalanche trap (it seems like there’s a fatality there every couple of years) it requires a several mile (7?) traverse back to the highway which is not much fun on a snowboard. Amazingly enough, there were still some cleans lines left in the chutes particularly on the edges which resulted in a major face shot that had me quickly searching my memory for where exactly the trees below me were positioned.

What lies over that edge? Only the shadow knows...

I had such a good time on the first run that I had to go back for more and after getting an immediate ride I was hiking back up the trail in no time. While the parking lot may get busy and there seem to be a lot of folks heading out, once you get to the top, there’s rarely anyone around and you can take your time getting ready and psyched for your next run. And on my next run I definitely needed to be psyched because I found a great untracked line through the trees and rocks between the chutes which had little room for error and required a total commitment and definitely got the blood pumping – what a rush! This of course lead to another hike but sadly the third time was not the charm as this time I mostly found rocks covered with a little snow (which reminded me of a bumper sticker I used to see that read “Give Blood – Ski Berthoud) so ended up doing some extra trees at the bottom to get my moneys worth and then hiking up back to the road which is always an option. All in all, another fine day at Berthoud and enough powder to keep the jones at bay till the next snowstorm…


Jan 30 2010

Berthoud Pass = Backcountry Fun

Looking for love at 11,300'

Berthoud Pass has long been a favorite of front range backcountry skiers and for good reason. Steep, deep, easily accessible terrain with the added bonus of extra vertical if you don’t mind hitchhiking back up the pass. Site of the first ski area in Colorado (1937), the pass has a long and storied history of providing fabulous turns to its’ followers. You can count me as one of them as when the area reopened in the late 90’s after being closed for 6 years I spent many a powder filled day exploring the four quadrants of Berthoud Pass that have been created by the intersection of Highway 40 and the Continental Divide. After the latest in a series of financial problems closed the ski area for good in 2002 (the lifts stopped running at the end of the 2000-2001 season – there was cat skiing for a season or two) – Forest Service requirements forced the removal of the lifts in 2003. This was both a good and bad thing – it was one hell of a ski area, but the fantastic skiing didn’t go away, it just now requires more effort to experience it. (For more info on it’s fascinating and troubled history check out this article on Berthoud Pass skiing in Cyberwest magazine).

Doesn't this look inviting - Floral Park trees

Skiing Berthoud Pass is what motivated me to get my backcountry act together. While every cat and heli trip I’d done required avalanche rescue and beacon training, and in the course of producing two videos for the CAIC on those same subjects I’d picked up a few pointers, it wasn’t until I started skiing Berthoud regularly that I got my own beacon, shovel and probe. I also started paying more attention to the avalanche reports produced by the CAIC on a daily basis. Skiing the backcountry is a ton of fun but there’s no one bombing those slopes to keep them slide free and if you screw up, you’re pretty much on your own.

Frank contemplating some Floral Park freshies

On Friday’s visit, we decided to start with the Southeast quadrant better known as Floral Park. (For some good maps of the area check out this pdf of the avalanche paths of Berthoud Pass and these old Berthoud Ski Area maps). Floral Park has in my estimation the best tree skiing on Berthoud Pass but because it is south facing it gets baked by the sun so is best visited as early as possible. We hiked out as far as we could  without post holing and then started down (the farther you go the steeper it gets and of course the less tracks there are). The snow was pure sugar and as such had no base which made for some tricky skiing. However once we got a little lower and into the trees we found some beautiful stretches and ripped it up down to the road.

Notice the long and winding road - looking west from atop Hell's Half Acre

Now one of the fun and sometimes challenging aspects of skiing Berthoud is the hitchhiking required if you don’t run your own car shuttle. I have generally found it fairly easy to get a ride (and surprisingly even easier when I had my golden retriever with me although on this trip due to age issues he was consigned to guarding the car) but after the fourth empty pickup truck has passed you by you can start to take it a little personally. The people who do pick you up tend to be ski enthusiasts or those curious as to what exactly you’re doing standing by the side of the highway with your snowboard and dog. Either way, it’s a great way to make new friends and scout the terrain you want to do next.

Hell's Half Acre as seen from the pickup spot

The next stop on our tour was my personal Berthoud favorite, Hell’s Half Acre in the northeast quadrant. This area is a great combination of  avalanche chutes, steep glades and sweet trees not to mention the incredibly scenic hike involved in getting there. I find these to be the most consistently powder filled runs and because it requires quite a bit of work to get there, rarely tracked out. We headed out to my favorite chute, got some great turns above it, but played it conservatively at the bottom as the snow pack was definitely touchy and the reason you often see a beautiful untracked chute is because it’s an avalanche waiting to happen. Still a great run and well worth the effort as always.

Ye Olde Ditch Trail

If the Gods are with you and things are going smoothly on the tour you can often luck out and convince your ride to drop you off across from a ditch trail on the way back up the road. We’re now talking about the northwest quadrant which has the most skiable terrain and widest variety of options. To access all that, you need to hike up to where the old lift terminated, but you can save a lot of legs by limiting your options and giving up some vertical and taking a shortcut to the runs known as the 90’s and Rock Garden. This is the route we choose to take and because it is easier to get to found the most tracks we had seen all day. I was however, able to wander into some nearby trees lower down and was rewarded with a very nice untracked run to the bottom which I had to pay for with some post holing back to the highway but definitely a worthwhile trade off.

Sure is pretty up here - iew form above of Hell's Half Acre - Berthoud Pass

Sure is pretty up here - looking SW from the top of Hell's Half Acre - Berthoud Pass

After that run we decided to call it a day as we had responsibilities awaiting us back in the real world. Now for a lot of folks that would sound like a lot of time and effort for only three runs but for those of us who do this regularly, we know that one of the best parts is often the getting there. I don’t know if it’s the oxygen deprivation from the altitude, the endorphins buzz from the hiking or the great tunes playing in my ears (today Truckin’ from Europe 72) but I rarely feel as simply joyous as I do when climbing up those hills. I’m not a big John Denver fan, but when I stand on top of Berthoud Pass after a hike, I’ve certainly got that Rocky Mountain High…