Wolf Creek Getaway Soothes the Soul

“At the summit of Fremont Pass, the wind blows the fresh
fluff into puffy drifts that curl up against the embankment like little white
kittens settling in for a nap.”

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The clouds hang low as I wheel toward Southern Colorado Saturday evening.
After a few runs on Keystone’s brick-hard man-made earlier that day, a call
from a friend in Durango convinces me to load up the car for a one-day quickie
to Wolf Creek, a powder haven in the eastern San Juans.

“It’s going off,” Tim said. “They’ve got a 36-inch base and 18 inches of
fresh. Just about everything is open and it’s supposed to snow some more.”

It doesn’t take much to talk me into it. I’m on the road in no time at
all.

The storm grows more ominous by the minute, though, with the Gothic spires
of the Tenmile Range gouging the soft underbelly of the scudding clouds,
allowing the rain to pour out in streams. With Halloween just around the
corner, the gloomy twilight shadows add the finishing touch to an appropriately
Transylvanian scene.

But the rain quickly changes to snow just past Copper Mountain, climbing
Highway 91 toward Fremont Pass. At the summit, the wind blows the fresh
fluff into puffy drifts that curl up against the embankment like little
white kittens settling in for a nap.

South of the pass, the road is poorly marked and as the blizzard intensifies,
I experience a “Star Trek” moment, with flakes flashing by so thick and
fast that I have the eerie sensation of moving backwards … Hello, Captain
Kirk! Who switched us into hyperdrive?

(photo Bob Berwyn)

South of the Leadville, things start drying up and I make up for lost time,
with Tracy Chapman to keep me company, singing about a Fast Car.

“Gotta make a decision; Leave tonight, or live and die like this … ”

“Well, a ski road trip may not have the same urgency as Tracy’s inner city
angst,” I think to myself. “But still, allegorically speaking, if you don’t
break away every now and then, you just ain’t living. A road trip – even
a quick and dirty one night getaway – is like running your soul through
the rinse and spin cycle and hanging out on the line to dry.”

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The songs seem to flow, just like the black-as-ink pavement under my wheels.
Bob Seger amps it up with Turn the Page, and by the time a DJ who calls
herself Queen Bee on 93.7 (The River Rat out of Salida), cues up Led Zep’s
Whole Lotta Love, I’ve got the Subaru humming, the puny stereo maxed out.

Down through the big lonesome heart of Colorado – Granite, Buena Vista,
Nathrop, Poncha Springs and Saguache, where old pickups tilt under the bony
outlines of bare-branched cottonwoods. Every time I drive through here I
realize there’s more to Colorado than the pustular spread of suburbs along
the Front Range, and the pretentious, superficial glitz of high-roller resorts.

I turn west onto Highway 160 and soon I’m wending my way up along the Rio
Grande’s South Fork, whose swift waters have carved a deep trench into the
volcanic rocks. The night’s half over, so I decide to sleep in the car,
assuring myself a prime spot in the parking lot. The storm is breaking up,
and the faint starlight illuminates trees and peaks glistening pearly white.

Only problem is, next morning, the resort is still struggling to bring
its staff up to strength, so when I wake up at 7 a.m., I’ve got an hour
and a half wait until the cafeteria opens. And when it does, the only thing
offered is the new breakfast of champions – homemade bags of trail mix,
Snickers bars and coffee.

The giddy anticipation in the line for lift tickets is marred only briefly
when a kid wearing about $900 worth of new snowboard gear complains loudly
about the $38 ticket price.

“What do they think this is, mid-season or something,” he gripes, but his
friends quickly straighten him out.

(photo Bob Berwyn)

Looking out along the ridge toward Alberta Peak, three telemarkers
seemingly have the mountain to themselves in the evening shadows.

(photo Bob Berwyn)

A lone skier plays hide-and-seek in the frosty mist
near the top of Alberta Face.

 

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Soon we’re loading on the Treasure Chair, and on the ride up I can see
there’s good coverage in the trees. The ridges have also been pasted by
the late October storm, creating a paradise of freshies for the powder-hungry
hordes.

I do some non-stop laps on Alberta Face, dipping into a dreamy skiff of
untracked powder and slaloming through the shadows of the frosted trees.
A veil of fog is draped just along the summit ridge, casting a magical half-light
across the slopes.

There are skiers from around the region – Taos, Santa Fe, Crested Butte,
Telluride and Summit County. I ride up the lift with Jared Mazlish, a 10-year
Breckenridge resident who has been competing on the extreme skiing tour
for the past few years. Mazlish says there’s posse of Summit skiers on hand,
including the inimitable Seth Morrison.

“Wolf Creek has real skiing in the early season instead of a month of doing
groomers,” Mazlish says. “It’ll be while before we get a day like this in
Summit County.”

The ski area is small by today’s mega-resort standards, but hides an astonishing
number of hidden tree shots and short powder pokes even with only part of
its terrain open – proving, once again, that bigger isn’t always better.

We hear the ski patrol blasting along the ridge leading up to Alberta Peak,
and sure enough, early in the afternoon, they drop the rope, opening access
to Boundary Bowl, with enough untracked snow for everyone who’s interested.

Like a line of ants, skiers and boarders trudge, skate and step along the
ridgeline, looking for launch pads and the ultimate line. The snow is deep
and floaty, with enough body to keep me up and well away from the nasty
looking rocks poking out here and there. In fact, by choosing lines carefully,
I avoid even so much as a scrape, and ski until my legs are rubber, snaking
one last line as icy-blue winter shadows sweep across the mountain.

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