Feature

The 5280 Mountain Guide

November 2011

It can be intimidating to try an activity that leaves you squarely outside your comfort zone. So this year, that’s exactly what we did—and you can, too. Sure, we could ask an expert for a step-by-step, how-to guide on every winter sport out there; instead, we took the lessons ourselves. Turn the page to find out where to go and what to expect when you head for the hills and try something new this winter. Edited by Julie Dugdale

Learn to...

Catch of the Day

Never again contemplate “the one that got away.”

When I was six, I plunked down on a wooden dock on a Minnesota lake with a kiddie line, bucket, and bobber on my first fishing trip. It took just seconds for a little yellow sunfish to fall for the herky-jerky pattern of my hook. Soon, my pail was full. I had hoped to set them free, but when I tossed the little guys back into the lake, they just floated, dead. It was the end of my short-lived (albeit prolific) fishing career—until now. I’d signed up for a solo ice-fishing expedition on Grand Lake—and fully expected not to catch anything. That’s before I meet Grand Lake guide Bernie Keefe. The man is a fish magnet.

At a chilly 8 a.m., we ride snowmobiles across the ice until he picks a spot via his handheld GPS, drills a hole eight inches wide in the 12-inch-thick ice, and plops in a sonar unit—a device that detects solid masses (the fish show up as red smudges on the monitor). Ten minutes later, I pull up a 21-inch lake trout. Next, a 22-incher. Every time Keefe drills, I reel in a monster lured by his homemade bait concoction of fish roe. I have no idea how good of a guide Keefe is until other fishermen ride over to complain that they haven’t gotten a bite all day. I get two while they’re visiting.

Six hours later, I have a Ziploc bag of fresh fish fillets to fry up at home. Then Keefe asks if I want to catch a “really big fish.” At a “hump” in the lake where 30-inchers swim, he talks me through a gentle “jigging” technique so my bait resembles a bug popping out of the lake-bottom mud. Suddenly, the screen flashes: my big fish. I taunt it, entice it, and haul in some 40 feet of line until a giant trout flops onto the ice: 27 inches. Keefe snaps a few photos, and then we pour him back into the hole. This guy—unlike those sunfish from long ago—will live to tell the tale. —Natasha Gardner

Try It

When: January through March, when the ice is thick enough for traversing and drilling.

Where: Fishing with Bernie, Grand Lake, fishingwithbernie.com; book your trip early.

Cost: $300 a day

Attire: You’ll heat up when you snag a fish, but mostly you’ll be freezing your butt off. Dress in layers, a windproof coat, mittens, and rubber-soled boots.

Don't forget: A $9 Colorado Department of Wildlife fishing license. Visit wildlife.state.co.us.

Also try: Blue Mesa Fishing, Gunnison, $300 a day, bluemesafishing.com; Tightline Outdoors, Denver, $150 (two-day course), tightlineoutdoors.com

{C}

Sweet Ride

Tired of the same old turns? Just switch it up.

I’m feeling pretty good as I skid down Loveland Basin on my snowboard. This isn’t so difficult: Four turns, then five, and then…I shift to my back edge too quickly, and I go down hard. My helmet whaps off the ground. A couple of eight-year-olds zip past. I can hear them laughing.

After more than two decades of skiing, landing in a heap with a face full of snow is foreign territory. But the truth is, I was a bit bored with the ol’ sticks. Snowboarding seemed like a good way to challenge myself while still enjoying what I love about whooshing down the slopes.

I’d signed up for a midweek lesson, and my kind but fierce instructor, Rebecca Carson, had guided me through the fundamentals: buckling in, getting up, falling down, and righting myself. Carson helped drag me off the ground the first few times, but once up I adapted to the idea of changing edges from toe to heel. That’s not to say I didn’t take a lot of spills, but by the afternoon, they’ve become much less epic. So, even after bouncing my noggin off the ground, I dust off the snow, gather my pride, and take off after those mocking second-graders. I can’t catch them—and I probably won’t go head-to-head with Shaun White anytime soon—but I just might leave my skis in the closet next season. —Patrick Doyle

Try It

Where: Loveland Ski Area Adult Ski & Snowboard School, skiloveland.com

Cost: Varies depending on rentals and lift tickets. Group: $84 (full day); private: $110 (1.5 hours) to $375 (full)

Quick Tip: Dorky as they are, wrist guards aren’t a bad idea; better yet, learn how to fall correctly so your hands don’t absorb the impact.

Also Try: Aspen/Snowmass, full day: $129 (group) to $655 (private), aspensnowmass.com; Breckenridge Ski & Ride School, $85 (group, half) to $699 (private, full), breckenridge.com

{C}

Defying Gravity

How I learned to get air—by falling on my face.

This is it. My skis are pointed straight down at a jump in Copper Mountain’s terrain park. I stare hard at the jump, willing the laws of gravity to work with me—maybe even bend a little for me. It’s only about four feet high, but I’m going for an actual trick this time.

I hit the jump, stomp down into my boots to get more air, pull my legs up into a tuck, and reach back to grab the tail of my right ski. Victory! But before I can celebrate, I realize with a jolt of panic that I’ve never before been this high off the ground, and my arms start to helicopter. All semblance of balance evaporates, and I catapult forward over my skis when I touch down. Luckily, I land on an airbaglike surface that minimizes the damage when my face breaks the fall. My coaches, Peter O’Brien and Josh Underwood, are cheering from the top of the run as I untangle myself, unhurt—mostly. “I’m gonna look like a badass at work tomorrow,” I say, feeling the sting of a giant scrape across my chin.

It’s the perfect souvenir from my daylong camp session at Woodward at Copper, an indoor ski and snowboard training facility filled with trampolines, foam pits, ramps, and jumps. It’s a playground for newbies and pros alike—Gretchen Bleiler, Colby West, and Louie Vito have all stopped in—to learn and test new skills. I’ve been skiing most of my life, but my terrain-park experience was limited to heckling my friends from the sidelines.

All morning, I’d launched myself off a trampoline indoors; the hardest part was crawling out of the sea of foam after a cushy landing. I’d even managed, despite major bruising of my backside (and ego), to ride the entire length of a 15-foot-long box. Feeling invincible, I’d headed outside to test my newfound abilities on the real thing. Almost. I hadn’t quite graduated to snow—hence the airbag landing—but at least it was a real jump. Which is how I found myself face down after the biggest air I’d ever gotten, a huge smile (and, well, a huge scrape) plastered across my face. But hell, the pros fall down all the time. It’s part of the sport. As I pick myself up, coach Underwood shouts the magic words that make it all worth it: “If you don’t fall, you’re not doing it right!” —Daliah Singer

Try It

Where: Woodward at Copper (the Barn), woodwardatcopper.com

Cost: $169.99 (full day, lunch and lift, indoor/outdoor sessions); $29.99 (drop-in sessions)

Heads Up: By December, Copper Mountain will open the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center, an exclusive, on-mountain downhill training site. Look for celebs like Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn to try it.

Also Try: Breckenridge Ski Resort Park & Pipe, $85 (group, half) to $699 (private, full), breckenridge.com; Echo Mountain, two hours: $45 (group) to $150 (private), echomtnpark.com

{C}

I Wedge Allegiance

Learn to leave fear at the bottom of the hill.

When you are 31 years old, staring directly up a mountain slope and contemplating your very first ski lesson, you feel like you’re back at your first day of school, a vast expanse of classrooms and intimidating cool kids stretching ahead of you. Let me put it another way: The idea of whipping down Beaver Creek’s cliffs (yes—in my mind, they are cliffs) for five hours seems like an eternity of humiliation. It’s enough to make me shake in my ski boots, despite the fact that I nearly broke an ankle trying to shoehorn them on.

I have lived in Colorado for almost a decade and have resisted the skiing culture. I told myself it was because I work on weekends. I rationalized that it’s too expensive. But, frankly, I was embarrassed that everyone else knew how to do something I didn’t. Like the popular kids in school, everyone seems to have the hot ski jacket I don’t have. So, I’m quiet with nerves until our veteran ski instructor, Todd James, affirms that we adult beginners won’t set foot (er, rear end) on a chairlift until we’re comfortable on flatter land.

After we scoot around on one ski and learn the word “wedge,” we line up at the gondola next to the three-year-olds who share our skill level. If anyone in their group falls, a dozen tiny bundled figures shriek “Wipeout!” at the top of their lungs. Super. We dismount near a “magic carpet”—a slow-moving rubber tread that carries you up a gentle hill—and I manage to stay vertical while I execute large, slow semicircles downhill. James skies among us, watching our form (“Quit looking at your feet! Don’t lean back!”). At one point, my husband, an advanced skier, glides neatly down to the edge of my beginner zone. “I can turn!” I yell gleefully, and promptly face-plant halfway down the hill.

Our lesson ends with a green run, and I’m humbled by my wipeout-heavy performance. But as I look up at the mountain that taunted me earlier, I’m not intimidated anymore; instead, relief sets in like it does after the first day of school: a heady feeling that comes from knowing that not only did I survive, but I also might have enjoyed it. Sassy new ski jacket, here I come. —Jennie Dorris

Try It

Where: Beaver Creek Ski & Snowboard School, beavercreek.com

Cost: Varies depending on rentals and lift ticket. Group: $131 (half day) to $150 (full day); private: $545 (half) to $745 (full)

Perk: The warm chocolate-chip cookies the resort hands out at the base work wonders to mend bumps and bruises.

Also Try: Keystone Resort, $98 (group, half day) to $625 (private, full day), keystoneresort.com; Snowmass, full day: $129 (group) to $655 (private), aspensnowmass.com

{C}

Freeze Frame

How I conquered a wall of ice—by trusting it.

I’m clinging to a slick ledge partway up a giant frozen waterfall, triceps on fire, knees throbbing, wrists aching. I’d spent all morning under the tutelage of Colorado Mountain School ice-climbing guide Joey Thompson. We’d hiked a couple of snowy miles from Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin entrance to the majestic-looking Hidden Falls, where I’d stepped into a climbing harness. After a prep session to cover the basics—maneuvering with crampons, tying knots for belaying, swinging the ice tools—I’d battled up my first little pitch, learning to chisel out the tiniest of holds despite my pitiful upper body strength.

So here I am, on the mother of ice walls, paralyzed with exhaustion. I have to make a move, but I’m nervous that dislodging a tool will be my demise—likely in some sort of ungraceful drop-bounce-dangle combo. My arms, stretched to staggered points above my head where my tools are hooked in the ice, are losing feeling as the blood drains away. I can taste the panic.

That’s when my guide interjects. “Just shake it out,” he shouts up to me from the base of the falls where he’s working the rope attached to my harness. I risk a glance down over my shoulder. “One at a time—let go of the tool, it won’t go anywhere—and relax your arm. Trust your feet. Trust the ice. Take your time and reposition.”

It’s reassuring to know I can ease up on the white-knuckle grip, and I put my weight on my crampons while I let the pins and needles in my arms subside. A few moves later, the top is within reach. I can feel Thompson pulling me up for the last 15 feet or so—but I’m OK with that. Physically, I might have hit a wall. But mentally, I’d just hurdled it. —Julie Dugdale

Try It

Where: Colorado Mountain School, Estes Park, totalclimbing.com

When: November through April when the ice is solid enough for safe climbing

Cost: Full day (plus $25 gear rental): $170 (group); $150 (custom 4-6) to $295 (private)

Quick Tip: Wearing knee pads under your climbing pants will help prevent bruising.

Also Try: Jack Roberts Climbing Adventures, Boulder, $150 (group) to $275 (private), gear rental included, jackrobertsclimbing.com; Apex Mountain School, Vail, $179 (group) to $350 (private), gear rental included, apexmountainschool.com

{C}

Getting Bumped

Why giving up the fight will make you a better moguls skier.

If you learned how to ski on the East Coast like I did, you learned to ski on groomed runs (in the morning) and on ice (in the afternoon). Fresh snow was rare; moguls were rarer. You could find some hard-packed bumps on the bigger hills, but most skiers ignored them. Hitting the slopes in Colorado, therefore, was like skiing on a different planet to me: Soft, pillowy moguls were around nearly every turn. Navigating them, though, was a struggle. I could handle a half dozen before I lost my line and stopped or—let’s be honest—crashed.

To rectify my poor bump skiing, I head up to Winter Park/Mary Jane after a big snowstorm (extra cushioning: yes, please). Chris Koch, the manager of the adult ski school, takes me out to assess my skills and spots the problem on the first run: I’m fighting the mountain—digging my edges in hard and shifting my entire weight—rather than finessing it. I’m constantly trying to catch up to the moguls instead of planning a line and sticking with it. Koch’s advice is laughably simple: “Turn your feet and legs, side to side,” he says.

To my surprise, it works—really well. The next run, my skis are like windshield wipers turning left-right-left-right, and I’m actually bouncing in a rhythm down the mogul field like I know what I’m doing. I can even (mostly) follow a line that I’ve chosen, readying myself for bumps that are 15 feet down the mountain. But the best outcome by far is that my legs aren’t shot after one run. By relinquishing the need for control and going with the flow of the moguls instead of fighting them, you save massive amounts of energy. Enough, in fact, for a few more bump runs on my own—trails I’d regularly bypassed till now—before the end of the day. —PD

Try It

Where: Winter Park Resort, winterparkresort.com

Cost: Varies with lift ticket. Private: $289 (two hours) to $539 (full day); or $579 for Bob’s Mogul Camp (January 27–29, February 8–10, or February 22–24)

Quick Tip: Leave the long planks at home; shorter skis allow sharper turns.

Also Try: Steamboat Ski & Resort, private: $470 (three hours) to $670 (seven hours), steamboat.com; Beaver Creek Resort, $131 (group, half) to $745 (private, full), beavercreek.com

{C}

Sliding Scale

Get the skills to anticipate Mother Nature—and to fight back when she unleashes her fury.

Conducting a companion rescue—even if your “companion” is a buried backpack—is unsettling. I’m heaving away shovelfuls of snow during a rescue drill on a backside slope at Aspen Mountain, and I can’t help but imagine a different scenario: one where we’re searching for a real person buried in a real avalanche.

My nervousness isn’t exactly unfounded. Seven people died in avalanches in Colorado during the 2010-2011 ski season. So although I generally stick to inbounds skiing, I’d enrolled in an avalanche safety course with Aspen Expeditions. The three-day class is the first in a series of three created by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). It familiarizes students with avalanche conditions and terrain, outlines the basics of snowpack science, and equips them with decision-making and rescue skills for the backcountry.

After a four-hour classroom session the night before, instructor Brit Ruegger had taken our small group “into the field” for practice with our avalanche equipment—shovels, probes, and beacons (devices that transmit and receive radio signals for search purposes). After we’ve finished our rescue simulation, we dig an avalanche pit—a chest-high box hollowed out of the snow—and Ruegger shows us how to identify the different layers of snowpack in the pit walls to assess the snow’s stability. The next day, it’s time to test our skills in the true backcountry: Green Mountain, south of Aspen. The avalanche danger is “moderate,” according to the forecast, and I’m more than a little edgy: A big storm is blowing in and the flakes are already falling.

Nonetheless, I follow the others several miles up the trail (we’d put climbing “skins” on the bottoms of our alpine touring skis for traction), discussing conditions and risks the whole way up until we find a spot to dig our pit and consider the snowpack. It’s a lot of physical exertion and mental evaluating for what will probably be one run down, and our remoteness weighs on my mind. But the first time I slice through the never-been-skied powder, I see why backcountry diehards refuse to ski at resorts. I’m so giddy with adrenaline, I almost forget about the avalanche risk—until Ruegger reminds us to “ski exactly where I ski, one at a time…. Stay in my line.” Right. We can’t afford to get careless.

Less than 24 hours later, a local skier is caught and killed in an avalanche not 30 minutes from where we’d been. It’s a tragic reminder about the awesome power of the backcountry—and the value of this course. —JD

Try It

Where: Aspen Expeditions, Aspen Highlands, Aspen expeditions.com

Cost: $315 (two evening sessions, two field days; avalanche gear included)

Overnight Idea: You’ll need to stay two nights in Aspen; try the posh, newly renovated Hotel Aspen, ask for a Jacuzzi suite or a fireplace suite overlooking Aspen Mountain, and refuel before your avy-course night session at the complimentary daily après-ski buffet by the stone hearth in the lounge.

Also Try: Silverton Avalanche School, $295 (plus $35 gear rental), avyschool.com; Alpine World Ascents, Boulder/Empire/Estes Park, $345 (gear included), alpineworldascents.com

{C}

Easy Glider

How schussing on flat land put my ego—and my lung capacity—to the test.

When I moved to Colorado seven years ago, there was only one kind of skiing on my mind, and I beelined to Summit County’s downhill resorts every chance I got. Over the years, I’ve gotten to a point where I don't have to think about how to turn or stop or not fall over. So when I show up at the idyllic Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash on a crisp, sunny morning (yes, I felt a pang as I drove by Winter Park and Mary Jane) to test my snow legs on the Nordic trails, I think I’ve got it made. I’ve signed up for a private session of skate skiing—a more nuanced form of cross-country skiing that requires transferring your weight entirely over one ski, then shifting it entirely to the other, much like a skating motion. The ranch is crisscrossed with flat (comparatively), groomed, wide-open trails. How hard can this be?

Turns out, pretty damn difficult. The skis are skinnier, longer, and lighter than I’m used to, so my equilibrium is totally off; I keep trying to throw my weight around to gain momentum like I do on alpine skis, but just end up flailing about to keep my balance. Lean too far to one side and you’ll topple over. Which I did. Three times. On flat land.

My instructor, Brian Macpherson, reassures me that most people go down half a dozen times on their first time out. So I guess I’m ahead of the curve! He shows me how to push off in a “V” motion using the inside edges of my skis. And whaddya know? It is like ice skating. But I can’t shake the fear of crossing the back tips of my skis each time I set up the “V,” and my gliding is a little disjointed.

Nevertheless, I’m ready to add poles to the equation. They’re chin-high and very effective at preventing the tip-over. Pretty soon I find my rhythm, “V”-gliding my way around the groomed track through open meadows and woods, alternately enjoying the scenery and cursing my lack of cardio preparation. Unlike in alpine skiing, I don’t often come across a lengthy stretch of steep downhill to coast and catch my breath; every minute of pushing and poling is self-propelled. Despite my labored breathing, I’m in such a groove, I don’t even mind that I have to snowplow down the tiniest of swells we come across. After all, everyone needs a good throwback to the bunny hill days now and then, right? —JD

Try It

Where: Devil’s Thumb Ranch Nordic Center, Tabernash, devilsthumbranch.com

Cost: $60 for one hour (includes rentals and trail pass)

Quick Tip: Layers are key; even if it’s freezing, the aerobic motion—once you get it down—is a killer workout. You will sweat. A lot.

Also Try: Frisco or Breckenridge Nordic centers, 1.25 hours, $47 (group) to $64 (private); costs include rentals and trail pass.

Go Sell It On the Mountain

Rip it up this winter with a stash of Colorado-made gear.

Chaos - Steamboat Springs

The Goods: Hats

The Deets: On the slopes or in the city, these guys know the chaos of your winter world, and they've created everything from sassy earflap hats to technical thermal regulation gear.

In Our Closet: Worldbeat Frenzy hat, chaoshats.com

Where We Use It: Cross-country skiing on Aspen's Nordic Trail System

 

Astis Mittens - Denver

The Goods: Mittens

The Deets: Inspired by the smartly designed Cree Indian aesthetic that uses fringe to shed moisture, fleece to keep warm, and leather for durability, these puppies are hand-stitched with beads or a cowhide pattern that demand envy from everyone in the lift line. 

In Our Closet: The Messner, astismittens.com

Where We Use It: Anywhere cold, steep, and deep

 

FlyLow Gear - Denver

The Goods: Ski Apparel

The Deets: A hybrid of mountaineering-tough, resort-style freeride gear that gets you from first chair to back bowls to aprés-ski, effortlessly. 

In Our Closet: Chemical Pant, flylowgear.com

Where We Use It: Moonlit Loveland Pass lap‚ and the victory PBR toast that follows

 

Fat-ypus - Breckenridge

The Goods: Skis

The Deets: The dudes at Fat-ypus grind out twin planks that beautifully handle  booters and backcountry alike, with models as versatile as our terrain.

In Our Closet: The A-Lotta ski, fat-ypus.com

Where We Use It: An 18-inch powder dump on Breck's Windows run

 

Venture Snowboards - Silverton

The Goods: Snowboards

The Deets: In a world of loud logos and in-your-face graphics, Venture wins with its minimalist, keep-it-simple approach that's tested at Silverton, one of Colorado's most technical mountains.

In Our Closet: Storm-R Split Board, venturesnowboards.com 

Where We Use It: Ripping through the stashes in the San Juan Mountains

 

Mile High Mountaineering - Denver

The Goods: Backpacks

The Deets: Over-obsessive attention to detail has paid off for the two best friends who in 2009 founded MHM, which specializes in technical hiking backpacks. 

In Our Closet: The Divide 55 pack, mhmgear.com

Where We Use It: Hut trips in the Vail backcountry

Rustic Rewards

Even when you’re prepared, roughing it can still be…rough.

This is the story of seven girlfriends in the city who ventured into the snowy wilderness for a “get-away-from-it-all” trip: no email, no husbands, no reality TV…heck, no running water. Destination: Hidden Treasure Yurts, near the top of New York Mountain between Vail and Aspen. Naturally, we met over cocktails to divvy up the duties. Food list: check. First-aid kit: check. Deck of cards: check. Then, the most important question: “Soooo, I can wear my Uggs with snowshoes, right?” And so it began.

Uggs stowed safely at home, we arrive at the Yeoman Park trailhead south of Eagle for the 6.2-mile trek to the yurt at 11,200 feet. I’d persuaded the group to rent avalanche beacons and probes (see page 73), and we’re armed with maps, a compass, and a GPS to chart our progress. All we need to do is follow the blue-diamond markers on the trees.

About an hour in, I whip out the map: I’d missed the very first turnoff. (Note to self: Never rely on markers alone. They make maps for a reason.) One powwow later—and a vow never to disclose this blunder to our male counterparts, who mocked our bravado before our departure—we opt not to backtrack and forge ahead to the steeper trail we’d vetoed earlier. We navigate switchbacks through aspen stands and pine glades until we reach the two circular, tentlike shelters just below tree line.

Hardcore skiers might have skinned up to the summit past the yurts to get in some backcountry turns, but we’re plenty happy to drink mugs of hot cocoa and watch the sun set from the yurt’s little deck. Inside are four sets of bunks, a table, a wood-burning stove, prechopped wood, propane burners, dishes, and utensils. We melt a pot of snow till it boils and whip up the spaghetti feast we’d packed in to fill our calorie voids.

The next morning, snuggled in my sleeping bag, I can’t bring myself to emerge from my cocoon into the biting cold. We’d expected the fire to die overnight; what we didn’t anticipate was running out of wood so quickly.

Thunk! My eyes fly open at the sound of an axe hitting the iced-over ground outside. Someone had unearthed a log—and missed her target. The door creaks open and a voice wafts in. “Uhhh, does anyone actually know how to chop wood?” Silence. It’s going to be a very chilly morning. —JD

Try It

Where: Hidden Treasure Yurts, Eagle County, backcountry-colorado-yurt.com

Cost: $200/night (sleeps eight)

Quick Tip: Never leave home without moleskin. Six miles of climbing in snowshoes is a recipe for blisters.

Also Try: Never Summer Nordic, $90 to $120 per night, neversummernordic.com; 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, $25/person/night to $304/entire cabin/night, huts.org