An audience of towering granite slabs reaches toward the sky as sunlight glints off the frosty sheet of ice. At the center of this dazzling mountain amphitheater, 34-year-old Laura Kottlowski glides across the surface of Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park. Her nimble spins and balletic jumps are only occasionally disturbed by the bumps and ripples formed by the extreme wind, snow, and shifting temperatures present at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level.

Such unpredictable ice isn’t ideal for most figure skaters. And neither is the roughly four-mile trek through knee-deep snow that’s necessary to reach this spectacular setting. Kottlowski isn’t most skaters, though. Instead of training indoors, the highly ranked amateur prefers to carve up high-alpine lakes. For the Golden resident, it’s a way to carry on the outdoor origins of a sport now mostly confined to artificial rinks. “It’s all about connecting to those roots,” she says, “and tying together my great passions.”

Those interests are hiking mountains and gliding across ice—the latter of which enamored her first. She began skating at the age of six and competed collegiately for Penn State University. It wasn’t until the graphic designer and filmmaker moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado in 2007 that she discovered her enthusiasm for elevation gain. Her two loves met shortly thereafter on a trek in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, where she stumbled upon a rock-solid Diamond Lake. “All I could think was,” she says, “Why don’t I have my skates?

Kottlowski remedied that in 2008 on Rocky Mountain’s Emerald Lake. “It’s so freeing outside of a rink,” she says. “There are no barriers or boundaries, and the feeling of wind guiding you across the ice is incredible.” Since then, she’s ticked off upward of 20 outdoor lakes and ponds, including Pacific Tarn near Breckenridge, the highest named body of water in the United States at 13,420 feet.

Her search for alpine ice is about more than an adrenaline rush. Mother Nature’s rough terrain (those bumps and ripples) helps her prepare for elite amateur competitions, such as this month’s World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships in Vail (September 26 to 29). During last year’s contest, Kottlowski nabbed second place in the Creative Figure discipline, an event in which skaters have five minutes to create a detailed pattern—it can be as large as 19 by 42.5 feet and as intricate as a lacy fleur-de-lis—and retrace it six times.

Kottlowski admits that Zamboni-smoothed indoor rinks feel luxurious after months on uneven lakes. Nevertheless, skating on Colorado’s imperfect high-elevation ice remains the way she’d prefer to gracefully carve out her niche.

Safety First

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lake of Glass. Photo by Marisa Jarae

Want to follow Laura Kottlowski into the thin air? Feel free—but only if you heed her precautions too.

Check Conditions

Kottlowski tracks weather reports to ensure trails are passable and determine if there might be too much snow on the ice. The Forest Service and National Park Service are both good resources for trail conditions.

Test the Ice

To assess ice thickness, Kottlowski lobs a round rock the size of two fists onto the surface. If the stone bounces and makes a solid thud, the ice is thick enough to skate on. If it sticks, she bails.

Bring Emergency Gear

Kottlowski always travels with a companion and carries extra safeguards—such as ice awls, rope, and a personal flotation device—so she can pull herself out if the ice breaks. Luckily, she’s never had to use the equipment.