Ski Big or Go Home

Our first Winter Park expedition was a HUGE success!

Several different sets of friends just sent me some amazing photos of the huge powder dump they were skiing in during an early-April blizzard.  My first reaction was “Wow, that would suck to run through!” That was the moment I realized that the 2017-18 ski season was over.

But boy howdy, what a season it turned out to be! The last two winters have definitely been “investment” seasons largely spent on the bunny slope or in the lodge with the kids; getting them toughened up and skilled up enough to really ski.  After a total of eight days at Keystone (four each winter), Joe (then 8) was tentatively tackling the easier blue runs while Ellie (then 4) was gamely snowplowing her way down the easy greens.  I (then 40-mumble) would sneak out now and then for an ambitious descent or two between shifts on the bunny slope. The investment has paid off in a big way!

Joe gets comfortable with speed at Steamboat

This season, we decided to commit to skiing as a family activity and shelled out the considerable cash for the Rocky Mountain Superpass Plus which would get us unlimited access to three local ski areas (Eldora, Copper, Winter Park) within a two-hour drive, and a handful of days each at a couple of destination resorts (Steamboat, Crested Butte). I’ve never had a ski pass before and it was quite a mental transition to go through; I’m used to carefully husbanding my four days for the season until optimal conditions, then going hard all day (modulo kids). This year, we enjoyed being able to take partial days on the slopes and not feel like we weren’t getting our money’s worth.

Captain Power Wedge skis Jack Kendrick at WP.

With a dozen or so days on the mountains, more than all previous years combined, both kids improved immensely (and their parents with them!). Ellie (now 5) is now about where Joe was last year being able to get down the easy and moderate blue runs with no problem. Joe (now 9) went from a tentative blue skier to a tentative black skier and he’s developed the cojones to tackle some pretty impressive routes; we got down both Trestle (huge moguls and cliffs) and Medicine Man (steep trees) at Winter Park in good order though no one award any particular style points for either. Mostly, he discovered the joys of skiing lower-angled trees when you’re only four feet tall and can zip around much better than your pop!

As for myself, I never like to blame the hardware for my own shortcomings, but I wondered if maybe my vintage, mid-90s skinny skis were maybe holding me back. Graduating mid-season to a set fatter, curvier, more modern planks (2013 Volkl RTM 84s) was revelatory!  Whether from the skis themselves or simply an attitudinal shift, my skiing suddenly improved hugely in mid-February! Honestly it’s a little scary!

Have we reached that point where the kids are better than we are? Amy and Joe are probably about the same level now (she’s better, but he’s braver). I’m still able to ski harder lines than Joe thanks to experience and strength, but I predict that will only hold for about two more years. If Ellie continues to improve at this level, she’ll be really flying next year!

The resorts:

One fun aspect of this season was skiing at five different mountains and exploring their different cultures and styles.

Eldora (four days): Our local, small-by-CO-standards ski hill which is still twice the size of what I grew up with in New Hampshire, was our go-to place for low-commitment skiing. It was nice to go for a few hours, get in a half-dozen runs, then come home. Conditions tended to be variable, often with wind and ice. But the new high-speed six-pack lift up the main mountain has made it possible to get in a huge amount of skiing on the front side. Joe and I were there for a nice November opening weekend. My best Eldora day, however, was a Friday spring skiing day with Jeremy in which we had bluebird conditions bracketed by a pair of blizzards. We managed some epic descents of the black and double-black trees as well as some sublime freshies on the groomers. (I also managed one weird, nocturnal up-hill race, but that is a different story.)

Exploring the high lifts at Copper.

Copper (three days): We skied Copper for the first time in late December and were a bit unimpressed – terrible snow, clogged with out-of-state tourists, long lines, and a complicated set-up of moving around the mountain. Amy and I went back there for two days over spring break and found it completely changed and completely great. This time there was plenty of snow (albeit for a pretty low-snow year), no lift lines, and a really great, relaxing time. The high point for me was exploring some of the back bowls and high lifts (T-bars!) in gorgeous conditions.

Winter Park (four days): WP was probably our favorite resort of the season based both on the mountain itself and the quartet of really great days we had there. It took a little while to get our bearings, but there were plenty of good runs at all levels. This is where Ellie graduated from skiing the easiest runs to some long, legitimately great cruisers like Jack Kendrick and White Rabbit. Their “Seven Territories” feature is a bit gimmicky, but it gave Joe and I an excuse to explore all aspects of the mountain (we hit six out of the seven). There were a lot of great experiences at WP such as exploring the trees with Jeremy and our boys, attacking Trestle with Jake and our boys, and poking around with Andy, but my favorite was probably the really great Upper Thunderbird in the Eagle Wind territory (moderately steep but wide-open trees in billowy powder). Part of the fun at Winter Park were the various friends who skied with us there: Carlsons, Lewises, and finally, my old pal Andy who invited us to stay with his family in their condo. Great times start to finish!

Steamboat (four days): Steamboat is legendary and I was very much looking forward to four days there shortly after New Years. Unfortunately, it was Texas Week (really, it’s a thing) and the snow was terrible. Our first full day there started out as one of the worst days I’ve ever had skiing. I’d taken Ellie (not yet as confident as she finished the season) down Sundial, supposedly a green run from the summit of the mountain only to find mogul fields and exposed rocks on what was rated a beginner run. When asked about it, officials said, “well, we have to get these runs open”. No, you really don’t.  I would have been happy enough doing laps on the easy stuff down low.

Texas week was weird as well; special airfare from all the Texas airports to Colorado, a country music festival, people skiing in jeans, bars advertising “We have Texas Beer!!!!”.  One wonders why come to Colorado at all?

However, we had some good times at The ‘Boat too. My highlight was probably watching Joe ski his first black diamond (Alarm Clock) and messing about in the Morningside Bowl as well as finding out way down the mountain (which takes a long time!) with Joe during a blinding blizzard. Our final day was a powder day and that almost, almost, made up for the lack of snow on the first three days.

The Elk Range from Crested Butte.

Crested Butte (two days): Thanks to the hospitality of our friends Jason and Meggan, we managed two days at the legendary Crested Butte. Even though this was President’s Day long weekend when the place is supposedly crowded with Denver-area people, we rarely had lines and had two bluebird days on decent (if thin) snow. Jason showed me around thoroughly and abused me on some really fun blue runs. Ratings are a little different at the Butte. The highlight for me at CB was the second day when Ellie and I spent the whole day skiing together. Normally Amy and I will trade off kid duty part-way through the day, but I was content on Sunday to just ski with my girl the whole day. We did laps on the Painterboy lift and the Family Ski-cross course. It was really great!

“Oh, but the traffic!”

Traveling on I-70 on a ski weekend is legendarily awful. Previous seasons we’d always leave early enough such that we were headed west by 6 am and usually it was okay. This year we adopted a more laissez-faire attitude toward traffic and, mostly, it turned out okay.  We were usually there early enough to park and get a reasonable amount of skiing in before lunch.  With the more intensive skiing this year, that was usually enough.  Coming home, we’d usually leave late enough to miss the east-bound traffic.

The one notable exception was one Winter Park trip in which traffic was fully horrific: three hours out and four on the way home (it’s normally two hours each way). The less said about that the better.  Still, I have no regrets.

So what’s next?

A mid-season equipment change made a huge difference.

The kids are hooked. The wife is hooked. After years of being somewhat indifferent to riding lifts and having more of a draw toward earning my own turns on a dirtbag telemark rig, I’ve come to the conclusion that a) I like the turns a lot, and b) I suck at telemarking. So we’ve shelled out for the new Ikon pass which will for 20% more money give us 90% of the same skiing we had this season (grumble grumble). Yeah, progress.

It was a terrible snow year in Colorado, but it was a huge year for Team Danforth. If we can have another year like that, with more improvement on all our parts, it will be worth it.  I predict that I have two more seasons, max, of being able to out-ski Joe.  Hopefully we both survive the experience.

The hard numbers:

If I can’t quantify it, it doesn’t count, right? I’m a data geek and keep track of all this stuff, so here are the hard numbers for my personal ski season:

Mountains: 5
Days: 17
Lifts ridden: 167 (includes rope tows, T-bars, everything)
Vertical drop: 45,500 meters
And the most important metric of all, friends/family skied with: 23.
That was huge. Let’s do it again!

2017-18 Ski season log

11/26 Eldora #1 9 1600 https://www.strava.com/activities/1292124350
12/10 Eldora #2 16 1200 https://www.strava.com/activities/1309942127
12/28 Copper #1 6 1800 https://www.strava.com/activities/1331221659
1/4 Steamboat #1 3 400 https://www.strava.com/activities/1372080547
1/5 Steamboat #2 6 2600 https://www.strava.com/activities/1346389042
1/6 Steamboat #3 9 3600 https://www.strava.com/activities/1346388911
1/7 Steamboat #4 3 400 https://www.strava.com/activities/1346388903
1/14 Winter Park #1 11 3100 https://www.strava.com/activities/1357976754
1/28 Eldora #3 8 2400 https://www.strava.com/activities/1380666164
2/11 Winter Park #2 9 3100 https://www.strava.com/activities/1403609482
2/17 Crested Butte #1 17 3500? [didn’t record]
2/18 Crested Butte #2 13 2300 https://www.strava.com/activities/1416056181
3/3 Winter Park #3 14 5200 https://www.strava.com/activities/1436856352
3/4 Winter Park #4 4 1500 https://www.strava.com/activities/1436856337
3/23 Eldora #4 12 4700 https://www.strava.com/activities/1467961336
3/27 Copper #2 18 5400 https://www.strava.com/activities/1477017203
3/28 Copper #3 9 2700 https://www.strava.com/activities/1477017196
totals: 5 mountains, 17 days, 167 lifts, 45,500 vertical meters
friends/family skied with: 23

2016-17 Ski season log (for comparison)
4/2/17 Keystone #4 15 4700 https://www.strava.com/activities/925895106
3/5/17 Keystone #3 14 3200 https://www.strava.com/activities/889466197
2/16/17 Keystone #2 11 3600 https://www.strava.com/activities/869130684
totals: 1 mountain, 4 days, 45 (est.), 15,000 (est)

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