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Winter’s Back. I’m back. Here we go. 30 November 2012

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Cycling the plains (and why I don’t blog more often) 7 May 2012

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It’s been almost two months, now, since I last blogged. For this blog anyway. The intervening period has seen a hefty dose of draining (but fairly rewarding) work for corporate blogs more interested in talking about the benefits of natural gas driers than in rambling about the first blooms to appear on the columbines and the streams burbling with the snowmelt.

Mostly, though, I don’t write because I worry I don’t have anything to tell you folks–or those of you who remain after the hiatus. Perhaps it’s because my own work requires so much time spent reading other peoples’ writing, but I find myself caught between incredulity (how can folks post stuff so awful?) and inadequacy (how can I hope to draw readers when they could instead be reading this?). But then it occurs to me that the quality of the writing matters not so much as the joy in expressing a thought or a feeling, completely removed from the effect either may produce in others.

So I’ve resolved to no longer resolve. I make no promises and will write what I want, when I want. So starting right now, I’ll write this.

C— and I traveled to eastern Colorado last weekend—the part that most Coloradans consider Kansas—and rolled for 36 miles across the plains outside Bennett. It wasn’t our first real road ride of the season but certainly the first that felt like an escape. For the population on the Front Range, points east of DIA essentially don’t exist, and Bennett, with its decrepit grain elevator deserted park (hours: dawn till dusk), may as well sit on the other side of an ocean.

In a sense, riding out there feels like time spent on the sea. The mountains ground life in Colorado. They exist like the seaboard, the urban landscape huddling against them as they rise seven, eight, nine thousand feet higher. Lose sight of them, though, and all sense of direction disappears. The grass rolls away, wrapping around a hillock and always in danger of falling flat under the breeze. Every so often, a dry creek bed intersects the road, cottonwoods the only lasting sign of the occasional floods and the fleeting flourish of greenery that follows them.

And everywhere, there is only the breeze in your ears and the drone of the crank and the chain as the miles roll by. This is Colorado, yes, but not as you’d expect it. Not as the magazine ads depict it. But a place more empty than the mountains, forgotten after all these years spent fixated on attaining summits and conquering passes. Coming out here is a reminder in these goal-oriented times that cycling is as much about the body, the bike and the tarmac as it is about accomplishment. This summer, I’ll try to remember that.

Switzerland (Or: Why you shouldn’t build your mansion in the mountains) 12 March 2012

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So here’s the thing about about Switzerland: sometimes, after too long spent traveling around only your own country, you’ll look at your bank account and say, “Huh, that seems like more than I usually have.” To which your frugal side will respond, “Yes, yes it is, and it’s the product of your hard work and diligence and it’ll pay for your child’s education and a downpayment and a nest egg and, and…” But then Switzerland will slink by with a  vest full of cheeses and Patek Philippes saying, “Betcha I can help you unload all that extra cash in a week.”

And of course, you’ll take Switzerland up on the offer because, well, the Alps.

For the geographically challenged, it’s a country about twice the size of New Jersey sitting pretty in the middle of Europe, between France, Italy, Germany and Austria. For the politically challenged, it’s also, you should note, not part of the EU. Why should that matter to you? Because Switzerland’s not on the Euro, and with the rest of the continent esploding and whatnot, this has made the historically safe Swiss Franc (CHF), a very, very expensive currency.

Expect to pay about $1.10 for every 1.00 CHF. That doesn’t sound bad, except everything in Switzerland costs about twice as much as it does in America to begin with. So plan on 200 CHF/night for a small hotel room, 25CHF/plate at dinner and 5 CHF/beer.

Once you get past the price, though, Switzerland is quite possibly one of the best, and certainly most beautiful, places on Earth. Folks from the Midwest tend to regard mountains as mountains. They’re big. They loom. Goats and people climb them. But spend any amount of time around rocky, pointy places and you’ll realize that not every range was created equal. The Sawatch in Colorado roll up to 14,000′ covered in talus–a fairly boring affair as mountains go. The San Juans offer a bit more relief: solid walls of rock a few thousand feet high, rugged terrain filled with lakes. And then there are the Alps, still dissected by glaciers and soaring 10,000′ above the valley floor where a cluster of chalets huddle together against  rockslides and avalanches.

The tallest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc (which is actually in France/Italy), breaks the 15,000′ barrier, higher than anything in the lower 48. And as its name implies, the glaciers smothering its summit leave it white year-round. No one will ever confuse Colorado for this place, no matter how much Telluride may protest to the contrary.

Anyway, faced with all that, we did what any sensible Coloradan would do: we skied it.

There’s more to that than you might image. Skiing in Europe is an affair unlike anything you’ll encounter in the US. There are no “resorts” in the American sense of the word, only “areas,” which generally seem to be run by their surrounding communities. The difference is this: so long as you’re in between the ropes at an American resort, you probably won’t die in an avalanche. In Switzerland, only the groomers benefit from avy control. And that partly explains why, in the 2009-2010 season, avalanches in Switzerland claimed 29 lives, seven of them in one slide alone. During that same period, 36 people died in all of America, where the population is roughly 40 times that of Switzerland.

I suspect to Europeans, this all contributes to the danger, and allure, of skiing. You might die. You might not. In practice, though, this seems to scare the bejeepers out of most skiers, who appear too timid to tackle evenest the tamest off-piste terrain. Of course, enough of them do that you can kinda sorta tell what’s safe an what isn’t based on their tracks, but for the most part, the day after a storm offers unlimited powder runs, which are exactly what we discovered in Grindelwald. Eight new inches, bluebird skies and the Eiger (which is German for ogre, evidently) keeping a close eye on everyone below.

This was skiing as it was meant to be. The Swiss should know; alpine skiing draws its name from these mountains. Yet the country predates the sport by several hundred years, meaning the ski villages typically appeared well before their lifts. You won’t find condo towers here, or mansions, just chalets perched on the hillside as if they’d grown right out of it, clustered together so a half dozen villages might inhabit a single valley. In some sense, these villages seem as much a part of the mountains as the boulders and the trees.

We could learn from that. It’s hard to overestimate the difference this makes in the overall experience. On the slopes, skiing is skiing and it’s easy to lose track of time and place. But wander the narrow alleys of Zinal as the last hints of alpenglow fade from the peaks and it takes you back a century or more. You pass a barn, an ornate carving on a chalet twice as old as anyone you’ve ever met. This place seems right, in a way that Vail with its Disneyland decorations and too-clean shutters can never match. This is the Swiss ski experience, not reliant upon the snow, which falls now and again in Tahoe-like dumps, but on a unique mixture of mountains, towns and the occasional ski lifts that all seem to draw meaning from one another.

Give America 800 years, and maybe we’ll get there, too. But right now, in our lifetimes, there’s only one place for it: Switzerland.

Aspen, in one video 10 February 2012

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Because, well, people in Aspen needed to meet a black person.

Echo Mountain — It’s a Place You Can Ski? 6 February 2012

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Echo Mountain‘s new tagline is “Let Traditions Begin.” This can only mean that the good folks who do Echo’s marketing have never actually experienced a tradition. Or maybe they’ve never been to Echo. Whatever the case, this is a hill best experienced for several hours. So why even give it a shot? Powder… powder in a snow-starved season.

This weekend’s storm dumped a foot and a half on Denver, maybe more on the plains. From six p.m. on Thursday through noon on Saturday, it took up residence over the Front Range. Grocery shelves emptied. People parked their cars halfway into intersections. And we’re in Denver. We’re supposed to be good at this sort of thing. But across the Continental Divide, another story was unfolding: only a few stray flakes had made it over the top. For Breck, Copper and the rest, it had been a shut out.

Figures. That’s been the story of the season.

Back on the Denver side of the divide, though, the storm had dropped an almost incomprehensible mount of snow. More than four feet in Coal Creek Canyon—and at Echo, nearly 60″. On Saturday, the folks at Eldora, the only other mountain east of the divide, were beside themselves. By 10:30, the place had sold out. You might think that it’s impossible for a ski resort to “sell out,” but Eldora proved otherwise. Turns out you can only sell lift tickets if you have enough room for people to park.

So, anyway, that’s a long way of saying the conditions I’m about to describe in my review of Echo are, um, rare—and phenomenal. In my ongoing, but not very serious, quest to ski all the Colorado resorts, I’d always imagined Echo would be last since I’d heard it was nothing more than a glorified terrain park. For the most part, that’s what it is: 85 acres, consisting of three “runs.” There’s a groomer, the park, and the glades. You don’t need to worry about anything other than the glades, which when visited offered a decent pitch and thigh-deep snow. Technically, I think they were closed, but in true Echo fashion, a patroller told us on the lift, “Sure, I think it’s closed but go in there. It’s good. If anyone asks you, just say someone from patrol told you to pack it down.” We obliged.

So for the next four hours, we lapped an empty chair and empty glades. Maybe a dozen other folks took turns through the trees that day, maybe. How was this even possible? 45 minutes from Denver we were experiencing some of the deepest powder we’d ever seen, sometimes so deep we couldn’t get the speed to ski it. After tracking out one area, we traversed and cut a new path, leading to more pristine snow and more perfectly-spaced trees. Except at Silverton, could another 30-something acres be so empty, or so fun?

Probably not. And that’s also why you’re not likely to start any traditions at Echo either, which is sorta too bad since it’s likable enough. We experienced near perfection, in the middle of a season that has been seriously unkind to the state’s major resorts, and it’s for that reason alone that we stopped by Echo. The novelty of night skiing can’t possibly add much. The terrain park pales in comparison to the nationally-ranked competition at Keystone and Breck. Weirdly, the mountain requires folks to sign a waiver just to buy a lift ticket. In the Midwest, all that might make Echo the envy of the region, but here, it’s overshadowed by nearly every other resort in the state.

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun this weekend—it was a blast–but if you’re thinking about Echo, sure, go for the 55″. Just don’t stick around for the traditions.

 

Ski Review: Icelantic Keeper and Icelantic Nomad 29 November 2011

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Hope you folks had a happy Turkey Day, enjoyed the tradition of watching Detroit lose and managed to get some skiing in on either side of it. There’s been precious little snow out here in Colorado, relative to last year at least, but with all the new terrain opening anyway and the ski movies on tour, it’s hard to stay gloomy for more than a moment, especially when you’ve got new skis to demo.

Icelantic brought its entire line-up to Copper a couple weekends ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the company and live in the area, they’re worth checking out in person. Icelantic runs a First Friday event in conjunction with the rest of the galleries on Santa Fe that features boards and beer at their Battery 621 headquarters (6th and Kalamath). Take a look at the topsheet graphics and you’ll understand why this company feels okay showcasing products alongside area artists. And although Icelantic creates those graphics and designs the skis themselves, Never Summer, another Colorado company, does the construction, so you can be fairly certain the things will withstand a beating.

I’m reviewing Icelantic’s Keeper and the Nomad this time around, but you can also check out last year’s review of the Shaman. Conditions were the early season norm of hardpack, crust and some crusty lumps on their way to becoming moguls. Nothing special.

Icelantic Keeper 

As tested dimensions: 178 cm. 150/119/138. 16m radius.

I’m not even sure I should be reviewing these since powder is their purpose, but if I get them again on a Powder day, I’ll come back and add some thoughts. Anyway, the Keeper name, I think, is supposed to indicate that this is a ski you’ll always have around, but having it around doesn’t mean that it’s the ski you ought to select for an early season day. That said, for being this huge, these boards rip. For featuring an early rise tip, these boards rip. Come to think of it, they just rip, period.  You won’t be running gates with the ski teams at Copper, but you’ll definitely enjoy blah conditions on the Keepers more than you ever would with a pintail like the Pontoons.

Icelantic has been slow to get into the rocker game, and now that they have, they’ve stayed true to the idea that a ski ought to be fun—not just usable—anywhere on the mountain. So, yes, you can get these up on edge, though it takes a bit of work to get the tips to engage.  They’ll slide just where you want them through bumps. And they’re flexible enough that lazy skiing will still get you down the mountain. Just don’t expect expect a ski that will offer much feedback through any of that. But if you find yourself looking for a little more enjoyment as you take the groomers home from Vail’s back bowls, then the Keepers will do you right.

Icelantic Nomad

As tested dimensions: 178cm. 140/105/130. 20m radius.

Over the last couple years, I’ve gotten tired of all-mountain skis. Buy yourself a groomer-specific pair and something else for powder, and you’ll enjoy every day more, but if for whatever reason you have to buy just one ski, then I guess you’ve gotta do it right. Typically, my suggestion is the Volkl Mantra, but if you’re willing to give up some hard snow performance, you’d do well by the Nomads, too. In the all-mountain category, these are pretty playful skis, not really poppy enough to launch you out of turns but still happily willing to hang on to whatever radius you select. The Nomads had me feeling fairly comfortable at any speed and they’re damp enough that you won’t feel every change of surface condition. Your call on whether that’s a good thing. In many ways, these are the indie equivalent of the Dynastar Huge Troubles in my quiver, with a little extra sidecut thrown in for good measure.

Edge to edge, they’re considerably quicker than you’d expect for a ski that’s 105 under foot, something I recall enjoying on the even wider Shamans, but that’s the thing: given that the Shamans also appear in the Icelantic lineup, I’m not sure what to think of the Nomad. Maybe you can’t live without twin tips? Maybe you can’t stand the turtles on the Shamans’ top sheet? Maybe you’re all about backcountry jibbing? Near as I can tell, the Nomads are the closest thing Icelantic makes to a “normal” ski, and I just don’t think you can make the case for them in the face of the other options. Buy Icelantic, yes, but you’ll get more for your money by choosing the Shamans.

Nothing Says Ski Season Like 90s John Denver 2 November 2011

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That pretty much sums it up. It’s snowing here in Denver and ski season starts in earnest on Saturday when Copper Mountain and Keystone welcome the Front Range hordes. So for all of you who can’t experience that, and even for those of you who will, here’s the Muppet man himself. Extra points for anyone who can tell me where this was filmed.

Snoooooooowww! 25 October 2011

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So, uh, everything you thought about Denver was correct. That is, for all you folks who like to think we’re a perpetually snowed-in city of igloos and sled dogs (Rockies baseball notwithstanding), this is your moment to readjust your t-shirt, sip an autumn drink on the veranda and say “told you so.” That is your right. We set a record high of 80 yesterday, and by tomorrow evening the temperature will have dropped, get this, 62 degrees. There’s potentially a foot of snow involved, too, and after a weekend spent in Seattle, this comes as a shock to the system,

But of course, living in Denver, we’re okay with all that, or at least a lot of us are. We’re perhaps the only big city in America that looks forward to the start of winter weather because it also heralds the start of ski season, which for those of us on the Copper/WP pass, lies a little more than a week away. So now’s the time to finish all the waxing and sharpening in preparation for the white ribbon on death, that single run into which every soul from Denver is cheerily packed.

Some friends from work have suggested a climbing trip that weekend instead. Any sane person would choose amazing climbing over a crappy ski day. But then again, skiers aren’t exactly sane people. I’ll let you know how it works out.

 

A Toll for the Slopes 17 October 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing, Travel.
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I just love when skiing intersects with policy, particularly since most of the time, nobody wants to hear wonkishness about Pigovian taxes and internalizing externalities. But when you’re stuck in a car on a Saturday morning waiting, praying for ski traffic to start moving, it’s high time to pull out the ole policy gun and fire off a round or two. At least you have a captive, and interested, audience. Pretty much everyone who skis in Colorado hopes for a solution to the traffic nightmare that is a weekend morning or evening. For those of you not familiar with Colorado’s unique predicament, here’s a primer from Slateon that stretch of highway between Denver and Vail:

The I-70 mountain corridor is a rather unusual piece of highway. As Ken Wissel, a transportation engineer with the Denver firm Stantec…describes it, I-70 has two of the highest peaks in the entire Interstate Highway system within 25 miles of each other. There are four major ascents, a two-mile-long tunnel that dips under the Continental Divide, a terrifying descent that features one of the country’s most-used emergency truck ramps, and a number of merge zones where traffic must jockey as the highway goes from three to two lanes before entering the tunnels. To complicate matters there’s snow, a lot of snow (“We had 600 inches last year,” Wissel says); and traffic, a lot of traffic.  “We end up with some real long queues,” Wissel says. Backups as long as 30 miles have been reported.

A good summary, but the problem isn’t all about the geography; it involves people too. The ski day begins and ends at particular times, meaning that traffic all arrives from Denver at around the same hour and departs on a similarly scheduled basis: roughly 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. All those cars at once, intermingled with the inexperienced throngs of Midwestern vacationers and their white-knuckle driving creates a mess of volume and accident-related slowdowns or stops. Dealing with traffic is a necessary part of skiing in Colorado. A rite of passage almost.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Slate article above describes the problem to tell a larger story about CDOT’s attempts to “harmonize” traffic at certain speeds. Once volume hits a certain point, a cop pulls onto the highway, lights flashing, and leads the mass of cars at 55 mph. Think pace car in an Indy or NASCAR race. That keeps drivers from engaging the the sort of speed up/slow down behavior that results accidents that cause even more delays. Two tests so far this year seem to indicate that it will be an effective strategy, but it only addresses a symptom, not the underlying problem of volume.

The real issue of course is volume: too many cars on a road only designed to handle so much. And look, before you say it, I know that semi trucks are a curse too, but they only become relevant once traffic reaches a certain point anyway. If there aren’t already 10 bajillion cars on the road, whatever dumb behavior you attribute to 18-wheelers doesn’t matter. At any rate, when the problem is volume, you can have only two solutions: increase capacity or decrease the number of cars.

No one’s going to widen I-70 anytime soon, nor are they going to build that monorail, so you can nix solution one right out of the gates. So the second option is the only realistic one, and since you can’t arbitrarily ban, say, cars with license plates ending in odd numbers from heading up to the mountains, the leaves the sensible solution of making the whole thing a toll road—at least part of the time. Congestion pricing is nothing new—London does it—but it will definitely piss people off. It will also keep them off the road because traveling around peak times will get annoyingly expensive.

Under the system, traveling at peak hours would incur higher tolls, while off peak travel could be essentially free, encouraging drivers to travel at off times or to pile more people into their cars to diffuse the cost of the toll. In turn the money could go toward expanded capacity. Or a monorail. I mean, why not? I’m not as interested in the particulars as I am in forcing drivers to confront the real costs they’re incurring when they all show up at the same hour because the interstate is free, creating slowdowns that waste everyone’s time. Time really is money, and we shouldn’t be wasting either when it comes to skiing. If it takes toll roads to get us to and from the slopes faster, then toll roads we shall have.

Two Falls, Two Springs 27 September 2011

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Climbing Pyramid Peak this weekend took more effort than I’d imagined it might, and my quads are reminding me of that today, but all in all the hike became one of the more enjoyable ones of the year, if only because of the season. I’d almost forgotten about fall in the mountains—autumn comes twice in Colorado—but the passel of photographers at Maroon Lake hadn’t. Well before dawn, they’d lined up on the shores, two deep in places, for that iconic shot of the Bells, that one you see in Nature Valley commercials. We on the other hand, got lost taking the wrong trail, backtracked to the lake, then eventually found our way at first light. So much for starting early.

At any rate, it was a reminder that most everyone else in the country seems to think that Denver’s a mountain town, a place where folks ski to work and bobsled home–and in a way it is, since so many folks here enjoy a mountain lifestyle, and so many more would bobsled anywhere if given the chance. But the truthof course is that Denver’s on the plains, the high plains sure, yet the mountains only begin to rise 20 minutes from downtown. Think Omaha, except a mile higher, so the fiction that we’re always bundled up waiting for the next blizzard is just that, a fiction. The reality is if anything stranger and more wonderful: two scoops of every season.

At this very moment, fall has come to the mountains. The high country aspens have received Midas touch, and in a month’s time, maybe less, a foot of snow will blanket their fallen leaves while the same process begins here on the plains. A month after that, as the mountain freeze hardens, Denver will begin to feel a true winter chill. Yet its winter is brief, lasting until April, just as the high country receives the most snow and the most sun. Ski conditions up there will be their best all year. Those 4000′ separating Denver from Summit County always leave the mountains two months ahead or behind.

So, this weekend, our route to the summit carried us past a rock glacier, a molting mountain goat and up a fairly stiff face that in places involved significant exposure. I can report that Pyramid Peak is more interesting, certainly, than anything you might encounter hiking Missouri. It’s a fourteener which actually deserves to be climbed, so long as you remember the helmet and keep your wits about you.

The summit delivered cool, calm weather perfect for lazing and gazing. Before this, I don’t think I’d spent any time in the Elks, but they must rank near the top of any “most beautiful” range list for the Bells alone. The rich, red hues of the sedimentary rocks in the area, coupled with the near vertical faces set the Elks apart from the standard Colorado fare of grays and rolling slopes. Aspen is that much the better for it.