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Review: Ski Cooper 18 March 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Reviews, Skiing.
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Area Stats

Location: Leadville, CO

Bottom Elevation: 10,500′

Top Elevation: 11,700′

Area: 420-ish acres

Average Annual Snowfall: 260″

Terrain Breakdown: Beginner 30%, Intermediate 40%, Advanced 30%, Expert 0%

Adult Ticket Price: $42

Best-kept secret: Cat Skiing

Unless you have children under the age of ten, you probably won’t like Ski Cooper. And even then, it’s not much of a mountain. On a whim, C and I went anyway a couple weeks ago, taking the opportunity to explore Leadville and the ski hill it owns because of a free deal from Colorado Ski Country USA. (Check out their Gems Card next year, if you want to do the same and save on other mountains, too.)

To get a sense of the sort of person who skis here, let’s take a moment to reflect on this video.

I can’t decide which of his lines I like better: “Jub, jub BOOM!” or “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” but in any event, that guy likes this place. On the other hand, if like most folks you came to Colorado for mountains like Crested Butte, Vail, and Telluride, you’ll be, shall we say, underwhelmed. There’s no gnarliness to be had, nor any cachet to make up for it. This is Midwest skiing here in Colorado. Granted, the scenery’s a little better.

The History

Located a little more than 10 miles north of Leadville (and about 100 miles from Denver), Ski Cooper began life as the training grounds for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, whose primary objective back in the day was to kill Nazis and Italians abroad while supporting Leadville’s prostitutes back home. When the division packed up at left for Fort Riley, KS after the war, Ski Cooper remained, continuing life as one of Colorado’s first public ski hills.

In all likelihood, though, you’re more familiar with the 10th Mountain’s other contribution to the area: Peter Seibert, the division veteran who, along with local rancher Earl Eaton, founded Vail in 1962. Since then, the resorts’ paths have… diverged. The whole of Ski Cooper will fit into one of Vail’s back bowls with room to spare. But really, comparisons between the two aren’t relevant. Peter Seibert’s vision and the completion I-70 made Vail what it is today. To the best of my knowledge, Ski Cooper never held such ambitions.

The Mountain

Ski Cooper’s website suggests the resort has five lifts, or something like that. C and I could only find two, though there was evidence that a third was buried under snow and hadn’t moved in ages. These two operating lifts each serve a half of this divided mountain. Lest you jump too soon to visions of a “front side/back side” split, a la Vail, that’s not the case. The back side is more mirror image than doppelganger despite what run names “Nightmare” and “Kamikaze” may imply, and both sides offer what is probably the most consistent pitch I’ve ever skied. Without signs to distinguish beginner, intermediate and advance terrain, you likely couldn’t tell the difference.

If you’re here with kids, though, the can be kind of a blessing, I imagine. Let your kids wander off on their own and you can be sure they’ll never get in over their heads or end up at a lift where you can’t find them. Contrary to the Starbucks philosophy, in some cases, fewer options really are better.

For experts and advanced skiers, that lack of choice doesn’t leave much in the way of  prime runs, but a few merit consideration:

Mother Lode to Timber Basher: Starts out at a pitch that might qualify as a blue at other mountains, then drops you into a nice flat meadow whence you can admire the 12,500′ Chicago Ridge to your right. Drop off the meadow the right and into Timber Basher for some low-angle tree skiing.

Powder Keg: It’s the only mogul run on this mountain, and even those last just a few turns, but you can weave in and out of a the trees between this run and Kamikaze before the bumps show up. This will assuredly be the most difficult thing you’ll do all day.

Piney to Burnout: Head under the lift and duck into the trees on skiers’ left. They’re low-angle, but more enjoyable than the run itself. When they flatten out even more, head back under the lift and ski down to the steeper (again, this is all relative) section far skiers’ left. You can make five or six good turns on this pitch before heading  down into the main run again. You’re almost guaranteed fresh tracks here since everyone seems too afraid to ski it.

Slot: Good for two, maybe three, interesting turns back onto Piney.

The trees to skiers’ left off Last Chance: If you like fresh tracks, you won’t be disappointed. No one skis unmarked trees here, which is also something of a problem since a lot of small limbs still exist at eye level. Despite that, you can ski top to bottom in these relatively open trees without ever crossing someone else’s line. That’s cool, but then you’ll spend the next half hour waiting for the ancient double to haul back to the top of the mountain.

Overall Experience

Coloradans’ complaints about the I-70 resorts hold merit. But it only takes a day of skiing to explain why those resorts each draw more than one millions visitors a year while Ski Cooper struggles to attract the leftovers: the mega-resorts are simply better mountains. They offer more amenities, better terrain, and greater challenges. I see every reason for a place like Ski Cooper to succeed in Michigan or Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Just not here in Colorado.

A Coda

Now forget everything I just said. For $275, you can hop on board Ski Cooper’s Chicago Ridge Snowcat Skiing and explore 2460 untracked acres behind the lift-served mountain. It includes a gourmet lunch and 10-12 powder runs.  I haven’t done it, but I hear it’s a best-ski-day-of-my-life kinda thing, and it affords and opportunity to stay in Leadville—always a good decision. Check it out.

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This is Telluride 7 December 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing, Travel.
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Driving into Telluride at night, you miss everything. Everything. This might as well be Muncie or Hannibal or one of thousands of other nondescript small towns. But then the sun rises, illuminating the San Juans. And you realize that you’ve found someplace special.

The photo everyone must take

I didn’t know a range like the San Juans existed in Colorado, jagged spines rising a vertical mile above the valley floors, almost straight up. Switzerland was supposed to look like this, but not here, not in this state where the Sawatch Range rolls up to 14,000 without much fanfare, where the the Front Range foothills elicit a yawn from Denver commuters. Why hadn’t someone said anything about this place?

And then it occurred to me, if I knew about it, I’d hesitate to tell anyone, too. You’ve heard of Telluride, though, so it’s all right. Have you seen it? Probably not. No one runs across this place by chance. Travel to the middle of nowhere in Colorado, then drive up a dead-end canyon for fifteen miles. Telluride will never find itself on the way to anything. It is, and will continue to be, the destination.

Skies?! On a bike?! Yes.

Years ago, it held that distinction because gold and silver filled them thar hills, and nobody really minded the prospect of disease, disaster and death if avoiding them meant finding riches in God’s country. If you were going to die, then Colorado wasn’t such a bad place to do it. It wasn’t Muncie, after all. So the miners came in droves, starting near the end of the 19th searching for silver, gold, zinc and copper in what was then just a valley where the San Miguel river began.

The town, named for tellurium, a metalloid element associated with gold and silver, boomed from a population of 786 in 1890 to 2,446 in 1900.  Here again, same story of western resource extraction played out: boom, and later, bust. By 1910, the bloom had wilted, and almost a third of the area’s population had departed. In their wake, they left hundreds of miles of rickety tunnels, zig-zagging under the mountains. By 1930, Telluride listed just 512 residents.

Mining continued in the following decades, albeit at a slower pace, and it seemed as though the city might drop off the map like so many other Colorado boomtowns. The mines were still churning (slowly) in 1969, however, when Joseph T. Zoline and the Telluride Ski Corporation bought the land with a vision for a resort. It would become more than that: not just a premiere American ski hill known for its knee-knocking steeps, but a stage for arts festivals and concerts of all kinds. To have seen a concert in Telluride is to have experienced something special.

Today, some of Telluride’s mining heritage remains, and despite the presence of a world class ski resort dropping right into town, the place has remained, well, likable. At first, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Was this Aspen? No, too gritty, and too few sushi houses. Was it Breck, another of Colorado’s mining towns? Wrong again—too little vomiting. So what was Telluride, this tiny town sandwiched between 13,000-foot peaks? Leadville? Yes, Leadville, with a ski resort.

Never mind that the median household value is more than five times as much. Stepping off the main drag, or looking down an alley, you’ll see a lack of polish: cars taped together, beaten-up bikes piled on a rack. Whether appearances mask reality, I’m not sure, but they create the feeling that this place is real, not a creation like Vail or Aspen. Telluride is real. The San Juans are real. Check them out.

Not Aspen

A final note: I’d tell you about the skiing, but at the moment, nearly all of the mountain is closed. Seriously. Despite near-record snowfall in northern Colorado, Telluride has missed out, and only a few trails are open. Given that Telluride’s known for its double-black, no-fall terrain, I passed on this trip. I’ll come back with another post about the mountain itself when the time is right, but the nice thing about Telluride is that the time’s always right for a visit to the town, too.

Cycling Tennessee Pass 26 July 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling, Uncategorized.
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Three posts constitutes a theme, I think, and if that theme is that cycling is becoming my summer complement to skiing… well, I’m okay with that. I can now legitimately say I ski and ride. That thanks to Colorado’s near-limitless and beautiful road riding opportunities. Really, as someone who enjoys writing, I ought to know more and better words for describing  the scenery in this state, but it defies a thesaurus. It’s jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, arresting, gorgeous, Edenic, paradisiacal. It’s just super duper if you ask me. Thankfully, writing is about nouns and verbs, not adjectives.

But cycling is about places to see and hills to climb and beers to be had afterward. For all that, you need to check out Tennessee Pass–ideally, from Minturn to Leadville. And back. The 60 miles involved may sound like more than enough, but after the first thirty, it no longer matters. It is very nearly all downhill, which of course means that half the ride went uphill. But no matter.

Check out the elevation profile:

Click to view full size. Battle Mountain is that first bump. It's more of a workout than it seems here.

Expect to burn in the neighborhood of 3100 calories. If you’re like me and measure workouts in fast food menu items, that’s a lot of McFlurries–or about three Chipotle burritos. And you thought they were healthy…

The ride begins in Minturn, a town of unclear purpose between Vail and Avon, and about a two hour drive from Denver. Claire and I departed on Saturday afternoon through a festival of some sort, one of those catch-all mountain town-type festivals that feature “local wares,” dream catchers, and bears carved out of stumps. As a rule, everyone who owns a ski condo shops at these festivals. I hate bears carved out of stumps.

Soon enough, because Minturn is about 100 feet long, US 24 heads out of town and turns up the valley following the Eagle River and a now-defunct rail line. Bumps and breaks in the road make this section less pleasant than it could be, but its two miles offer an acceptable warm-up for the climb that follows.

At almost two miles on the dot, the rails and road split way. The former continues its riparian journey and the latter clings to the valley walls, climbing from 8000 to 9200 feet in about four miles at somewhere between 6 and 7.5% grades the whole way. To a skier’s mind, that sounds like barely enough to start moving, but on wheels, gradients in that neighborhood exact a brutal toll on the lungs. The views at least remain a bright spot: the river that continues to fall farther below, 13,237′ Notch Moutain, and a several hundred foot cascade that falls into the Eagle River on the right.

Nearing the summit brings Gilman into view. Improbably perched on the cliffs overlooking the river, the town no longer serves any purpose. The EPA signed residents’ eviction notices in 1984 and declared the properties and the adjacent mine a Superfund site–uninhabitable. It’s not a ghost town in the romantic sense of the term, but in every other way, right down to the cars left in the carports, Gilman lays bare the forces that have shaped the west. If the funding comes through, the whole area will become a ski resort, replete with chalets and overpriced Bud Light. You may wonder how this squares with the area’s toxic status. The government, however, seems less curious.

The highways falls for a mile and a half after Gilman, a welcome and cooling relief that ends with the steel arch bridge at Red Cliff. If you have a camera, you will take a photo here not because anyone will want to see it, but because the bridge is that cool.

The next seven or so miles continue the upward trend, albeit at a less severe angle, leveling off as the road runs alongside the remains of Camp Hale, training ground for the 10th Mountain Division during and for sometime after World War II. Wikipedia also places it as a CIA training ground for Tibetan dissidents, drawing parallels with the Bay of Pigs invasion. For what it’s worth, this seems like one of the more, well, imaginative ideas I’ve discovered Wikipedia in a while. But who knows. It could be true. I could do more research, but rumors inspire more interest than fact.

What is true, is that the 10th Mountain Division spent most of its time skiing and shooting guns, occasionally at Italians, which is what its soldiers were trained to do in the first place. Another leg-burning six miles uphill (Be sure to stop at the “Standard Service” shack on the right for free water.) leaves you at Tennessee Pass’s 10,424′ summit,  Ski Cooper and a memorial for the men who died during that campaign. It also displays the 10th Mountain’s emblem: a fully-armed panda on skis. This Rambo Panda. Rambo Panda on skis.  I make a promise of payment in PBR or the bad beer of your choice if you can find a piece of ski gear that features it.

Descending from Tennessee Pass feels like entering another world. Gone are the cliffs and pines and bordered the road for the last 25 miles. Now, the highway stretches straight as a string across the valley toward Leadville. Fourteen thousand foot peaks loom on either side, and cows mill in bucolic bliss. If this isn’t the valley where every beef manufacturer makes its commercials, I don’t know what is. Feed lots have to suck after tenure at this, the Upper East Side of grazing addresses.

One last push and you roll into Leadville. I’ll save the description for another day, but suffice it to say the town warrants a stop when you’re in the neighborhood–if only because it offers the best happy hour on earth: from 3-7 two PBRs for $1. Drop in after a stop at High Mountain Pies. It’s a just reward for the 30 miles you put in, and the thirty breezy miles you’ll have ahead. But you really don’t need all that fuel. The return home takes half the effort and is twice the fun. Everyone likes going downhill.

Props to Claire for the majority of these photos.