Category Archives: Skiing

Waiting for the Ski Lift

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Remember the first time? Perhaps you were a young kid, or perhaps you were a teenager first learning how to ski or snowboard. Already uncomfortable, taking part in an activity that is kind of dangerous. This chair is coming around to lift you to the top of the mountain, or at least quite a bit higher. Will you push forward at the right time? Will your transition onto the chair be smooth? What about getting off the chair when the ride is done?

As an experienced skier, taking on some of Copper Mountain’s more challenging terrain, I take for granted the ease at which I hop on and off of ski lifts.

However, that wasn’t always so. I recall my first day skiing, when I was 14, how I felt as I gradually moved up in line to, for the first time in my life, allow a pulley-based mechanical device to lift me up in the air while I was wearing skis. Right in front of me was a prime example of the rewards the come from overcoming anxiety, pushing through discomfort and opening ourselves to new experiences. Winter would not be nearly as enjoyable without this temporarily stressful experience.

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Life is full of things we anticipate, get anxious or even fearful about, but chose to push through in order to expand our horizons. These events could be as trivial as trying a new food, or changing in a gym locker room alone for the first time (as a child). They can be as major as a first date, job interviews, or starting a business. In all cases, we start out anxious or afraid, or, at the very least, highly uncomfortable. We emerge on the other side a more capable human being. If we continue to take part in the activity, like riding the ski lift, what was once a source of terror becomes something we are comfortable with and do with ease.

In a lot of these situations, there is some degree of flexibility with regards to the timing at which we overcome our nerves. A high schooler can loose their nerve and decide to wait another day or two to ask out the classmate they have a crush on. An aspiring musician at an open mic night can elect to let a few people go before them. Someone feeling anxious about boarding a ski lift cannot slow down the inevitable. The chairs are going to come, one by one, picking up people. The line will move as the anxious new skier inevitably reaches boarding position. The clock is ticking!

The course of life will bring more significant situations that require overcoming our nerves; marriage, children, business decisions that affect many, as well as the many times we need to assert ourselves or allow ourselves to be vulnerable. As I face a situation of my own that’s making me nervous, it helps to have a reminder, here on the slopes, of a time I overcame my nerves and created something beautiful.

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New Season, New Resort

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Winter in Colorado is off to a solid start. Several major snowstorms have brought significant snowfall to the Colorado mountains. Also, unlike in recent winters, all parts of the state have received their fair share of snow. The mountains across the state are reporting snowpacks slightly above the long term average.

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Winter Park is one of the few ski resorts relatively close to Denver that I had never been to before. The primary reason for this is that since moving to Colorado, I had stuck with the Epic Pass, which includes Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail. That set of top-notch resorts within a two hour drive is tough to pass up. However, some of us were ready to try something new and decided to go with the Ikon Pass this year.

Winter Park is about the same distance from Denver as Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone. The road there, though, is one of the windiest roads I have ever been on.

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With an earlier exit off Interstate 70, this place may be easier to get to on days when there is heavy skier traffic. However, with all the curves going up and over Berthoud Pass, this trip could be more challenging in inclement weather. This particular trip was made five days after the most recent snowfall, and the roads were still slick.

The start of any season requires some adjustment. Having not skied in almost nine months, putting on my ski boots felt kind of hard. It really feels easy. However, the first few times in any season, it feels like I am shoving my feet into the boots and using up a significant amount of energy in my leg muscles.

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Winter Park felt similar to Colorado’s other top notch resorts. On measures such as vertical rise, skiable area and number of runs, it is quite comparable to Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Steamboat. It also seems to have the same general mix of groomed runs, bumps, glades and bowls.

I appreciate the inclusion of the blue-black designation for runs where the difficulty level is somewhere in-between a typical intermediate (blue) and advanced (black) run. Everywhere I have been in Colorado, it has felt like there are plenty of runs needing this designation.

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I also love it anytime slopes are given names related to gambling.

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Those who ski Winter Park a lot tell me that no visit to Winter Park is complete without a visit to the Mary Jane area.

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This area cover about 1/3 of the resort, and has some of the more challenging terrain. Trestle is one of the steepest trails in Colorado.

It’s easy to feel lame on a run like this (unless you are an expert). While on the run, I felt like I was taking it very slowly and making wide cuts across the mountain. By the end, it felt great to know I had made it down such as steep slope in the trees. It is important to bask in our accomplishments, at least for a little bit.

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The entire experience served as a reminder of something I had realized years ago. Many of life’s choices follow the same general theme. There is a path we can take that is familiar, comfortable and easy. It’s avoiding our problems, not having that difficult conversation with a colleague, not sharing our opinions when they differ from the group, avoiding rejection and just turning on the television.

Then there is the other path. The one that requires effort, overcoming fears and facing discomfort. It is trying something new, learning something new, facing fears and taking the effort to arrange experiences to share with others. It is the path that will lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling life. It’s a challenge to consistently follow the higher effort and higher reward path when we often crave the easy and comfortable. So, it felt great to realize that I was on this general path when I went through the discomfort of putting on ski boots and then again when traversing one of Colorado’s steepest tree runs.

It is hard to make a comparison between Winter Park and some of the other ski ares relatively close to Denver on a Thursday just before Christmas. Some people say that one of the advantages to Winter Park is that it is relatively less crowded. Judging this would require coming here on a busy weekend day. Overall, though, it feels good to have tried a new place and pushed my limits so early in the season.

Park City During Peak Ski Season

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North America has its fair share of iconic ski towns; places frequented by winter sport enthusiasts, particularly skiers and snowboarders at this time of year. On one level, the experience in most of these towns is quite similar. There are the hotels and condos, restaurants, sporting goods, all those T-shirt shops, and some form of nightlife to cater to the many young and active people that visit every year.

However, there are some major differences between these towns and the resorts around them that create different experiences. The town of Park City is perhaps most similar to Breckenridge, in that it is a town that was settled in the middle of the 19th Century as a mining town.

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This contrasts with towns like Vail, which were built up around the ski resort after it opened. Also, as is the case with places like Crested Butte and Whistler, the manner in which the town is laid out, the cultural vibes, and of course the resorts themselves make each place a unique experience.

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Visiting Park City February 9-13, skiing the 10th-12th, produced what is perhaps the most typical Park City ski vacation experience, as it is right in the peak of the ski season, but not a holiday or a special event.

This time period also produced a good variety of weather and snow conditions, with a snowstorm rolling in Sunday afternoon, but Monday and Tuesday’s weather being clear.

After this experience, I have concluded that the Park City experience is unique for the following five major reasons.

1. Accessibility

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For people traveling from other parts of the country, this is a major draw. The drive from Salt Lake City International Airport to Park City can typically be done in well under an hour. Getting to most other resorts in North America requires either a longer drive or flying into a smaller airport.

2. Utah Culture

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Saturday evening, my first night in town, I walked into Wasatch BrewPub, which is at the south (and high) end of Main Street. Arriving at a brewpub at 9:30 on a Saturday night is something that feels quite normal to me. Yet, upon arrival, I was informed that last call is in a half an hour.

All the tap beers on the menu were listed at 4.0% alcohol by volume, also reflecting Utah’s culture of caution when it comes to consuming alcohol. There are, however, ways around this.

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3. The Resorts

Several years back, Park City and the Canyons combined to form a mega-resort.

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Like Whistler-Blackcomb, the formerly separate resorts are connected by a gondola.

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Both sides of the mountain have some epic skiing, including aspen glades.

Skiing through the aspen trees is somewhat of a unique experience, as, due to climate and elevation, not all resorts have areas like this.

The Park City side of the mountain probably has the best bowl skiing.

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Skiing areas like this after a fresh snow is a unique, however exhausting, experience.

Deer Valley Resort, just a couple of miles outside of town, is the site of many events at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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It’s the kind of place where skiers can pretty much do it all, from skiing really fast on a groomed trail.

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To going deep into the woods and encountering random cabins.

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One thing I love about the resorts in Utah is that some of their trails have a double blue, or advanced intermediate rating. In my opinion, the variety of types of trails at many ski resorts in Western North America warrants some being given a rating between blue (intermediate) and black (expert).

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There are, however, some potential annoyances for some visitors. Like many ski areas around the world, Park City has gotten into the cross-hairs of the arms race between competing multi-resort ski passes. Park City resort (which includes the Canyons) is on the Epic Pass, while Deer Valley is on the IKON Pass. Visitors who want to ski both resorts cannot do so on one pass, they must either purchase a one day pass at one of the resorts (as I did), or have both passes (I did meet someone on a ski lift ride that did purchase both the Epic and IKON passes).

Also, Deer Valley is one of only three resorts in the country that does not allow snowboarders.

4. Snow Conditions

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Different parts of the country have different snow conditions. Resorts closer to the East or West coast tend to have wetter snow than those in places like Colorado. Utah’s snow this February was kind of a mix between the two, as much of the snow in the area had come from the same series of storm systems that dumped heavy snow in California.

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These storms have tapped into tons of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, bringing snow to Utah that has some resemblance to the snow at resorts closer to the West Coast.

5. Parking

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Aside from the strange way things close earlier than expected, I love Park City’s Main Street. The lights hung across the street and not so gentle slope from one end of the street to the other produce an evening atmosphere that just feels positive and festive. However I have never seen a street with so little available parking also have so little through traffic. It felt strange to look for parking for so long but also be able to stand in the middle of the road so frequently! Luckily, Summit County Utah has free busses visitors can take all over the areas, most of them going to Park City’s Main Street.

That Event You Always Find Yourself At

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We all have that one event in our lives. Typically it is somewhere in the general vicinity of where we live, but not in the same town. Year after year, we find ourselves there, despite never actually making plans around that event. For me, that event is the International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge Colorado.

I’ve been there while on weeklong ski trips with friends from the East Coast, staying at condos within walking distance of both the Riverwalk Center where the event is held and the ski lift.

I have been there on weekend trips, as was the case this year.

I have been there after day trips.

There have even been years where I was able to see the snow sculptures on multiple days, and while passing through town on the way home from destinations further away.

Of course, it helps that the event lasts ten days, right in the middle of the winter, in Breckenridge, one of the country’s most iconic skiing towns.

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It also helps that walking through the snow sculptures is not a huge time commitment. Even if one were to read every piece of information about each individual piece, the total time commitment would be well under an hour.

2019 was quite iconic. The event happened on an excellent weekend. Significant snow fell Thursday night, making for a fantastic weekend of skiing. Each portion of the day seemed to exude some form of picturesque natural scene, distinct from one another!

The sculptures themselves were amazing as well. Here are some of my favorites from 2019.

2017 was also a great year, with a lot of animal related designs.

2016 was also a great year.

2015 was the year that abnormally warm weather (several days with highs close to 50 in town) caused some of the sculptures to become deformed.

This year, the trip that found me in front of the snow sculptures was a weekend trip to Frisco, ten miles north of Breckenridge, and along I-70.

I love to stay in Frisco from time to time. There are a lot of amenities, but it is less crowded than many other places in winter, as there is no ski resort there. However, it is within about ten miles of Breckenridge, as well as several other mountain resorts, including Copper Mountain and Keystone.

The places we go, the people we see, and the activities we take part in have two origins. One are those in which we actively seek; the trips and activities we plan and the people we plan them with. The others are the ones we somehow get drawn into. The places our friends, family and co-workers chose for group activities. The people that show up at the events we go to. Events like this one, that always end up being where we are at the time we are there.

Some would advocate that we do all things with purpose, actively choosing every single action in our lives. That is quite exhausting, and nearly impossible. Instead, we must accept that some of the places we find ourselves and people we find ourselves around will be based on circumstance, and sometimes that circumstance will occur in repetition.

However, the nature of these circumstantial encounters is a good indicator of how well we have aligned our lives with our values and desires. If these circumstances habitually find us in places we do not want to be and around people we do not care to be around, it is an indicator that something about our overall situation is not well aligned with our true selves and true desires.

I am thankful to find myself around these snow sculptures year after year. They are a result of the activity that I did actively chose, skiing, as well as being around people who are up for wandering around to events like these.

Opening Day At Breckenridge

Breckenridge, Colorado – November 7, 2018

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It was the first time I ever went skiing on Opening Day. It’s not that I don’t get excited about the ski season, but Opening Day at any ski resort typically does not have a lot to offer, other than saying you were there on Opening Day and often a celebration. Typically, it is one or two runs open, wherever the resorts decided to focus their snowmaking operations.

For some reason, resorts in Colorado are always in a hurry to open, most opening before Thanksgiving, some before Halloween. Resorts in places with even colder climates, like Sun Valley Idaho and Big Sky Montana, simply open on Thanksgiving. I guess in Colorado, there is pressure to open earlier, given its popularity as a ski destination and significant competition.

The problem is, some seasons start with a bang, some with a whimper. Last year, in early November, there as very little snow at most major ski resorts in Colorado. In fact, there was little to ski on well into the season, even past the New Year.

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What a difference a year makes! Whereas 2017-18 started off with a whimper, 2018-19 started off with a bang! Snowpacks at this point in the season are over three times what they were last year. Most people at the resort cannot recall a season that started off with this much snow for over a decade!

The result is starting the season off, not just with a few good runs, but with a powder day!

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Of course, even with this much snow, only one part of the resort, and only one major lift, was open. So, despite the fact that it was a Wednesday, there were still significant lift lines to contend with.

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Everything about the experience was odd, but in a good way….

It was odd to start the season, on the very first day, with over a foot of fresh powder.

It was odd to ski on a Wednesday in the middle of what feels like a work week, as opposed to as part of some kind of a weeklong trip.

It was also odd, because the makeup of the crowd at the ski resort seemed somewhat different than usual. Maybe this is a result of the specific circumstance. The fact that Breckenridge would open early, on a Wednesday, as opposed to the following weekend, was only announced at the end of the prior weekend’s larger than expected snowfall. It was also only announced the prior evening which runs would be open. The result was that the crowd tilted significantly more towards what appeared to be college students. It seemed like young men aged 19-25 made up almost half the skiers and snowboarders on the mountain that day. I saw a lot of fast paced skiing and boarding on challenging powdery trails, and heard that “woo” noise when someone hits a jump or a key area more frequently than I had ever before!

I also came into the ski day in an odd place from a personal standpoint. For a variety of reasons, I had a lot on my mind. On days like this, truly immersing oneself in an experience can be a battle inside one’s own mind. How can we stop ourselves from thinking about whatever is confusing us? The events of the prior few days? An upcoming event that we are anticipating with nervousness? Or even that existential question, about life, existence, the battle between good and evil?

What I found to be the key is noticing what is physically there, in front of me. It came in kind of an odd way. The view from the top of the ski lift is something I had seen before, many times, having held a pass to this resort for the past six season. What caught my eye, and got my mind off everything else, and onto the amazing experience I was having skiing, was the clouds!

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Specifically, while riding the ski lift, I looked up and noticed these cirrocumulus clouds, in a pattern that seemed like a series of lines, broken up just enough to display patterns on scales both large and small. They identified patterns, hidden in plain daylight, related to the transition that the Central Rocky Mountains had just undergone, from a snowy period, to a dry one. They were the balance of order and chaos we often seek in our day to day lives, and, for several minutes on a ski lift, they were all the stimulation I needed. I was content, and living in the moment.

Whistler Blackcomb: Chasing the Snow

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Changes in weather patterns can bring risks, or even hardship, but can also bring opportunities. 2017-2018, in some ways, can be thought of as a peculiar winter in Western North America. Storms kept impacting the same region over and over again. Some areas received over twice their normal precipitation, while others received less than half.

Weather cannot be controlled, and, probably shouldn’t be. It is possible, however, to make adjustments to make the most of the weather. While this was not a stellar snow year (compared to average) in places like California, Colorado, and Utah, conditions made this season a perfect time to visit North America’s largest ski resort: Whistler-Blackcomb. Located 120 km (75 miles) north of Vancouver, Whistler-Blackcomb is the 11th largest ski resort in the world.

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As is the case with many of the other largest ski resorts in the world, Whistler-Blackcomb is the result of a merger between two mountains. Once competitors, the two mountains merged 20 years ago. To connect the two adjacent resorts, they built the Peak to Peak Gondola. This 11 minute ride brings skiers/boarders between the midpoint (and fairly high on the mountain) of one mountain and the other. It covers a distance of 2.73 miles (4.4 km) over a deep valley that separates the resorts. At its midpoint, it is 1430 feet (436 m) off the ground!

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Just getting to Whistler-Blackcomb, before even reaching the mountain, is an amazing experience! The drive from Vancouver International Airport takes about two hours along highway 99 through the heart of Vancover.

There is no limited access highway that connects Vancouver International Airport to downtown. This adds time to the journey, making what should take little more than 90 minutes take closer to two hours. However, it is interesting for visitors to actually see the city. Vancouver is quite dense, with a very urban feel (as opposed to some sunbelt cities that feel more suburban in nature). The two things that stand out the most about the city are..

  1. Despite the fact that rains, on average, 161 days out of the year (notice the rain in these photos), cycling appears to be extremely popular, with bike lanes and bike shops everywhere!
  2. Literally, every nationality of food can be found in downtown Vancouver: Portuguese, Peruvian, Malaysian, you name it, it’s there!

This is followed by a drive along highway 99, also known as the “Sea to Sky” highway.

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The drive itself is quite exquisite and unique. The road winds northward, adjacent to a bay, from which tree covered islands pop out periodically on the left. On the right, the coastal cliffs are quite dramatic, and periodically rocky.

If caught while the sun is shinning, which is common in the summer but quite rare in winter, the views of the mountains can be quite amazing!

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The mountain itself is spectacular, and steep! With a 5,280 foot vertical drop, it is surpassed, in North America, only by Revelstoke Mountain, a significantly smaller resort. For comparison, Vail has a vertical drop of 3,450 feet, and there are plenty of ski resorts whose vertical drops are only a little over 2,000 feet that are talked about quite positively (Grand Targhee, Alta, Stowe, etc.).

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Ski trails at Whistler Blackcomb can be steep and long. However, there are trails of all kinds here, as to be expected.

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Highlights include the top of Whistler Peak.

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Finding a place to make fresh tracks in the snow.

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And, of course, the Dave Murray Downhill, where the downhill competition took place for the 2010 Olympic games.

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These experiences can commonly be hampered, however, by the weather. In particular, on a typical day, layers of clouds often form somewhere about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up the mountain.

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Many skiers and boarders chose to stay either above or below this layer of clouds. Traversing through this layer of clouds is a unique, albeit stressful, experience.

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As is the case when driving through dense fog, it requires moving slowly, and it is very easy for groups of people to lose each other in this thick set of clouds. Let’s just say, there is a reason this picture was taken on the lift ride up and not while skiing down the hill.

 

Whistler Blackcomb is in bear country, and they appear proud of it! On the Peak-to-Peak gondola, the information signs, in addition to pointing out its the length, speed, and height, of the gondola ride, mentions the fact that the forest it traverses over is home to over 60 bears.

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A major part of any ski trip experience is the town, where travelers go for food, amenities, shops, and other forms of entertainment. Not all ski towns are equal, as some provide a more active and others a quieter ski experience. Whistler’s experience is definitely middle of the road with respect to the quiet and cosy vs. active and loud experience. However, there is some variance here too.

There are two parts to Whistler village, an upper village and a lower village. Both connect to the mountain via gondolas. The main village is a bit larger and more active than the upper village, with a variety of food options and even several clubs.

Outside the village, there are plenty of ski-in/ski-out resorts, which is quite convinent. As is typical of any ski town, lodging can be expensive, and finding a place to stay at the price range most people are looking for can be a challenge.

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There are some out there that wish to never have the weather, or some other kind of external event change their plans. Its an unwelcome inconvenience to have to research something new, make a different plan, spend money, and have to travel when not expected. However, sometimes these changes in plans, whether forced by weather or a different external factor, are the driver for creating new, different, and sometimes life-changing experiences.

Some would say this has been a peculiar winter, but, on a larger scale, there has always been variance in weather patterns. The average temperature is not the temperature experienced every day and the average precipitation is not the amount of precipitation experienced every year. It is normal to differ from the average, from year to year. These variations may be getting close to causing danger in some places in the West this year, but that is also fairly typical.

Whether people traveled north to experience better snow to ski on, or traveled south to get some sun, the variation in weather patterns this year, while inconveniencing many, also created its fair share of memories.

This is January

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A week after New Years, Dillon Reservoir, which sits at a little over 9,000 ft (or about 2750m) in elevation is still partially open (as in not ice covered). Little to no snow is to be seen on the hills that surround the lake. By this time of year, they typically display a bright white color of undisturbed snow. The very persona of the region is different, particularly on a cloudy afternoon such as this one. It doesn’t really feel like winter. Yet, it is hard to attribute this scene to any other season of the year.

It is still hard to wrap the mind around the fact that at almost the exact same time last year, Central Colorado was getting pummeled, with feet and feet of snow.

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This isn’t a complete climate catastrophe. There are still people hitting the slopes.

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But, the conditions are less than ideal. Half the trails remain closed. Some of the ones that are open have sketchy parts, where it is common to encounter rocks, branches, and blades of grass. Also, disappointingly, some of the best places for skiing, in wide open areas where it is easier for snow to blow off the mountain, are simply unnavigable.

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Visual reflections of the warm and dry start to winter show up all over Colorado. The open plains in places like the San Louis Valley, and even South Park (elevation near 10,000 feet) appear all but snow free. The snowpacks on the higher peaks appear shallow and inconsistent.

Colorado isn’t the only place experiencing a completely different winter from last year. After a relatively mild winter last year, the Midwestern and Eastern states experienced a complete turnaround at the end of 2017 into the start of 2018.

Chicago experienced a record tying 12 day span where temperatures did not exceed 20F (-6C).

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While cold temperatures crippled a typically vibrant city, on the other side of the lake, the continuous flow of cold air over Lake Michigan produced steady and large amounts of Lake Effect Snow.

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Accumulating snowfall occurred as far south as Florida, for the first time since 1989!

A lot of people who planned ski trips to the Rocky Mountains, or trips to the Southeast to escape the cold are disappointed. Some may speculate as to why, and wonder if this is part of some troubling long-term trend.

While it is completely understandable why someone would see bare ground at 11,000 feet above sea level in January and be concerned, it is important to remember that this is just one place, at one point in time. Last year those same places were getting pummeled with snow. Also, at that same point in time, it was snowing in places like Tallahassee and Charleston, cities where it snows less than once a decade!

What many are experiencing, when comparing how this winter has begun, with last winter, is variance, in a somewhat extreme form.

“Normal” weather, if there is such a thing, is often the result of large-scale weather patterns that vary and progress. This leads to experiences like two rainy days in a week, periodic snow in the mountains, or temperatures ranging between 15 degrees below and 15 degrees above the long-term average. Essentially, what people expect.

The start of 2018 is an example of a period of time when the weather pattern had become persistent. These are the times when extremes are experienced. The persistent pattern at the start of 2018 kept most of the west warm and dry while driving cold air, straight from the arctic right into the eastern half of the continent.

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Likewise, one year ago, there was also a persistent pattern – one that looked quite different, and produced different extremes. One year ago, a strong jet off the Pacific Ocean formed, transporting large amounts of moisture straight into California, Utah, and Colorado. These storms played a large role in ending a long-term drought in California.

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None of this is to dismiss the adverse effects of either extreme weather events or long-term trends in temperature or precipitation. If the mountain tops of Colorado remain dry, it could have an adverse effect on the water supply in many place in the west, and could also indicate high fire potential next summer. Likewise, a changing climate is something that needs to be dealt with. However, it should be dealt with in a manner that is appropriate, which means considering data on a larger scale, and multiple perspectives before taking action.

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While outdoors, experiencing conditions both normal abnormal, the only thing that can be done is to dress appropriately, try to ski around those rocks and branches, and pause to take in the experience while it is happening.