Category Archives: Skiing

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.

Colorado Prepares for Winter

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There is, perhaps, no place on earth that gets more excited about winter than Colorado. While people certainly have differing views about their favorite activities, preferred types of weather, and favorite season, there is no denying that winter means something here in Colorado that it doesn’t in many other parts of the world.

The primary reason is the ski/snowboard industry, which generates excitement among locals and tourists alike. Four of the five most visited ski resorts in America are in Colorado. Statewide, annual attendance now typically tops 7 million. The ski/snowboard industry is also important to Colorado’s economy, with an estimated economic impact close to $5 Billion annually.

It is around this time of year that conversations at social gatherings turn to forthcoming winter activities. People discussing which of Colorado’s multi-mountain ski passes (most commonly the Epic Pass or the Rocky Mountain Super Pass) they had purchased, where their abilities currently stand, what their favorite types of slopes are and what travel plans they have.

In fact, Colorado is so excited about this season, and what it means to the state, that Denver International Airport has an exhibit about snow and ice!

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This exhibit includes exhibits about many different topics related to Colorado snow, including the Snowsports Hall of Fame in Vail, which I visited two seasons ago.

Colorado’s ski/snowboard industry is quite large. All of the options and all the resorts can be a lot to sort through.

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Each resort is, in its own way unique, both with respect to the terrain itself, crowds, and amenities around it. For example, Breckenride is a thriving town, with everything from fancy restaurants to even night clubs. Other places suck as Monarch, nowhere near any shops, restaurants, etc., offer a much quieter experience.

Luckily, the people at Denver Party Ride produced a guide to all of Colorado’s ski resorts which is perfect for just this purpose. While I could (and have) write at length about each specific resort I’ve skied at, this guide provides a relatively short (half a page or so) description for each resort, making it relatively easy for visitors to chose an experience that is right for them.

I was a bit surprised when informed about this ski guide. I knew Denver Party Ride for providing party limo services for events downtown and concerts at Red Rocks, I had no idea that they also shuttled people to and from ski resorts. As someone who has combined the experience of skiing and partying before, I may have to try this experience out!

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Every year, sometimes as early as late September, I start receiving calls and texts asking about what to expect, with regards to snowfall, for the upcoming winter season.

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It is here, as a weather enthusiast, I wish I had better guidance for those anticipating the coming ski season, or a ski trip to Colorado. When anticipating winter, people are most likely to hear about El Nino vs. La Nina. This year, the mainstream news has reported that a La Nina winter is likely.

Unfortunately, the forecast itself does not provide too much insight into what to expect this coming winter for two reasons.

1. La Nina’s impact on Colorado is somewhat inconclusive

According to this diagram from the Climate Prediction Center, Colorado trends to be sandwiched between an area to the north, which receives more precipitation during La Nina years and an area to the south which receives more precipitation during an El Nino.

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Some local sources argue that, due to local topography, El Nino years favor snowfall in Denver and along the front range, while La Nina years favor snowfall up in the mountains, where most of the ski resorts are. However, official observations do not necessarily provide enough detail to reach that conclusion.

2. The La Nina is forecasted to be weak

Strong El Nino or La Nina events can be powerful predictors of winter weather. Weaker events are not as strong of predictors.

It is fun to speculate about the upcoming winter. However, after five yeas of living in Colorado, and several more of visiting annually to ski, I can’t help but think it is going to be good no matter what kind of winter we have. One of the main reasons it is safe to plan a trip to one of Colorado’s world class ski resorts is that, regardless of how each winter turns out, there is a period of time from roughly mid-January through mid-March where great snowpack and great conditions are all but guaranteed.

No matter what resort you visit, what pass you get, whether you ski or snowboard, get lost in the trees or stick to wide open groomed trails, get out there and enjoy the season. These resorts offer excellent opportunities to spend some time outside doing something that is both adventurous and gets the body moving. This is a reason to actually get excited about winter, a season many in other parts of the world dread.

Winter’s MidPoint (in the Central Rockies)

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Although we talk quite frequently about “seasons”, the concept of a season is actually far more abstract in nature than the manner in which it is typically discussed.  Consider this: while the most frequent discussions of seasons refers to a portion of the calendar year, a “season” can also mean a series of sporting events, TV shows, or plays, or even a chapter in someone’s life.  I’ve personally been involved in “seasons” that have lasted as short as three weeks, as well as “seasons” that persisted longer than a decade!

Even when referencing a “season” in its most common manner, to reference a portion a year, there is significant variance in how it manifests.  For a lot of people “seasons” means winter, spring, summer, and fall.  However, there are parts of the world where the year is far more accurately broken out into a wet season and a dry season.  Others even create seasonal references based on specific considerations, such as “mud season” or “typhoon season”.  In a way, every group of people has developed their own way to reference seasons, based on their lifestyle, location, and interests.

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While some groups of people have defined specific dates for the start and end of each season, for most, a season is more of a feeling.  There are plenty of years, where, on a day like March 25th, someone in Minnesota may feel as if it is still winter for them while someone in South Carolina may feel firmly into the Spring season.  Likewise, year to year variance has made November in Colorado feel like winter in some years, but feel like early autumn in others.

For winter as a season, just like a season for a sports team, or a chapter in one’s life, it matters less when the technical mid-point is defined.  It is more significant to reference a middle section, or a “hey-day”.  This is the period of time after most people have fully adjusted to the season, but before the end is in sight.

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In the Central Rockies, this is the time after most skiers and boarders have worked out their early season jitters, (and the resorts have gotten pretty much all of their trails open, which usually takes until January) but before spring becomes eminent.

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It is at this point in the season, where, I believe, skiing actually becomes more fun!  First of all, snow conditions get better.

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As winter progresses, the snow pack gets deeper and more consistent.  It becomes far less likely to find bare spots, which often form in the areas where skiers and boarders make turns around trees, or in open areas where wind can blow a lot of snow around.

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Also, as winter progresses, temperatures begin to warm (making it more pleasant), and the sun stays out a bit longer.  There are plenty of places in the Central Rockies, like Vail, where, according to local CO-OP data, December is actually the coldest month of the year.

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With mountains blocking the afternoon sun, in December, many of the ski trails become completely shaded sometime around 2:30 P.M.  By the final weekend in January, the sunset is about 45 minutes later, and the sun angle is higher, adding roughly an additional hour before the trails become completely shaded.

This is the start of the best of the best, the best time to ski at some of the best ski resorts in the world.  The trails are all open, the sun is shining upon us, skiers and boarders are doing their best skiing and riding of their lives, and towns are celebrating with additional winter fun.

When a “season” is a positive one, like a fun ski season, a good music or sports career, or even a very positive experience at a University or a job, there really is nothing like that period of time in the middle.  Everything starts to feel right.  We begin to move about our days and activities with a greater efficiency, and, in some cases make a lot of progress in a short period of time.  Memories are being created, and, in most cases, we are making gains in the all important battle for our own individuality and/or sense of self worth.  We’re at our best!

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But, alas it cannot last forever.  The happiest and the saddest, the most reassuring yet the most unnerving thing about the world is the fact that all things have a beginning and an ending.  Even the greatest of experiences must come to an end, as, well, continuing to do the same thing will eventually lead to stagnation, and a creeping feeling of dissatisfaction.  The only thing we can do in periods like this is be greatful that the “season” we are currently in is an enjoyable and/or rewarding one, and do our best to make the next one positive as well.

Buried in Crested Butte

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There is such thing as too much of a good thing; too much food, too much exercise, even too much water!  While stories about people dying of water poisoning do exist, most people will experience dehydration, or too little water, many times throughout their lifetime.  Few people experience hyponatremia, or water poisoning.  So, health advocates rightly focus on advising the population to drink enough water.

The same can be said of snowfall in towns like Crested Butte, Colorado.  Like many ski towns, Crested Butte’s livelihood is at least partially dependent on receiving ample snowfall to produce good ski conditions.  So, it is rare to actually hear people in a town like this say that the wish for the snow to stop.   But, that is exactly what happened, after the town received close to 100 inches of snow (half their annual total) in a ten day period.  In fact, at one point, the ski resort actually had to close due to too much snow!  In a way, this is like the ski resort version of water poisoning.

After a couple of quiet days, 2017 has begun on a crazy note for the Western United States.  A steady stream of storms, transporting moisture from the Tropical Pacific Ocean directly into the California Coast, transformed a drought stricken state into a deluge of floods and swollen rivers in only a few days!

These storms followed similar tracks eastwards, producing heavy precipitation in parts of Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.  For the first two weeks of 2017, Crested Butte received close to eight times their normal precipitation amount!

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By Friday the 13th, the snow had slowed down, but hadn’t stopped.

 

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, each day the weather followed a similar pattern.  Light snow would fall overnight, providing a few inches of new snow, and would linger into the morning.

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This would be followed by somewhat of a fuzzy period, where the sun appeared to be trying to come out, but fighting some kind of battle against low clouds which would reduce visibility on some parts of the mountain.

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This is a battle that the sun would eventually win after an hour or two of these in between conditions.

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Crested Butte provides an interesting ski experience.  By size, it is significantly smaller than places like Snowmass, Steamboat, and Copper Mountain.

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However, all different types of skiing can be found here, from groomers (although, with limited visibility for much of the day, conditions were not quite optimal for those true speed demons out there) to glades and bumps of all different kinds, sizes and steepness.

For advanced skiers and boarders, Mount Crested Butte is a must do!  It is possible to hike all the way to the top of Crested Butte’s signature mountain.  However, the Silver Queen Express lift provides access to all but the uppermost 287 feet of this peak.

The journey down the mountain starts out wide open, but eventually winds through a series of challenging glade (dense tree) areas, both pine and aspen.

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Gazing back at the mountain, I felt as if I had just skied down something from one of those extreme sports videos that is often shown in loops at ski shops promoting the Go Pro camera, or at some film event.

Crested Butte markets itself as having small crowds and short lift lines.  This was definitely true on Friday.  However, Saturday, the crowds began to build, and lift lines, uncharacteristic of Crested Butte, built fast.  At one point we ended up waiting 25 minutes in a lift line.
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The combination of the extreme snowfall at this particular mountain, and the holiday weekend (MLK Day) likely drew an unprecedented number of visitors to the resort.  Smaller, out of the way mountains like this one probably typically do have short lift lines.  But, with less capacity than some of the bigger resorts, increases in traffic on exceptional weekends like this one can increase wait times at lifts quicker.
Geographically, Crested Butte has a different setup that many other ski areas.
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Unlike places like Breckenridge and Park City, where the town is directly adjacent to the ski resort, the main area of town is actually roughly six miles from the resort.

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The settlement adjacent to the ski resort, which consists primarily of lodging, is referred to as Mount Crested Butte.

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This setup works out a lot better than one would expect.  We stayed at the Grand Lodge, which is nearly adjacent to the base area lifts.

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The Lodge offers spacious rooms that contain amenities like refrigerators, microwaves, a hot tub and a spa.  There is a restaurant on the main floor of the hotel and several other eating options at the base of the mountain, which is only a two minute walk away.  Those who prefer to relax in the evenings can stay nearby.

For those that want evening activities, there is a free shuttle from the base of the ski mountain into town, where there is plenty going on.

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Walking along Elk Avenue, the main road in town, plenty of people can be found, going to bars, restaurants, shops, events and festivals.  Based on all of the posters, window decals, pamphlets and signs everywhere, there seems to always be some kind of event going on in town.

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Crested Butte can also be described as “artsy”.  Saturday evening’s artwork was highly recommended by local residents.  In the vicinity of 3rd and Elk, it felt as if every third or fourth building was some kind of an art gallery partaking in the artwalk.  In fact, the large amount of snow piled between the sidewalk and the road provided one artist with the opportunity to gaze upon the town, and paint it, from a slightly different perspective.

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Crested Butte was at both its best and worst this weekend.  The snow conditions were amazing, and temperatures were actually quite comfortable the entire time.  However, the capacity, both with regards to the ski lifts, and for the town to remove snow from streets, buildings, and cars, was overloaded.

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Still, people went about their business, created and sold their artwork, partied in the hot tubs and at the bars, and kept a smile on their faces.  After this weekend, an accurate description of what a “normal” weekend in Crested Butte is like cannot be provided.   But, we don’t travel looking for “normal”.  We travel for an experience.  One that is different from what our day to day lives are.  This holiday weekend in Crested Butte was definitely a unique experience, due to the place that we visited as well as the exceptional conditions.

 

A Fancier Ski Experience

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There are plenty of things that make skiing at Beaver Creek Resort different from pretty much anywhere I have ever skied.  As soon as I walk into the ski village, I am greeted by the resort’s staff in an extremely friendly manner.  The friendliness of the staff reminds me of the few times I had visited high priced golf resorts, and was greeted by staff offering to wipe down my clubs after a round of golf.  In a away, right from the get-go I feel like I am not at a typical ski resort, but somewhat of a country club of ski resorts.

After this, as is the case with most other resorts, I walk through a ski village to get to the lifts.  However, at Beaver Creek, this walk involves getting on a series of elevators, something I have yet to see anywhere else I have ever skied.

In addition to the elevators, Starbucks coffee and other amenities in the village, every day at 3:00 P.M., cookies are brought out to guests at the main village — for free!  In fact, on days that are less busy, staff will come out with trays of cookies and often hand guests two cookies at a time!  Last time I visited this resort, I ended up eating 4 cookies!

It’s easy to build up an appetite for those cookies here.  In addition to the standard type of ski runs that one finds at many of the other mountains in the area, the resort has some interesting areas that are both unique and challenging.

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First off, some of the steepest terrain can be found here, particularly for “groomed” trails. I use the term “groomed” loosely here, as when most people think of a groomed ski trail, they think of one that had been groomed recently, often with marks from the recent grooming.

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(Note: This particular image was taken at Keystone Resort)

This is some of the easiest terrain to ski on, a there are no small obstacles to take a skier off course, and the snow has been churned up by the groomers to make stopping relatively easier.  However, once the snow is pushed away, either by numerous skiers making turns on the trail, or by strong winds, the conditions become much more challenging, as they can get icy, making stopping more difficult.  This seems to be the case every time I go to the steepest part of Beaver Creek ski resort; areas called Grouse Mountain and Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey is where the 2015 World Championships were held.  I had heard that this was the fastest ski trail in the State of Colorado, and that they actually purposely make the trail icier for competition.  I knew it would be scary to ski here, but I wanted to have the experience of actually skiing on a trail that professional skiers compete on.

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The trail certainly was icy (or “race surfaced”)!  I actually fell three times trying to get down this course, and apparently, although I could hardly imagine skiing on a surface any icier than this one, it wasn’t even as icy as it is during an actual competition.  I would later be reminded, by the friendly staff at one of the ski lifts that of the 36 contestants that entered the World Championships here, only 15 finished, the other 21 fell in some sort of way!

Due to it’s relatively lower base, at 7400′, Beaver Creek Resort is home to a significant amount of aspen glades.  By this I mean skiing through the trees, as can be done at pretty much any major ski resort worldwide, but rather than skiing through the pine and evergreen trees that are common at elevations from 9,000 to 12,000 feet (which is where a lot of the skiing at the other Central Colorado resorts is done), skiing through Aspen trees, which are more common at elevations closer to 8,000 feet.  Skiing in the Aspens offers a somewhat different tree skiing experience, primarily due to Aspen trees having significantly less branches.

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Discussion of Beaver Creek can be somewhat polarizing (although there is something polarizing about every resort in Central Colorado).  Beaver Creek is slightly farther away from Denver than Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Vail.  This means that the resort can often be slightly less crowded, but also means that most people who decide to visit this resort must consciously decide to drive past those other resorts.  Some people find the interesting experience, the unique amenities, cookies and special treatment worth the extra travel (and extra money).  Others don’t.

 

As an EPIC Season Pass holder, the money does not factor into the equation.  It is pretty much only the travel and opportunity cost.  Every time I come to Beaver Creek, I process the experience hoping to come to some kind of major interesting revelation about what makes some people chose the activities they do when they do.  In the end, all I actually end up thinking about is how much different the experience is than the experience I get at other resorts in the area, even Vail which is known to be a pretty fancy place in it’s own respect.

When I think about the people I ski with on a regular basis, I see a spectrum of attitudes, related to skiing, as there is with any activity.  On one side, there are the people who like to find something they like and stick to it.  These are the people who would be content to buy a pass to one resort, find their one favorite neighborhood bar, or have a standard order at a specific restaurant that they order every time.  These are the people who just want to enjoy the activity, and, know something they already enjoy, so feel no need to keep searching for something else.  On the other side are people who are always looking for variety, and always looking to mix things up.  People on this side of the spectrum can get bored going to the same places repeatedly even if they are incredible experiences.  In reality, almost everyone fits somewhere between these two extremes I describe.  I wonder, though, if for some people, particularly those who live in the area and ski somewhere in Central Colorado almost every weekend, if visiting Beaver Creek is a way to mix things up, doing something different, and ensuring that we get that variety in our experiences.  That may be what motivates many people to drive by Keystone, drive by Copper Mountain, and finally drive by Vail and come here to Beaver Creek.

When We Get Stuck

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Here we are, on the verge of something great!  It is right in front of us, in plain sight, a brand new endeavor, a great idea, something that’s going to either change the world, change our lives, or just be one heck of a great time!  The path in front of us is clear, exciting, invigorating.  Never have we felt so alive!  With excitement, enthusiasm, and passion, we enter this new endeavor without hesitation.  We do our due diligence, of course, but the excitement of what lies ahead by far overwhelms any concerns about what could possibly go wrong.

But then it happens.  Shortly into this new endeavor, due to something we either overlooked, poorly estimated, or never even considered in the first place, we find ourselves stuck, much like I was in Vail’s Orient Bowl.  That morning, I got off the ski lift, and saw the 15″ of fresh powder that Vail had recently received.  Instead of following tracks already made by those who skied in this area earlier in the day, I wanted to make my own tracks.  I expected a wild ride through this fresh powder!  On the contrary, I suddenly found myself slowing down, and sinking. The realization that I would find myself at a standstill, and need to work to dig my way back on track, is much akin to the realization many of us have when we realize that some aspect of our plan is not going to materialize the way we had anticipated.

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What is strange is that this experience, of suddenly finding myself stuck occurred at Vail Resort.  Vail Resort is not only home to one of the largest and highest rated ski resorts in the world, but it is also home to a ski museum, which has artifacts of the history of both skiing and the resort itself.

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Vail ski mountain was founded by a man named Pete Siebert, who fought in World War 2 as part of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.  This group of soldiers trained in the mountains of Colorado, mainly on skis, and were subsequently deployed to Northern Italy to lead an attack, on skis, in the heart of one of the Nazi strongholds in the region.  Many of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, despite being from many different places all over the country, found their way back to Colorado, and alongside Siebert, helped develop the skiing industry into what it is today.

The story of skiing, and the story of Vail is summarized quite nicely at the Colorado Ski Museum.  In fact, the museum has other exhibits, including one on snowboarding, a bunch of facts about the origin of downhill skiing, which pre-dates Vail and even the 10th Mountain Division’s World War II efforts, and one that shows the history of the U.S. participation in skiing and snowboarding events in the Olympic Games.

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Yes, I had to get my picture taken with one of my favorite athletes, even if it is only a cardboard cutout.  I was not sure if I would get kicked out for taking this photo, so I made it quick.

The abridged version of the story of Vail is that it opened on December 15, 1962, struggled for a couple of years (the second year they had a snow drought and brought in the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to perform a snow dance for them), and then the resort took off in the later half of the 1960s.  After that, the resort periodically expanded, eventually combined with Beaver Creek and became what it is today.  For more details, I would seriously recommend visiting the museum.  With only a $3 suggested donation, it is a great activity for kind of day where skiers and snowboarders need to take an hour or two off due to weather or exhaustion.

The aspect of Vail’s history that is largely not covered by the Museum is the one that pertained to my own experience earlier that day- getting stuck.  The museum has an exhibit, and a video describing the 10th Mountain Division, how they trained, and what they accomplished.  They also describe the history of Vail as a ski resort in detail.  But, the 10th Mountain Division disbanded at the end of 1945, when the war ended.  Vail resort opened in 1962.  The only discussion of this roughly 17 year time period between these two events, was that Mr. Siebert was looking for the perfect place to open a ski resort.

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In detail, what did Pete Siebert do from 1946 through roughly 1960 (when he started laying the groundwork for Vail)?  Nobody knows, but it is definitely possible that he got stuck, much in the same way I was earlier that day.  Maybe, like many who returned from World War II, he came back and did not know what to do during Peacetime.  Or maybe, he looked at places for years and could not find the right one.  It is possible that he could have had a few “false starts”.

Those of us that have ever been, or currently are, stuck, can take solace in the fact that Mr. Siebert eventually, despite what is likely close to a decade of being stuck, put together a world class ski resort.  Additionally, many of his fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers contributed to what Vail eventually became (the shops, restaurants, and even clubs that popped up in Vail Village).

After being stuck in the snow, I eventually made it down the mountain.  In fact, after only a short delay, I was able to climb my way out of the deep snow into a set of tracks just to my left.  Despite the fact that I did not get what I wanted out of that particular experience, I had a great experience with the remainder of that particular run, finding areas of deep powder farther down, where the terrain is a bit steeper, and then shooting through some glades.

In this particular case, I had no choice but to try to climb my way out of this section of deep powder.  In may other situations in life, we do have the option to give up.  Unfortunately, we often do prematurely, sometimes simply knowing that there is an easier path.  But, the easier path is rarely the more rewarding one.  The experience of getting stuck in the snow only to eventually have a great remainder of the run, followed by seeing a parallel experience with the founding of the very resort I was skiing at reminded me that it is often worthwhile to get “unstuck”, but also that it is less of a catastrophe to be stuck in the first place than we often imagine.

We live in a culture that reprimands people for being stuck only for a couple of months.  Two months with nothing to show for it- you’re on thin ice …. or out of a job!  Sometimes I even reprimand myself for “wasting” a single day!  Pete Siebert may have been stuck for over a decade!  Yet, he eventually founded Vail, and the experience of living in, or visiting, Colorado would not be the same if it weren’t for this important contribution.  So, maybe we need to be less hard on each other, and be less hard on ourselves.

What to Expect from winter 2015-16 in Colorado

Forecasting the weather weeks to months ahead of time can often be problematic. Computer models that project atmospheric conditions into the future typically only provide utility out to 10-14 days, depending on who you ask. After that, forecasts often become erroneous due to what is often referred to as the “chaos effect”. In fact, there are many that believe that forecasting the weather for a specific day is only useful out to roughly 7-10 days. Most people manage their weather expectations beyond the 7-10 day horizon not by forecasting a specific event, but by describing more general expected trends.  It is more common to say something like “It is likely that the period from 14-21 days out will be warmer and drier than normal across much of the Western United States”.

Scientifically credible seasonal forecasts tend to rely on larger scale phenomenon that have been shown to impact our weather in the past. Luckily, for this upcoming season, the winter of 2015-16, there are two such phenomenon that could give us some significant foresight into what we could expect out of this coming winter.

The first, and most obvious one is the strong El Nino that is already underway. Strong El Nino conditions typically bring wet weather to the Southern United States due to a strong sub-tropical jet stream. In particular, California can be the recipient of some heavy rainfall, which hopefully can help give the state some much needed relief from the extreme drought conditions than have been experiencing. The other major impact, on a national level, is that the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains tend to have milder than average winters during strong El Ninos.

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Unfortunately, maps like this one often make it ambiguous as to what impact El Nino typically has on the weather here in Colorado. On this map, as well as nearly every map of El Nino impacts, Colorado is in kind of a neutral zone, where areas to the south are wetter than usual, and areas to the north are drier than usual. However, as any resident of Colorado knows, Colorado’s rugged terrain has a significant impact on the weather here. Therefore, it is possible to discern some more local impacts that occur here in Colorado, as different large scale wind patterns are impacted by Colorado’s many mountain ranges. There are many sources of information regarding how Colorado fares during a strong El Nino year. Below is a graphical summary of these impacts.

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In addition to El Nino, there is another major weather feature that could have a profound impact on our weather this winter. Not only are there warmer than normal ocean temperatures along the equator associated with the strong El Nino, but there is another section of extremely warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean farther north. This section of warm temperatures off the west coast of North America is being labelled “The Blob”. “The Blob” formed due to a persistent period of warmer and drier weather over the past several years. This is the weather pattern that lead to the extreme drought in California in the first place, and, now threatens to keep much of California in drought conditions despite the El Nino.

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The easiest way to describe the impact “The Blob” is going to have on our winter weather is that it is going to try to produce conditions similar to last winter. Last winter was warm and dry over much of the West due to a persistent ridge, labelled “the ridge of death” by snow enthusiasts at OpenSnow, which is often associated with warmer sea surface temperatures off the Pacific Coast of North America.

While it is hard to imagine “The Blob” completely overwhelming the impacts of this historic El Nino, it does have the potential to modify them. Firstly, it could make the Pacific Northwest drier, and reduce the amount of rainfall California receives, particularly Northern California. Over Colorado, more frequent ridging, and/or dry Northwesterly flow aloft will reduce the likelihood of major Front Range upslope snowstorms, and increase the likelihood of a drier than normal winter over parts of Central Colorado, including many of the major ski resorts such as Vail, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. Those who hate extreme cold, though, will be comforted by the fact that the likelihood of sub-zero conditions across most of the state will be significantly below average this season.