Category Archives: winter activities

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.

Looking Forward to Winter

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No season is the subject of speculation quite the way winter is.  Sure, people anticipate all four seasons, planning activities such as vacations, sporting events, and outdoor activities around each one.  But, there is something about the way winter is anticipated, as experiences can vary year to year in winter more than in any other season.  Every October, speculation begins to intensify.  Fear and dread clearly radiate from the voices of some, while excitement and anticipation come from others.  Most likely, this depends on one’s location, as well as preferred activities.

I spent a lot of years in the Midwest, and completely sympathize with those who dread winter, and hope for nothing more than to have their pain be as minimal as possible for the season.  Here in Colorado, on the other hand, enthusiasts of outdoor snow sports, mostly skiing and snowboarding, anticipate winter with great excitement, typically hoping that the coming season’s snowfall and snowpacks will be at least in line with seasonal averages, if not more.

As an Epic Pass skier who lives in Denver, my ideal winter would be one with plenty of snow in the mountains, particularly the resorts I ski near the I-70 corridor, but generally milder east of the mountains, where Denver is.  And, given this year’s setup, I may actually get this kind of winter that I want!

I have received quite a few questions, both from people local to Colorado, and those considering traveling here to ski in the mountains, regarding what kind of winter to expect.  Now that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has released its outlook for the season, there is no better time to give my own take on how winter 2016-17 is looking.

First, I should note that, the NOAA forecast, as well as other forecasts already made for the winter season primarily focus on one phenomenon: La Nina.  This, of course is the inverse of El Nino.  So, while El Nino winters tend to be wet to the south and dry to the north, La Nina winters will tend to be the opposite.

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This is reflected in NOAA’s graphical precipitation outlook for the winter.

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However, this year’s La Nina is likely to be a weak one.  Both El Nino and La Nina can be strong, moderate, or weak, and the predictive power of the phenomenon is limited in cases when the anomalies are weak.  In these cases, I find it useful to look at other patterns that are beginning to emerge when speculating about long-range weather patterns.

Anomalies in Sea Surface Temperatures are the most commonly used data point when predicting weather long term.  This is because the ocean retains much more heat than land or air, making it more likely that the current pattern will persist for longer.  Ocean temperatures can also have a major impact on atmospheric circulation, as is evidenced by the El Nino phenomenon itself.

When looking at current SST anomalies, three patterns emerge as having the potential to impact the weather Colorado and the rest of Western North America will experience this winter.

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First is the weak La Nina, whose impact would be more precipitation for the Northwest, but less for the Southwest.

Second is the abnormal warmth off the East Coast of North America.  This pattern emerged at the end of a summer that was hotter and drier than normal across much of the Northeast, a pattern that generally has continued, although they are currently experiencing a cold snap.  This warm anomaly, if it persists, would mostly likely lead to frequent northwesterly flow over Western North America, as the predominant pattern in winter is one called a wave #3 pattern.  This means three ridges and three troughs over the globe, a ridge to our west and a trough to our east.

The final temperature anomaly that appears to be in a crucial area are the warm anomalies off the coast of Alaska.  These warm temperatures could strengthen a phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low”, which would act to steer wet weather into the Pacific Northwest.  Under this scenario, Colorado and the interior west will likely be drier.

All three phenomenon point to, although not with too much confidence, more frequent northwesterly flow across the state.  This pattern tends to be dry in Colorado overall, but, as pointed out by Joel Gratz, is a favorable wind direction for upslope storms at ski resorts along the I-70 corridor, including Vail, Copper Mountain, and Breckenridge.

With La Nina being weak, and the other two SST warm anomalies (see map above) being in close proximity to areas of cool anomalies, there is low predictive power to this seasonal forecast.  Any scenario is still possible.  However, signs are pointing, generally, towards a dry winter for much of the west, particularly the Southwest, and a wet winter in the Northwest.  Locally, in Colorado, the most likely scenario is a mixed bag for the ski resorts, with the storms that do occur favoring the corridor of popular resorts near I-70 1-2 hours west of Denver.

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And a warm and dry winter on the East side of the Continental Divide.

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(Note: the two photos above are from the previous winter season)

 

 

 

Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

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Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

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The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

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About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

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The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

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The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

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In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

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The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

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On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

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After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.

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.