Grand County, welcome to ‘Gnarnia’
December 14, 2008
Ask and you shall receive. These recent snow dumps have opened a door into another dimension, and new lift openings and deep snow cover in the backcountry lead the way to a snow-covered universe.
I call it Gnarnia, more a state of mind than a place. But you need the snow to get there.
On Dec. 5 at noon, right on schedule, crews opened Zephyr Express at Winter Park to whoops and hollers. And though the snow was crusty and the coverage thin, I was as relieved as a terrier with a full bladder let out into the yard when I was finally able to let loose on something wide and fast (thanks to the groomers, snowmakers and patrollers for their hard work).
That next day, assuming there’d be a hoard from Denver crowding the still-limited resort terrain, I joined a group of experienced backcountry telemarkers for a trip near Jones Pass on the I-70 side of Berthoud.
Following the group of five (and one hearty dog) that day, I learned that backcountry is not just about climbing up and going down, but going “out” into the quiet, earning a few turns and sharing it with good friends.
Someone had beaten us to the trail, which was marked by a daunting “Extreme Avalanche Danger” sign, but that just meant there was already a broken track up. We never spotted another soul all day ” something you couldn’t say for skiers up on Berthoud or at many of the roadside turnouts along the pass road on Saturday.
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The trail led us to a wide alpine meadow in a giant bowl of mountains whipped by strong winds. We took the climbing skins off the bottoms of our skis ” a cool little yoga move if you can do it with your skis on ” then we ripped down the hard-earned elevation we’d gained.
I shouldn’t say “ripped.” My early season tele practice didn’t prepare me for the thick snow, narrow tree slots and steeps, so I would only really “rip” a few turns before a dramatic fall and few minutes digging myself out. But I made it.
We regrouped halfway down and headed up another drainage for some hard climbing to an adjacent high plateau. There among the high ridges on that overcast day, the wind suddenly blew everything clear and gave us a glimpse of a rainbow and blue sky that seemed to have migrated from the tropics.
Then we tore through a wide field of untracked snow, through some glades and along a winding runout back to the road. By the bottom, my turns were much improved and I’m hooked. More to come.
Then on Tuesday, Dec. 8, I hit the Mary Jane opening.
It was a small but fired-up crowd at 9 a.m. and everyone charged the top off of Super Gauge Express for the good “dust on crust” conditions.
I was among the first there when the patrollers dropped the lines on Sterling Way, and got some full face shots on the steeps, then hit Outhouse and found pristine powder in the trees on skier’s left.
And I’ve been sneaking out to Winter Park and the Jane whenever I can. I’m still learning the mountain, and ongoing openings are just more doors into the snow-covered Gnarnia.
” Charles Agar is a multi-sporting fool grateful for the fresh flakes. Contact him at email@example.com.