Colorado: My Rocky Mountain high

By Andrew Louis

Andrew Louis hones his ski skills — and falls in love.
Andrew Louis improved his skiing on a trip to the Steamboat and Telluride skifields in Colorado. Photo / Andrew Louis
Andrew Louis improved his skiing on a trip to the Steamboat and Telluride skifields in Colorado. Photo / Andrew Louis

From the plane window I get a glimpse of her and it is love at first sight. I've flown over seas and oceans just to meet her. A feeling of guilt washes over me at having to leave the wife back in New Zealand. But as I step out on to the tarmac, she takes my breath away, literally. At 2000m above sea level the air is dry and has less oxygen.

Wearing a white winter coat, she is more beautiful in person than in her photos on Google. "She" is Colorado's Rocky Mountain range.

I am in the town of Steamboat Springs, named by early trappers who heard chugging that reminded them of a steamboat coming from a hot spring. When the railroad was built in 1909 the spring remained, but you could non longer hear the trademark sound.

On our first day at Steamboat Ski Resort, the weather is sunny and there is no wind, but it is still chilly. Tim, our guide, asks whether we want instruction to improve our skiing or just a guide around the mountain. The others - being more advanced than me - say they prefer a guide. Being a self-taught skier I, on the other hand, would like some formal instruction.

Tim watches me ski one run and says I have good form. Most "self-taught" skiers tend to lift their skis when they turn which he says isn't the case with me.

He gets me to gently lean from one edge to the other. This is a more efficient way of skiing - and so much more enjoyable. Instead of braking on each turn, losing momentum and using up vast amounts of energy, I am able to ski faster and longer without stopping for a rest every 100 metres.

Normally by lunchtime my thighs would be burning but my legs feel great and want to keep going. I find I am able to keep up with my colleagues and even leave some in my wake.

It is spring break, one of the busiest times of the year for the resort but there is hardly anyone about, plus it's a Sunday.

Tim warns us as we stop at a main trail, "Be careful here, this is a main arterial route and has a lot of heavy traffic."

I look at the half dozen skiers sporadically coming down past us on the wide trail. He calls that heavy? He obviously hasn't seen Whakapapa on a weekend. It's just before lunch and there is still lots of corduroy (groomed snow - like skiing on a giant Eta ripple chip) to be found.

The trails are wide and expansive with 1200 hectares of terrain. The tracks are lined with thousands of tall evergreen pines and spindly aspens. Left to grow naturally, they are only removed if they fall down.

We find a glade of aspens and pines surrounded by untouched snow off the main trail. The gentle slope is just at the right angle, making it a joy to navigate through the maze of trees. It is serenely quiet apart from the sound of my skis as they slice through the thick snow. We pop back on the trail and meet back at the chairlift. That's one tick for tree skiing.

The next morning I pull open the hotel curtains to find a thick blanket of snow covering buildings and snow-ploughs busy clearing the roads outside. The Rockies must love me.

Eager to get on to the powder, I quickly throw on my ski gear and race down to meet the others for a quick muffin and drink; then it's up the gondola for First Tracks. This is when they open the mountain an hour early - before the general public has access. You pay an extra fee for this privilege.

Steamboat is renowned for its champagne powder snow. Lighter and drier than New Zealand's snow, it is impossible to form into snowballs.

The two other skiers and one snowboarder in our group warn me you either love skiing in powder or hate it because it takes getting used to. The soft powder snow can hide any dips and bumps in the harder crust snow beneath it.

On the ride up I can see the clumps of fresh snow sitting on top of pine branches. Our guide, Jenny, says there's about one and a half feet of fresh snow. Apparently it's not 100 per cent champagne powder but it's close enough for me.

My first taste of it is a short traverse across Mt Werner. I am mesmerised by the snow flowing over the top of my ski tips and almost forget to watch where I'm going. We take a couple of runs down and it is like floating through clouds.

It is definitely harder work skiing in powder as you have to keep a more central position. The powder acts as a natural brake. I am torn between wanting to carve my way down through the fresh powder, which slows me down, or opting for straight skiing along the track to get enough speed to keep up with the others.

By mid-morning, I'm surprised there is still plenty of untouched snow on most of the trails. Second tick for skiing in powder snow.

My next encounter with the Rockies is at Telluride. A small town, six hours' drive south of Steamboat Springs, Telluride mountain village is where the ski resort is, and the town is connected by a very convenient free 15-minute gondola that runs until midnight.

The Rockies look even more gorgeous here. Private holiday houses made from stone and wood with complex roofs in earthern browns blend right in with the hillside. It's like being in a village of giant cuckoo clocks.

Telluride is one of the highest skifields in Colorado - 4008m at its highest point. The highest lift goes to 3831m and skiing down to the village will bring you to 2659m. At Hotel Madeline, where I'm staying, the ski valet service lays out my skis and poles on the snow and conveniently stores my shoes while I'm out on the slopes.

It is another cool but sunny day with little wind. Telluride has steeper black trails than any other skifield I've been to. After several fast blue and black runs we make our way to the Subaru Freeride World Qualifier in the Prospect Bowl.

To get there requires a short hike along a ridge then a 70m steep decent down moguls to a narrow track below. The slope is probably only 40 degrees, but to me it looks like 80 degrees.

My skiing has improved exponentially so far but this is going to push me to the limit. Tom, our guide, says we had better tighten our boots for this.

After watching the rest of our group make it look easy, I give it a shot. I only make it 10m down before wiping out. The next thing I know is I'm sliding down on my back, head first with a mouthful of snow. All I can think is "Don't lose the skis".

Somehow I manage to come to a stop 60m down. I dust myself off and check for injuries. No pains, great and I've still got all my gear. We make our way to the comp and watch the pros throw themselves off massive drop-offs. Some make it, most don't. It makes me feel good that even the pros make mistakes.

I'm a happily married man and I love my wife dearly. But this place stole my heart. There are some things a skier or snowboarder just has to experience in order to progress and tree skiing and skiing in powder snow are two of them.

The Rocky Mountains provides the best of both.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Los Angeles and San Francisco five to seven times a week with connections to Denver with partner airlines.

Further information: See coloradoski.com and DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Colorado.

The writer travelled courtesy of Colorado Ski Country USA and Travelplan Ski.

- NZ Herald

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