Naturally Speaking : All My Skis are rock skis : Chronicles of a Front Range Skier

rock skiDavid Hallock, Peak to Peak.  Cross-country skiing was our favorite pastime during the eighteen winters Diane and I spent in Eldora. Over that period, I figured I averaged 100 days and 1,000 miles of skiing per winter; nice round figures. There were research projects, like Indian Peaks Bird Counts, mapping the winter concentration areas of white-tailed ptarmigan, and studying the winter bird community in the old-growth forest on Chittenden Mountain. Much of the time it was just for fun: moonlight trips up the Enterprise Road, all day trips up to Devil’s Thumb, trips over the Divide to Winter Park, and overnight trips to the Arestua Hut on Guinn Mountain.

Now, a little bit about the title of this article. If you ski a lot, you often have more than one pair of skis, and it is likely that one pair will be old and more beat up. They are sometimes called “rock skis” because they will be worn in early and late seasons when the snow base is low and you are more likely to run over a rock gouging the bottom. However, due to the high winds and warmer temperatures the reality of skiing on the Front Range is that there is almost always a fair amount of bare ground.

So even your best skis can get beat up pretty good. Every time I headed to the west slope to cross-country ski, I would think, “So this is what real snow is like.” Skiing on the Front Range makes you a good bad-snow skier. So anytime we would get a foot or two of champagne-powder snow, you have to get out there fast because it will likely be gone in 24-48 hours once the winds start blowing.

Favorite places to ski? Woodland Lake is at the top of my list. On the way back, about a half mile below the lake, is a long stretch of subalpine forest that is open enough and ideal for telemarking. It has a northeast facing aspect that gets little direct sun or wind; hence the snow stays fresh and powdery. It gets a lot of blow-over snow during mid-winter so the depth is great and is very forgiving on the downhill run. It is one of those stretches that you will do several times each trip. Heck, you’ve already broken trail going up so you might as well reuse it. Devil’s Thumb Lake runs a close second on the favorites list. Once rising above Woodland Flats, it is good to stay in the drainage below Jasper Lake until the final climb to Devil’s Thumb. There is good quality deep snow, but the trip is longer than Woodland Lake and more exposed to wind in places. Diamond Lake is also a great run, though a long way up Fourth of July to get there. The run down from the lake, more or less following the trail, is another northeast facing aspect where the snow stays powdery.

Occasionally I dug a snow cave in the drifts on the valley floor and stayed overnight to ski the next day. One last place needing mention is a drainage on the east side of Bald Mountain above Caribou. It is a long gradual stretch of hard-pack snow. Being mostly above treeline, it gets a lot of wind and a lot of the wind-sculpted snowdrifts, which the Russians call “sastrugi.”

The craziest research project was a winter bird survey in the old-growth forests of Chittenden. I was working with Mike Figgs and Nan Lederer and we had set up a plot for the study of breeding birds. Why not do it during the winter to see what is there?  Ahh, being young. For the most part, we went straight up the trail.  Didn’t have “skins” for the uphill climb, but would over-wax so the snow stuck. A lot of traversing and we all wore avalanche cords (this was pre-beacons). We would recruit one or two others to help with trail breaking. Eight trips were made up to Chittenden that winter. As for the bird research, it was kind of a bust.

Technically if the wind is above 15 miles per hour the winter bird survey should not be conducted. Guess what? Most of the time we made it up there it was too windy, and sometimes a complete whiteout. Even if it felt calm in Fourth of July Valley, it would be too windy on Chittenden. The good part is that the skiing was phenomenal on the way down. Another northeast facing hillside and the snow was deep and powdery. Even at that steepness, the depth of the snow would slow us up enough to manage the run down.

The closest to losing my life? That award goes to Devil’s Slide. This is the devil’s slide right before the first trestle on the Rollins Pass Railroad grade above King Lake drainage. I always made it out to Rollins Pass once or twice a winter and would go by way of the Jenny Creek trail through the ski area, then up the Guinn Mountain trail to the Arestua Hut. If it was still calm when at the hut, it was time to venture out to the pass. Devil’s Slide is a chute of ice and snow just before the first trestle and runs straight down into the King Lake Drainage. On my way out, someone had kicked in some steps across the chute, probably the day before, so I slowly and carefully, step-by-step, went across. It was a great time out on the pass as it was one of the few calm winter days. On the way back, I got sloppy, and tried to slide across Devil’s Slide. Before I knew it my skis were heading down the chute and I remember thinking, “This could be the end!” I got my feet and skis below me and splayed out on the ice trying to dig in. A little ways down I came to a halt. I noticed about 15 feet to my left was bare rock. So, I inched over. One of my skis had taken off downhill, but luckily had stuck in the ice about 100 feet below. So, I scrambled down the rock, got the ski, then climbed up and made it back to the railroad grade. I remember thinking while putting my skis on, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life.” After that event, I would take the old wagon road and avoid Devil’s Slide when heading out to the pass.

Funniest event? We first lived in Eldora at the Rocky Ledge cabin behind the Goldminer Hotel and had a dog named Blossom. She was average size, but old, a little overweight, and with short legs. One afternoon, I decided to ski up the road behind us to Caribou Flats. In those days there seemed to be more snow than there is now and even the first stretch of the road up to the Arapaho Ranch overlook was generally skiable (well, maybe a few rocks that you would make note of for the ride down). I left Blossom at the cabin with instructions to stay (which she generally did). I made it to Caribou Flats around 3 PM then started to ski back. Within a mile of the flats, I heard some heavy breathing coming up the trail. Poor Blossom, short legs and all, had followed! Now, for me skiing back it would take 30 minutes, but for Blossom, it would probably be 2 hours, and it would be dark. So, I put my ski poles through the belt on my pants and proceeded to carry her down! Try skiing downhill carrying a 50 lb sack. It was an adventure. I had to get into a tight “rigor mortis snowplow” and at sharp turns throw her off into the snow. She kept giving me angry looks, but I told her it was for her own good. We finally made it down to town and I had a good laugh and she had a good tail-wag.

Looking ahead, March nature happenings in the Nederland area include the return of mountain bluebirds and horned larks. March is a great month for going out at night to listen for the calls of small forest owls. Northern pygmy-owls begin establishing nesting territories in February and March. Their call is a monotonous series of breathy, hollow whistles given at a rate of 1-2 whistles per second. Northern saw-whet owls can begin calling activities in February. Their calls are similar to pygmy-owls, only slightly slower and often paired. Boreal owls begin singing in March and generally reside in subalpine forests.  Their calls are similar to the winnow of a snipe, but hollower.

This is the peak month for egg-laying by great horned owls. Beavers are mating through March. Red foxes begin giving birth. Coyotes are mating (usually January-March).  Young are born about two months later.

Bobcats have their highest reproductive activity in February and March. Mink breed from late February until early April.