Suffering and Salvation

What do you get when you head out on the Colorado Interconnect? In this case, three resorts, thousands of turns and only one blister.

The wind doesn’t like us. It pelts us with icy pellets of snow. It tries to push us over. It tears at our skis, balanced on our shoulders as we scrape across icy scree punctuated with tufts of tundra. The wind owns this ridge. And we are trespassing. But this same wind is about to show us some love. On the lee side of the mountain, a big, classic line called The Professor is catching what the wind is ripping off of this ridge. The Professor is filled with cream. So we straggle across the ridge, blown sideways like ptarmigans and head for the untracked powder.

The Professor is merely one line choice among thousands off of Loveland Pass. Today, though, it’s a superhighway. An autobahn filled with knee-deep fluff straight down to Araphahoe Basin’s Pallavicini lift. And it’s the first real skiing we’ll do as part of the Colorado Interconnect, a day long epic that links three of the state’s ski areas and comprises superlative skiing, big above treeline lines and some grueling climbs.

All You Need Is Love: Will Spilo reaches out and touches pristine powder on Loveland Pass.

The Colorado Interconnect isn’t as well known as its Utah little sister. In Utah, the close proximity of resorts allows for relatively painless tours. In fact, the Utah Interconnect is so easy that while cavemen can’t do it (the loincloths leave something to be desired), lower intermediates certainly can. That’s why when in Utah, you can book a guide (or go yourself) and link Park City to Brighton or Solitude and then drop over to Alta and Snowbird without so much as breaking a sweat. Not so on the big, mean brother of the Utah Interconnect: The Colorado Interconnect. There are no guides to take you on this tour. The elevations are higher and the terrain and route-finding trickier. Cavemen and intermediates should definitely stay at home.

But for those with solid skiing and snowboarding skills, avalanche gear and a sense of adventure, the Colorado Interconnect is worth the effort. The tour includes Loveland ski area, Arapahoe Basin and Keystone Resort. In between, you get to ski Loveland Pass and Arapahoe Basin’s backcountry. You can start at either Keystone or Loveland, and in both cases lifts help ease the pain of gaining early vertical—but that doesn’t mean you won’t hike. However, the hiking is worth it and the pain can be lessened by throwing in a hitchhike to the top of Loveland Pass if you start from Keystone, or getting lucky and catching a tow from a snowmobile in Montezuma basin when you’re heading for Keystone. Arapahoe Basin’s new Montezuma Bowl lift also eases the pain for those heading to Loveland. In fact, the addition of this lift as well as recent expansions to Keystone have made the Colorado Interconnect less of a sufferfest and substantially more accessible.

The suffering starts for us at the top of Loveland’s Chair 1. It’s here that we head out the backcountry gate hidden behind the patrol shack at the top of the lift for the Continental Divide.

Deep Thoughts: Chris Albers floats through A-Basin backcountry en route to Montezuma.

Soon, we have to make our first decision. Do we drop in directly behind the ski area and follow the mellow pitch down to the popular hitchhiking point on Highway 6 and catch a ride to the top before skiing down to Arapahoe Basin?  Or do we earn our turns by touring across and around the bowl on the ridge to the top of powder-heavy runs? Is there really a choice? We choose the latter and get rewarded by perfect effortless powder. The run spits us out directly across the highway from Arapahoe Basin.

One of the oldest ski areas in Colorado, The Basin, as locals call it, has a long tradition of touring and backcountry skiing. In fact, hiking is a way of life here, as locals brave the high elevations (the ski area’s lifts top out at just under 12,500 feet) above the lifts to head to the lines that snake down the imposing East Wall. From the highest point—the North Pole—you start at a breathless 13,050 feet, with nothing but steeps, rocks and chutes below you, all in plain view of the punters on the Lenawee lift. It’s showboat big mountain skiing at its best, but the terrain is so vast that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the skiers from the rocks.

We forego the East Wall to drop over into Arapahoe’s 400-acre expansion in Montezuma Bowl. Before the resort extended operations into the bowl, the area offered sunkissed backcountry lines that were popular with locals who skied down to Highway 5 and the town of Montezuma. We ski along the skier’s right of the new terrain, on a run called Bierstadt that quickly plunges into the trees. At the traverse back to the Zuma lift, we hug the rope and then, out of sight, drop out of bounds into unpatrolled territory, heading for the valley floor and Highway 5. Once at 5 it’s decision time. If daylight is plentiful, you’re feeling energetic and you’ve had an early start, you can head up 5 to Montezuma and County Road 275, which takes you to the abandoned mining town of Saints John and the climb up and over an above-treeline ridge to Keystone ski area. Otherwise, highway 5 is an escape route back to civilization and cold beers.

Because we’ve caught first chair at Loveland and because the wind has stopped and because the warmth of an encroaching spring is lengthening the hours in the day, we go for it. We gain even more time by scoring a ride in the back of a pickup truck when we hit Highway 5 to Montezuma and CR 275, the first segment of the Montezuma to Keystone link. The tour up the valley goes fast with a packed trail, well used by snowmobilers and snowshoers, and it’s not long before we pass the abandoned mining structures of Saints John. The site of the first silver strike in Colorado in 1861, Saints John is named after both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Much of the town remains private property, including the Saints John Mine, so we stay on the trail and resist the temptation to poke around in the abandoned structures.

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The High Road: You can always use your thumb if you don’t want to walk.

While we’re tempted to take a break at Saints John and soak in the history there—the town was unique in that it had no saloons but there was a library—we forgo stops, rest breaks and even hydration in a go-for-broke push up to the top of the ridge. With avalanche danger minimal, we power up and, sweat dripping in our eyes, hit the shoulder of Keystone Mountain. The views are superlative. Behind us, the backside of Arapahoe Basin, the town of Montezuma and dozens of high peaks flocked with snow. In front of us is the last challenge: a moderate climb around the flank of Keystone Mountain.

A contouring traverse to our left takes us into the ski areas terrain and before we know it, we’re riding the Ruby Express towards the home stretch. A fast groomer from the top of the mountain allows us to take it easy on our legs and coast for the last 10 minutes of the trip, a good thing, because we’re gassed.

We find our shuttle vehicle at the parking lot at the base of Keystone Village. Once at the car we collapse with barely enough strength to peel off our boots (the removal of one revealing a massive blister on the heel of our split boarders), throw the gear in the car and stagger into the Village in search of greasy hamburgers and cold pints. •

Veteran ski industry journalist Tom Winter learned how to ski at Arapahoe Basin. On most days, you’ll find him in the backcountry.


How to Interconnect the Dots

This tour spans high altitudes and avalanche terrain. Because of this danger, participants should be fit and familiar with avalanche safety, backcountry gear—beacons, shovels and probes at the very least—and have AT, telemark or split snowboard bindings (see page 22) appropriate for backcountry travel. It’s also wise to attempt the tour in the spring when conditions are less severe. An Epic pass, valid at Arapahoe Basin and Keystone, will also ease the financial pain of buying single-day lift tickets at all three areas (although it is possible to purchase joint Arapahoe Basin and Keystone tickets). Loveland sells four-hour flex tickets that will get you started on the first leg, or save time and money by beginning your tour at the top of Loveland Pass.

Logistics are made easier by booking a two-night stay at Keystone. (Spend the day before the tour at the resort.) You can leave a shuttle car at Keystone, then drive over Loveland Pass to Loveland ski area on the morning of the tour in a second car. The drive is an opportunity to check out snow and weather conditions. And when you hit Keystone at the end of your day, you’ll be mighty happy that you’ve got a bed close by. Pick up your second shuttle vehicle at Loveland on your trip back to the Front Range the next day.

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