The Winter That Was

Despite a lack of snow and the restrictions of the pandemic, we found lots of reasons to enjoy skiing last season. All we had to do was slow down and go up into the mountains as much as possible.

Last year was not one of Colorado’s great ski years. In fact, it started out disturbingly bare—despite an early September squall that got our hopes up—before making up for the dry months, thanks to a late season push of spring storms. But it was nothing close to the 2018–19 season, when a run of storms created brand-new avalanche paths that closed I-70. And there was no single big event like the 2003 storm that shut everything down, with over 62 inches of snow pummeling Loveland (and I was lucky enough to ski it and survive the 12-hour drive it took to get home to Boulder). The mediocrity of last year’s snowfall did not matter to me, however. With the pandemic still dragging on and resorts on reservation systems that left some skiers and riders exasperated, I had the best season I can remember in a long time.

Count me as one who enjoyed the reservation system. I’m not a planner by nature, but I had to be able to ski last year. There was an insanity to it—snagging parking passes for random weekends at Eldora three months in the future felt like trying to score a Guns N’ Roses show on Ticketmaster circa 1988. (Though I admit I never had a problem finding a reservation at Eldora or Winter Park even when I hadn’t booked way ahead of time). But it wasn’t holding a spot that others could not get that I enjoyed about the system.

I loved that it made me go skiing on days I might have blown off other years because the snow was not perfect or I was not going to spend the whole day up on the hill. Last season, I didn’t worry about going on the perfect day—what day was perfect during the pandemic anyway?

Instead, I would plan days around skiing like I used to when my life was not consumed by work and other responsibilities. I admit I had grown weary of the parking scene at my local Eldora in previous years. On powder days, even subpar powder days, it had become a mad dash to get up there before the chairs even started swinging just to be able to grab a spot and not get turned around at Nederland High School. But last year, there would be leisurely breakfasts of waffles and French press coffee. I enjoy breakfast, not rushing, not fighting and gaming just to go enjoy the mountains. I began to long for the slow drive up to Eldora the back way, up Coal Creek Canyon, past horses, and an abandoned motel, and ponderosa groves, and nameless foothill summits. I love the long switchbacks on that road, the train tracks, the plywood Peanuts characters that some resident puts up along the side of the highway to mark the holidays from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. It all felt so far away from the continued lockdown of COVID-19, the rising death tolls, and the continual collapse of our national political discourse. Where I used to hold out for nothing but powder days worthy of pro photo shoots, mundane trips up the mountain now kept me sane.

I learned that magic was there on days when you least expected it. My wife, Radha, and I had the chance to sneak out for a day together in December. The wind was howling, and we half expected the lifts to be closed—or at least the snow to be whipped off the trails—instead, we found deep, soft stuff deposited on the leeward side of sheltered runs that surprisingly skied better than some days with big dumps. One day when the lifts were actually shut down by the wind, we made the best of it and hiked back to Lost Lake and simply enjoyed the privilege of being up in the mountains with nothing better to do than walk and take them in. My wife taught me to skate ski on afternoons after we would wrap up our jobs, and I loved the burning in my lungs, the work of finding the rhythm of a glide, and the fact that she kicked my butt at it. Another day, I didn’t make it up to Eldora until 20 minutes before the lifts shut down, but it had just started to snow, and I banged out five sublime runs gliding through the untouched accumulation. So many other days, I was able to let my kids sleep in a bit, and we shared time listening to ’90s playlists on the drive up and knocked out low-key runs seeking stashes in the woods. 

Further afield, we figured out the perfect time to leave our house to make it to Winter Park before the crowds, farm fresh snow on the first few runs; and then drive back while we watched traffic continue to pile up headed up-mountain. We sought out steeps in Copper Bowl and quiet trails with fresh snow that the crowds who were hot to get to the marque runs ignored. We made full use of our Ikon passes; drove down to Taos, where we kept socially distant but still ordered chile rellenos to-go from our favorite spot to eat and enjoyed them in front of a wood fire at a Airbnb casita; and spent the next day ripping up one of the West’s classic mountains. It was an antidote to the ever-slogging pandemic, a sort of rebellion against sickness and despair. I came back to skiing as a full life experience, a measure of each day in the mountains, and something to be shared.

I am not sure if anything in our lives will ever return to what it was. And I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that the way we have had to adapt to the pandemic has made things better. It has perhaps given us a chance to reassess the way we live. For that I am thankful when it comes to skiing since I had lost sight of the full scope of what matters up there. 

Cover photo: Aaron Carlson finds the cure on Loveland Pass. The snowfall may not have been up to par all season long, but when it came in, it was sweet—and necessary. Photo by Liam Doran

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