x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Take a long winter in Colorado

John Henzell reports from Colorado, where the ski season extends until the end of April.

A snowboarder admires the view before heading into the trees at Steamboat. Photos by John Henzell / The National
A snowboarder admires the view before heading into the trees at Steamboat. Photos by John Henzell / The National

Our ski guide is perplexed. One minute he had been advising the three of us about the need to stay together while skiing the trees at Steamboat and the next it is just him and me left.

"What happened to the others?" he asks. "It's a powder day," I reply. "Back home, there are no such things as loyalty or friends on a powder day."

An overnight blizzard had coated the mountains of northern Colorado in 20cm of fresh, light and fluffy powder snow, producing the kind of conditions that even the locals are raving about.

My colleagues also have an added incentive prompting their departure because we've signed up for a deal called First Tracks, where for an extra US$29 (Dh106) on top of the lift ticket, we get to join a select few allowed on the mountain an hour before the official opening time.

With our hour head-start drawing to a close, the others have disappeared, unwilling to cede so much as a nanosecond of potential ski time to the cause of group cohesion. In truth, the only reason why I'm still with our guide is because I'm the slowest.

All this seems to mystify our guide, a veteran Steamboat snowboarding instructor named Tom Barr and who is inevitably and inescapably known as T-Barr.

I explain that my two colleagues are from New Zealand, a place where the prospect of fresh powder prompts an Oklahoma-style land rush as soon as a skifield opens. By lunchtime, there would be barely a square metre of snow left untracked.

It's no wonder T-Barr is baffled by this. Even when Steamboat's lifts open for everyone at 9am, the skifield is so big - 165 named trails on 1,200 hectares - that crowding is never an issue.

All this is emblematic of how it takes a while to adjust to the different scale involved in skiing in the US, where supersizing applies as much to the resorts as to the food. The Rockies, the higher and drier mountains far from the maritime-influenced resorts on the eastern and western seaboards, are another step up again.

The altitude is the first thing to strike us sea-level-dwellers, who find ourselves panting and puffing as we struggle to adjust to the rarified air near the 3,221m summit of the ski area.

It also takes a while to adjust to the presence of trees, with groves of lodgepole pines and aspen reaching right up to the highest parts of the skifield.

This is one of the aspects of skiing for which Steamboat is justly proud but which, as someone who almost always skis above the treeline, I approach with trepidation.

The last time I'd skied trees was when I spent a winter in Indian Kashmir back in the late 1980s, where the trees can be skied with confidence because every summer anything bigger than a twig is gathered by the villagers for winter firewood.

But ever since then, I've harboured a deep-seated fear of tree skiing in any other environment, always imagining that eventually my skis will go under a fallen branch hidden in the powder, with very bad consequences for my lower legs.

But once again, this is just another sign that I haven't fully adjusted to skiing in the Rockies. Steamboat averages about 8.5 metres of snow a year and at this moment, we are advised, there is about a three-metre base of snow in the trees.

The highest any bit of deadfall reaches above the ground is about 1.5 metres which means the trees can be skied with confidence.

It turns out the danger - and the reason why T-Barr was advising us to ski together - comes from a hazard I haven't even anticipated.

Around the pine trees, it's common for a pocket of air to form but be hidden by a thin layer of new snow. Ski too close and you can break through and fall up to eight metres down to the ground, a source of fatalities in the past. Armed with a healthy respect for such hazards, tree skiing still becomes my favourite aspect of skiing at Steamboat. Shielded from the sun and unable to be groomed, the snow tends to stay in better condition for longer and I'm still finding untracked powder days after the last snowfall.

Just as I'm getting accustomed to the skiing at Steamboat, our group heads a few hours down the road to the twinned resorts of Winter Park and Mary Jane. It proves to be yet another step up in scale, being both bigger (1,500 hectares ofskiable terrain, which means the trail map resembles a plate of spaghetti thrown at a wall) and higher (the top tow is a lung-screaming 3,600m).

All this might have been overwhelming if not for the presence of JT, a ski instructor whose 25 years on the mountain have earned him universal recognition just by his initials. For our first morning, we've arranged for him to be our guide.

Two thigh-burning hours later, the sheer scale of this resort is becoming apparent. In that time we've gone down groomed slopes as wide and smooth as a football pitch, threaded tight paths through the powder in the trees and tackled the resort's trademark black-diamond mogul runs, with bumps so big and close together that they resemble a giant inclined car park filled with VW Beetles.

But the really sobering part is that for each run we've been on in those two hours, there are at least another 10 more we have yet to sully with our ski tracks. And not only have we failed to scratch the surface of Winter Park's skiing, we've also failed to even begin to exhaust JT's repertoire of derogatory jokes about snowboarders.

That's the point when JT shepherds us onto the Panoramic Express chairlift, which he informs us is the highest chairlift in North America. Another statistic becomes apparent as we get off the lift at 3,670m: this is also much colder than Steamboat. The lifties' noticeboard says the temperature is -17°F (-25°C), accompanied by a gale that tests the capability of our ski gear.

Ahead of us is Vasquez Cirque, the wildest part of the ski resort and comprising an ungroomed but avalanche-patrolled zone where there is no easy or intermediate terrain and 98 per cent of the terrain gets black diamond status. Fourteen per cent is double black diamond.

But with our noses and fingers beginning to turn blue, we're grateful that JT points us back towards Mary Jane and the shelter of the trees, which reach about two thirds of the way up the slope.

After a couple of stops on the way to gasp for breath and let my quads recover from the high altitude exertion, I arrive to hear JT explaining to others the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a snowboard ("It's where you attach the dirtbag").

After lunch, we farewell JT and head off on our own. After the next few days, we head to Denver for the flight home, feeling as knackered as I can ever remember being after a ski holiday, beaten down by attempts to match the scale of the resort. It's a good knackered, though, as you'd expect from skiing in the land of supersizing.

 

If you go

The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Denver cost from Dh5,730, including taxes.

The packages Winter Park resort (www.winterparkresort.com) has seven-day lift passes from US$413 (Dh1,517) and offers accommodation packages from $67 (Dh246) per night, based on two sharing. Every fourth night is free.

jhenzell@thenational.ae