First Day of the 2018-19 Ski Season

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Clouds from the storm linger over Eldora ski area.

Opening day. There are few things quite as magical as the first ski day of the season. The initial click of the boots and bindings, the first turn and glide, cold air blasting into the face and lungs. It’s a harsh, yet spectacular reminder that the lazy days of summer are over. The reign of winter begins.

Sliding devices on cold snow are likely the greatest human invention ever. Instead of snow being an obstacle to movement, getting from point A to point B becomes easier, more graceful and much more fun. The early Norseman and tribesman of central Asia used skis for practical reason: hunting, communication, migrations and such. For us, skiing is a recreational activity, because even difficult point-to-point endeavors like skiing across Greenland are done by choice, not for survival. Yet despite our difference in skiing objectives, I have to wonder if those early skiers from a distant, simpler time felt that similar pure joy the first time they strapped skis to feet each season? I find it hard to believe, even for the most pragmatic human, that there wouldn’t be some sense of elation felt from those first few strides in snow.

Before I got into backcountry skiing, opening day would be dictated by the ski resorts. The annual battle between Arapaho Basin and Loveland to open first is a well publicized and exciting kick-off to the Colorado alpine ski season. But more often than not, this opening is dictated by snowmaking capacities, not by winter weather. It feels less about mother nature and more about marketing departments and the skiing hype machine. It feels artificial, like the snow these early openings provide (by contrast the Colorado nordic season opens in a much more subdued fashion, volunteers grooming trails on the top of Rabbit Ears Pass. It’s a more natural and enjoyable occasion.)

Opening day should be dictated by snow and cold. When snow falls, go ski on it. For the past few years, however, that snow and cold seems to be less predictable and later in the year. During last year’s disaster we didn’t start skiing in earnest until after Christmas. It was the ski season that almost never started.

After a balmy September this year, it felt like we were scheduled for a repeat. It started snowing early this year in Canada, but Canada and the northern jet stream is a long way from Colorado. Storm systems brushed Glacier National Park and the Wind Rivers, but for the most part avoided Colorado. We’d wake up a few morning and see a dusting of snow on the highest of peaks, but it was oddly warm.

I subscribe to a website called Open Snow that forecasts snowfall for the winter season. After weeks of nothing, I was surprised to read a forecast calling for a sustained period of cold and snow in the Colorado high country in early October. It’s not that uncommon to get a blast of snow in late October, but this forecast was calling for a week to ten days of cold, snowy weather.  I can’t remember the last time that happened here in early October.

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Post snowy roller ski time trial stoke…

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…gave way to a cold, wet hike home.

At the end of last week a cool, grey settled over Boulder. Every morning we would go for a roller ski or hike in sunny conditions here in Eldora and then drive down into the cold fog for work. Finally though, the storm moved uphill. On Sunday night it began to snow at our cabin, and when we woke on Monday morning we found a couple inches covering the trees and ground. We roller skied a cold and wet time trial up Shelf Road and froze on the hike back down to the valley. Yesterday it flurried sporadically, so we put on more layers, took to the trails west of home and enjoyed a splendid, solitary hike, our only company being tracks of a bobcat.

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Better prepared and warmer for a long walk in the woods the 2nd day of the storm.

Last night it snowed more. There was a forcefulness to the 4-5 inches left on the ground that was lacking the previous two days, and it was colder too, in the low 20’s. The training plan called for some easy roller ski intervals, but the snow looked too good to pass up. And besides, the road would be a slushy mess to roller ski on. Skiing on October 10 seemed almost novel, possibly the earliest I’ve ever been on snow in a season. We decided to make today opening day of the 2018-19 ski season.

Elaine and I have a lot of skis. We have nordic racing skis, nordic training skis, backcountry nordic skis, spring couloir skis, powder skis, daily backcountry skis, resort skis and telemark skis. It’s a bit ridiculous. But without doubt, the most important skis are something we call “rock skis.” Our rock skis are designed for just that, heading out when the snow coverage is shallow and we don’t want to damage our good skis on rocks. Four to five inches in early October is impressive, but it’s nowhere near deep enough to avoid hitting objects in the appropriately named Rocky Mountains.

Our rock skis are almost silly: a pair of 2006 Icelantic Nomads in a 156 cm length. At the time Icelantic subscribed to the belief that shorter skis were better, and this was the only length they made. They were revolutionary when I got them, and I spent a winter coaching the Nederland Alpine Ski Team and skinning up and down the race course on those fledgling Icelantics. I believe they even won a DoJoe race from some bygone era before ultralight rando gear became all the rage.

The diminutive Nomads now have more than 1,200 days of skiing on them. The bases are almost worn to the core, the edges terribly thin and the bindings – an early era Dynafit – are starting to work less than optimally. But still, twelve years later, they serve an important function. More often than not, they bat lead-off for the coming ski season. Today was no exception.

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Shallow snowpack but a mid-winter feel thanks to copious amounts of snow of the trees.

We decided to head from our home to a popular local backcountry skiing destination. The storm grew in intensity as we moved along, gradually climbing at first, and then more steeply gaining altitude. While the snowpack was shallow, the snow clinging to the trees had the feel of mid-winter. That amazing quiet that snow provides, the insulation to sound it gives, soothed us along as we strided uphill.

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How can you not have a huge smile on the first ski day of the year?

A pleasant surprise: we felt physically good. The first backcountry ski of the year is usually a painful affair. It appears the training plan we’ve been following since we got back from Greenland is working. We tossed in our interval sets, moving not quite effortlessly, but easily enough up the mountain. It’s nice to see hard work paying off.

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Looking forward to the best winter yet with this gal.

Near the top, the wind started to blow, the snow pelted us, and the sky and clouds above opened for a second to let the red hew of evening alpenglow pass thru. This was no fluke storm. This had the feel of winter. I zipped up my collar, dipped my eyes towards the ground, and headed ever upward into the tempest, into these mountain that I love, to begin the winter cycle once again. We are skiers, and our time, after the long, hot summer, has finally arrived.

The White Strip of Death

Lovelandbasin

Loveland Basin sits right on the top of the Continental Divide. As such, it's usually the first or second area to open for the year. The location of this year's first day of skiing. In reality, about 3% of this terrain was open!

Today we decided to open the 2015-16 ski season proper with a day up at Loveland Basin Ski Area. We were fortunate enough to have a couple tickets given to us at a recent ski movie we went to and were both hankering to finally get on snow and start the year off right. 

We've made it a goal to ski the resort more this year. It's a necessary evil. Of my 150 days skiing last year, exactly two were at a downhill resort. I much prefer the backcountry to the crowds at the areas, but the truth is if you want to improve your skiing, you need the repetition that only the resort can provide (or, I suppose a helicopter could provide if you are Beyonce rich).  As such, we've committed to trying to get up to the resort once a week this winter to keep the skiing skills honed. 

It's well needed. I was not as confident as I would have liked this past spring on some of the steeper descents. So today it was back to basics – good body position, weight on the balls to mid of the foot, hands up, relaxed and ready. Skied slowish, trying to feel every inch of the turn, building all the way through the fulcrum, and the rebound and extension to the next link. It was a turn-back-the-page 25 years type of day, when I'd make my way down the slopes of Sugarbush with my coach Al Hobart analyzing every movement, and offering feedback on how to get it better. And then Al would go ripping down after us, powerful, compact, smooth, all 55 or 60 years old of him, and we'd all be like…damn, I want to ski like him. 

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My ski coach in high school, Al Hobart. A great human and an incredible skier. 

Truth is, I only felt that really sweet sensation on maybe 20% of my turns today. The rest were kind of sloppy. There were maybe six or seven turns that felt downright good. Not bad, really, after essentially a year off the downhill skis and 18 months removed from ACL surgery. I'll take it, and we'll keep having fun progressing. I like the early season repetition and tedium of building technique back up…it's a ritual I've been doing for some time now and it feels like home. 

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Day one photo from Loveland. Elaine's response to seeing this: "Great. I'm in the backseat, hands are in the gunslinger position and I'm caving." It's that time of year to be critical about technique and work hard to get it right. 

We kept it pretty short – a focused 120 minutes – as a result of being absolutely worked from a hard week of work (4 out of 5 late nights) and an overall groggy, exhausted feeling that, even with a double shot mocha, didn't ever go quite away. I'm looking forward to a return to a normal schedule and getting back in some sort of pattern. 

I did order a helmet tonight upon returning from the resort. We never wear helmets in the backcountry, but the resort is altogether too dangerous and random not to – especially when it's the white-ribbon-of-death early season. Goal number one for this season (any season really) is to stay healthy all year long – you don't ski when you're hurt badly – and the noggin is a good thing to protect. 

And so it's on, day #1 in the books. No skiing the next two days, but they are saying snow Wednesday and Thursday. Will it be enough to start building the base for local adventures? If not, we may have to do our semi-annual trip up to Bruce's Trail on Rabbit Ears Pass. After all, it's pretty hard to beat a couple days of nordic skiing, broken up by a trip to Strawberry Hot Springs!