Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Satellite Radio

UPDATE 3/9/2008: For anyone else who’s interested in satellite radio, you can now get the radio, car kit, and home kit all for $4.99 after rebate at Crutchfield. Use code PA145 for free shipping, or if that doesn’t work, look here for other Crutchfield discount codes. The $64 deal for a year of service still seems to be available.

We got satellite radio! The only good that came out of our dead-car experience was that we rented a Hyundai Sonata that had XM Radio, and after listening to it for a while, we decided to look into getting satellite radio for ourselves.

Finding good music to listen to has been a problem for us. We’ve driven about 13,000 miles so far since October, when we started our journey, and for many of those 13,000 miles, we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices on the radio, or all the good stations were playing commercials, etc. We carry two dozen CDs in our car, and we have a lot of our CD collection at Brian’s parents’ house, so we occasionally swap out the CDs we’re carrying for two dozen new ones. We thought maybe we’d get an MP3 player, but we don’t really have much digital music, so we’d have to rip CDs or acquire digital music some other way. And we don’t really have a way to connect an MP3 player to our car stereo anyway – our car just has a CD player, with no other inputs.

Then, as Brian drove the Sonata, he decided that satellite radio was the solution. There are over 170 stations, including about 10 country music stations. You get a clear signal anywhere in the U.S. And you can listen to all the major league baseball games. Sign me up!

Some online investigation turned up another exciting fact: You can get a radio that will work in both the car and at home! You get a docking station for home and one for your car, and then you just move the little radio between the two docking stations. We were previously thinking you’d need two different radios with two different subscriptions to listen at home and in the car – not so!

Signing up for service also turns out to be pretty easy. Unlike cable TV, there aren’t different options for satellite radio (different packages, premium channels, etc.) – you just sign up, pay your service fee, and get all the channels.

Unfortunately, the investigation also turned up some obstacles. First, you have to pick a satellite radio – there are lots of different choices here, with different feature sets, different price points, and different levels of reliability. You have to figure out how to hook the radio up to the car – this is the same problem as the earlier MP3 player idea. And if you want to listen to it at home, you have to set it up there, too.

After some more online research, it seemed doable. There’s a radio and car kit that are currently free after rebate. The radio has a lot of features but gets poor reviews, primarily, it seems, because it locks up pretty frequently and people think they need to wait hours for the battery to drain before they can reset it. That would be painful, but as it turns out, there’s an obscure key combination to reset the radio. The home kit for the radio – primarily consisting of an antenna to use at home and an AC adapter – is another $9.99. So all the hardware that we would need would cost a total of $9.99!

It gets even better: XM service is only $64 for the first year! What a deal – for about 20 cents a day, you can get a year’s worth of satellite radio, hardware included!

We ordered the hardware on Monday, February 18, and it was supposed to arrive yesterday, but it got here early, last Friday. As soon as we got done snowboarding for the day, Brian ripped open the package, which turned out to contain something like two dozen different parts – a little overwhelming.

The first thing was to sign up for service – this just required a short phone call. Next was to set up the radio at home, since this wouldn’t be as complicated as the car setup. We live in a basement, so not surprisingly, we got no signal with the antenna set in our window. We were able to stick the antenna outside with the wire running back through the window, though, and get the maximum signal strength. Within an hour or so of getting our package, we were listening to country music on satellite radio!

Next came the car setup. There are all sorts of different ways to connect a satellite radio into a car. If you have an audio input on your car stereo, it’s a piece of cake. We don’t. If you have a tape player, you can route the audio through the tape player. We only have a CD player. If you want to pull out your car stereo, you can use a separate “FM Direct” kit that routes the satellite radio signal right through the antenna input at the back of your stereo. We looked into pulling out the car stereo, and it seemed like that would be a major undertaking.

The fourth option is for the radio to transmit on an FM frequency, which you pick up on your car stereo. Unfortunately, there’s an FCC regulation in place that severely limits the strength of this signal, so interference with broadcast radio is common and this option results in the poorest sound quality of the four. To improve the signal, there’s something called SureConnect, which is a wire that attaches directly to your antenna – it’s like the clip that you attach to your antenna at a drive-in movie theater. Even with SureConnect, though, online reviews indicate that the sound quality can be subpar. We decided to try it anyway.

We stuck the satellite antenna to our roof, next to our radio antenna, and then we connected the SureConnect clip to the radio antenna. We ran the two wires down the door frame, into the car, under the steering wheel, to the center console. Except for a few minutes spent with several feet of extra wire all tangled up, this was pretty straightforward. Then we connected the satellite radio, found an FM station that was all static, and set the satellite radio to broadcast on that frequency. Voila! Crystal-clear sound (at least, as good as anything sounds on our 10-year-old stock Honda car stereo)!

We’re probably an ideal case for SureConnect – we live in the Rockies, so we don’t get much in the way of radio signals to interfere with the satellite radio’s broadcast. Whatever the reason, it works great!

Since yesterday, Brian’s been playing with the radio – setting preset stations, recording songs into his music library (the radio comes with 256 MB of RAM, expandable via MicroSD), and generally loving having new music after months of listening to static-filled radio stations and the same CDs over and over.

The only thing that remains to be done is to mount the car docking station. There doesn’t seem to be a really good spot for it in our car. If anyone has mounted a satellite radio docking station (or portable GPS – that would probably be the same thing) in a 1998 Honda CR-V, let us know how you did it – we’re looking for ideas!

But this is a minor last step – at this point, we have tunes in our car and in our house whenever we want, and out of the ten country stations and the stations that play “other” kinds of music, there’s always something good on. We’re happy campers – we should have done this months ago!

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Well, it’s been five days since we picked Caroline up from Planet Honda the second time, and she’s still running OK. Our fingers are crossed that her stalling problems are fixed. Yesterday, she passed a major test when Sarah drove safely to Denver to pick up her parents and sister, who flew in to visit us for the week.

So where did we leave off… On Tuesday, we woke up at 5:30 AM to pick up Caroline. The reason we woke up so early is because our friend Sergey was in town, and we wanted to meet up with him to go skiing. He’d flown in on Sunday for his annual family ski vacation, and when we chatted that day, he said that he was going to try to get to Keystone for night skiing. What a coincidence – as we were talking to him on the phone, we were sitting in one of the lodges at Keystone! We’d driven to Keystone in our rental car to ski for the day. So we decided we’d try to meet up later in the afternoon when he arrived.

Unfortunately, around 3:00 it started turning colder, and we realized that Dercum Mountain, the only part of Keystone that’s open for night skiing, was really icy. So we left for greener pastures – that is, happy hour victuals of tacos and beer. Sergey did eventually make it to Keystone with his sister, but not for a few more hours.

So we made new plans to meet up Tuesday at Vail. At that time, we were hoping to pick up our car on Monday and have the whole day to ski at Vail on Tuesday, but the second round of repairs took all day on Monday. So we woke up at 5:30 on Tuesday and drove to Golden, where we picked up our car without further incident. We dropped off the rental car in Frisco and were at a free parking lot in East Vail before 10:00.

We walked from the parking lot to the bus stop, and who did we find there but Sergey and his family! Apparently, they were staying at a condo in East Vail. What a coincidence! Not only were they staying by our bus stop, out of all the bus stops in the Vail area, but they’d also gotten a late start on their day, so they were waiting for the bus when we arrived.

So we rode the bus over to the mountain and skied with Sergey and his sister for most of the day. The day was bright and sunny and warm, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. We hadn’t had much new snow recently so the back bowls were icy and chunky, but then we did several runs in Blue Sky Basin, which was fantastic. The snow on runs like Lover’s Leap and Steep and Deep was soft and fluffy. Sergey did some jumps and caught one unintentionally when he flew over a snow-covered boulder. Both of his skis and his camera went flying, but he laughed and put everything back together.

Many of the runs in Blue Sky Basin are pretty thick with trees, and it was on one of those runs that we lost Sergey’s sister! We all took different paths through the trees, but at the bottom of the trees, there was a wide-open area where all the paths converged. Both of us and Sergey made it there and waited for a long time, but Sergey’s sister never showed up. We went down to the lift that we were planning to ride next, and she wasn’t there either.

Now we were worried – she should have come out of the trees where we were waiting, but if she had somehow bypassed that spot (unlikely, we thought), she definitely should have made it to the lift. Sarah stayed at the lift in case she showed up while Sergey and Brian went back up to search through the trees. They slowly skied through but didn’t find her. At the bottom of the trees, where we had waited before, they called Sarah, who said that she hadn’t shown up at the lift either.

Now it had been about an hour since we’d seen her, and we were starting to get worried. Could she have run into a tree? The section of trees where we’d lost her wasn’t very steep, so it seemed unlikely that someone could get up enough speed to do serious damage, but we couldn’t rule it out. We were debating calling ski patrol when Sarah called to say that she had just arrived at the lift. Whew, what a relief! Apparently, she had managed to bypass the place where we had waited for her and got down to the lift, where she decided to take another run. By the time we got to the base of the lift, she was already riding it, so we just missed each other.

After that excitement, all of us did another run together, and then we (Brian and Sarah) skied together for the last 1.5 hours or so of the day. At the end of the day, we met up with Sergey again and went to a Mexican restaurant for chips and drinks. We hung out for several hours as Sergey kept buying rounds – first tequila shots, then a pitcher of margaritas. It was so much fun to see him, ski together, and chat over drinks – our first visitor in Colorado! We’ve had a great time here, but we’ve been each other’s only company for most of the time we’ve been here, so it was great to see a friend.

After the excitement of seeing Sergey, the rest of the week was anticlimactic. I guess each time we started the car and managed to drive more than a quarter mile without it shutting off was exciting in its own way, but nervous excitement isn’t quite the same. In any case, the days continued to be clear, and Wednesday we woke up to a beautiful sunrise:

We prefer to snowboard when there’s some new snow on the ground to ease the pain of falling, so on Wednesday we skied for the fifth day in a row. By Thursday morning, we still hadn’t gotten much in the way of snow, but we wanted some variety, so we snowboarded. It turned out to be a great choice – ther was actually had a thin layer of new snow, and it snowed during the day.

Friday we snowboarded again. This time, Sarah surprised Brian by actually seeking out moguls! She typically prefers to ride the blue runs, not even the blue-blacks (a designation meaning “advanced intermediate” that we’ve only seen at Breckenridge). Today, though, she decided to ride black run after black run. She fell a few times on each run – at one point, she said she had set a record for most falls on one run. But quickly, she was consistently linking several turns before each fall. It was a good day to learn because the moguls were soft so falling didn’t hurt. In fact, it wasn’t until the second-to-last run of the day on a plain old blue run that she had a somewhat painful fall – she caught an edge and landed flat on her belly, knocking the wind out of her for a second.

The other excitement on Friday was the North American Open, a freeskiing competition. Friday was the qualifying round for Saturday’s slopestyle finals. Rather than having the skiers do official runs and get scored by judges, the competition organizers chose a “jam session” format for the qualifying round. This basically meant it was a free-for-all. Skiers could do as many runs down the course as they could during the time allotted, and the ones that impressed the judges would be invited back to the finals.

The result was an extremely entertaining competition. The course consisted of five elements – a rail, three jumps, and another rail. By the time a skier was on the second jump, another skier would already be on the first rail, so there would frequently be two skiers jumping at once. Some skiers did coordinated “circus” runs, where two skiers might jump simultaneously, or three or four skiers would jump in very quick succession. The tricks were fantastic – double back flips were pretty common, and there were even attempts at double front flips. Skiers were doing 720s and 900s all the time, with some 1080s mixed in.

To prevent collisions, Breck had a flagger stationed at each jump, and when the landing for a jump was blocked by a fallen skier, the flaggers would raise a red flag. Once the course was clear, they’d raise a green flag. Fortunately, there weren’t any serious injuries during the time that we watched. At one point, the red flags were up for about five minutes, but eventually the injured skier walked off.

Another time, a skier did a clean double flip on the second jump and then took off to do another one on the third jump. Somehow, as he took off, one of his skis went flying off! At that point, he was committed to the jump, so he had to execute it and try to land as best he could on one ski! We were sitting up higher on the course, so our view of his landing was blocked. The red flags came out for only a few seconds, though, so he must have been OK.

Yesterday, Saturday, we went back to Breck, this time on skis. We did a few double-black runs, which varied from hard and icy with huge moguls to soft and fun. At 12:30 we headed back to the terrain park to watch the slopestyle finals. 32 guys and five girls had made it into the finals. Each got three runs, which would be judged, with the best score counting. We watched the first round, and it was fun, but nowhere near as exciting as the jam session’s non-stop action.

After our ski day, we headed home, and Sarah left to pick up her family at the Denver airport. Fun – more visitors!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Janet's Cabin

For Valentine’s Day, we decided to try something different and snowshoe to a backcountry hut. Colorado has dozens of huts – log structures in the backcountry to which you can snowshoe or cross-country ski. Most of them are accessible via one-day trips, so you can go in one day, spend the night, and leave the next day. But many of the huts are also just a day hike away from other huts, so you could also choose to spend a week or longer, skiing or snowshoeing each day and staying in a new hut each night.

Janet’s Cabin is part of the 10th Mountain Division hut system and is near Copper Mountain, close to where we live. Around the first of February, we saw on huts.org that 18 of the 20 beds were still available for February 14, while the hut was completely booked on most other days. So this seemed like a good time to go. With 20 people sharing a hut, it could get pretty crowded, so maybe spending the night in a hut isn’t most folks’ idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day!

On February 13, we checked on the weather forecast and found that a winter storm watch was in effect for the night and the next day. One forecaster expected three to seven inches of new snow, and another predicted a foot to two feet, accompanied by howling winds! The TV news was talking it up as a major storm – there was even a feature on the plight of the flower delivery folks, who would have to brave the elements to get flowers out on Valentine’s Day.

The hike was 4.5 miles long with 1000 feet of elevation gain – not too difficult on a sunny day with a packed trail, but pretty grueling with a foot of new snow and potentially dangerous with high winds blowing the snow around and greatly reducing visibility. We questioned whether we should even go, but ultimately decided to prepare for the trip and check the weather in the morning. Weather forecasts often prove to be wildly off the mark around here, and we hoped that would be the case this time.

So we packed our backpacks – sleeping bags, extra clothing, first-aid kit, plenty of food and water, etc. A lot of typical backpacking gear wasn’t necessary, though – we could leave our tent, sleeping pads, stove, fuel, and water filter behind, since the hut had beds and a kitchen.

We got up in the morning, dreading what we’d find when we looked outside. But amazingly enough, there was no new snow! The storm had completely failed to materialize. Yippee! We’d be going after all!

We drove out to Copper Mountain and got there right as the lifts opened at 9:00. We carried our backpacks and snowshoes onto the Kokomo lift and then the Lumberjack lift. Without the lifts, the hike would have been 5.5 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain, but combined, the lifts eliminated a mile of hiking and, more importantly, 700 feet of elevation gain. The liftee slowed the first lift down for us so that we could get off easily. The second liftee didn’t, and we awkwardly rushed off the lift to get out of the way of the chair – lift exits aren’t so easy in boots!

From the top of the second lift, we hiked a short distance down a ski run to a backcountry gate, where we went into the forest and down to Guller’s Creek. The trail paralleled the creek the rest of the way, so it was easy to follow. The surface was great, too – packed down by cross-country skiers, with no new snow to soften it up. The weather was far better than we could have hoped – it was overcast with a light snow falling, but nothing like the storm that was predicted.

Shortly after starting the hike, we passed a group of a dozen or more skiers who were headed down. They had stayed in Janet’s Cabin the night before and had a great time. One even informed us that they hadn’t drunk all the beer, and they’d left the extras on the porch! A big added bonus!

The hike wasn’t too difficult and we made good time. The last half mile had about 400 feet of the elevation gain, so that was a bit of a struggle, but just after noon, we arrived:

The official check-in time at the huts is 1:00 pm, and we had no idea that we’d make it there an hour early. But the previous night’s occupants had all left, so we unlocked the door, went inside, and made ourselves at home.

Being there first, we got first choice of beds, so we went upstairs, where we found four bedrooms – two with four beds each and two with six beds each. All of the bedrooms were great, but we staked our claim on the one that we thought had the best view. We set down our backpacks and laid out our sleeping bags. All 20 beds are single beds, so the sleeping arrangements maybe weren’t the most romantic for Valentine’s Day:

Then we headed back down to the main floor to explore the rest of the cabin. Most of the main floor was a huge open room with a large sitting area, a kitchen, and a dining area. Separated from the main room by a curtained doorway were the entryway and two bathrooms. Indoor bathrooms! This seemed like a real luxury – we were expecting to have to go outside into the freezing cold in the middle of the night to do our business. But the cabin had solar electricity, which ran a fan to aid the composting process and control the smells in the pit toilets. The cabin hadn’t gotten much sunshine recently, so the batteries were running low. There was a sign posted a few days ago, warning us to use the electric lights sparingly, lest we run down the batteries and stop the fan. We heeded the warning.

Here’s one side of the sitting area, with the stairway up to the bedrooms in the background:

Here’s the kitchen. It was enormous and fully stocked with cookware. We wished we had brought coffee – we counted no fewer than five different percolators and other coffee-making devices! There were plenty of propane cooking surfaces, too.

Here’s the dining area:

And here’s the view of the rest of the cabin from the kitchen. You can see the dining area on the left and the sitting area on the right:

Note the guitar – the cabin actually had a great-sounding Fender acoustic guitar! Also notice the huge windows – they let in plenty of light so that even without a fire going, the cabin wasn’t cold during the day.

In the middle of the cabin, you can see a garbage can, next to a wood stove with a big pot on top.

This is the hut’s water system. You periodically go outside and load up the garbage can with snow (the side of the garbage can says very clearly that it should only be used for snow and water – no trash). Then you scoop the snow into the pot, which sits on top of the fire to melt the snow. Voila – water for cooking, drinking, etc. Because of the snow-melt water system, dogs aren’t allowed within several hundred yards of the huts to avoid problems with yellow snow.

There were still some hot coals left from the previous group’s fire, so we added some wood and stoked it back up. Brian remembered the mention of beer on the porch, but a thorough search turned up nothing. The skier must have been joking around. What a cruel joke – never joke about beer, especially to a thirsty hiker.

We got some books and settled in for an afternoon of lazing around the hut, watching the snow fall outside. Here’s Sarah, hanging out in front of the windows:

Later, Brian occupied the same seat and wrote some letters:

Here’s the view looking out one of the windows:

After reading books and writing for a while, we combed through the hut’s supply of games and picked out Rummikub to play. Three games later, it was getting close to 3:00, and we were still the only ones in the hut. We knew that other beds were reserved, but we began to hope that everyone else had been turned off by the bad weather forecast and decided not to come. Maybe, just maybe we’d have the hut to ourselves!

No such luck. Around 3:30, another couple arrived. One was from Vail and the other from Aspen, and they were also here to spend a romantic Valentine’s Day in the woods.

We decided to do some more exploring and give the couple some time alone. Behind the cabin in a separate building was a sauna!

The sauna building consisted of two rooms: an undressing room and the sauna room itself. Inside the sauna room was a miniature wood stove with rocks on top, two benches, and a bucket and scoop for snow:

The instructions said to build a fire and wait 30 minutes for the room to heat up. Then drop snow on the rocks, where it will melt and turn to steam. We followed the instructions, and although it took a while for the rocks to get hot enough to vaporize the snow, we eventually got the room hot and steamy. How cool is that – a sauna in the backcountry!

Later on, a pair of women arrived. One carried all their gear, and the other carried just a snowboard and a box of wine. She proudly told us it was the equivalent of four bottles, so we’d all have to share because she wasn’t going to carry it back out. She didn’t have anyone turn her down, and for wine in a box, it was pretty darned good. We don’t think our standards were just low because we were in the backcountry, but we can’t be sure.

Another couple got to the cabin around 8:00, and then around 10:00, the boyfriend of one of the two women arrived. He had hiked a little over two hours alone in the dark. The lifts weren’t running that late, of course, so he had to do the whole 5.5-mile hike. And to top it off, he had to leave at 6 a.m. the next morning to make it to his job as ski patrol! Now that’s love, to go through all of that just to sleep next to your girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. Apparently, he’s training to be a hotshot, one of the wildfire fighters, so he must be in pretty good shape. But still…

We went to bed pretty early and were the first ones up the next morning. We awoke to a pretty sunrise and a cloudless sky that afforded views of distant mountains:

The cabin and the surrounding area looked nice in the early morning light:

Then the sun came up over the mountains and cast the first light on the slopes behind the cabin:

We made an oatmeal breakfast and commenced lazing around the cabin for a second day. We weren’t staying another night, but checkout wasn’t until 1:00 and we were in no hurry to leave – the cabin was so peaceful. We did some more reading, played some more Rummikub, and took some more pictures:

Here’s the view of the mountains from the cabin’s upstairs balcony:

The couple from Vail and Aspen hiked up to take a few runs:

The cabin is just below the Continental Divide and right at treeline, which is a perfect location. The avalanche danger is minimal on the entire hike in, but then there’s some great wide-open skiing immediately above the cabin. You do have to be careful up there – directly behind the cabin is a pretty steep slope that’s at a good angle for releasing avalanches. Off to the side, where the couple is hiking in the picture, the slope is more gradual and less avalanche-prone.

We got them to take a picture of us before we left:

And then we were off, hiking back down the trail. We took one last look at the cabin:

The hike back was lovely. The day was sunny and warm, and we had fantastic views the entire time. And as an added bonus, the hike was pretty much all downhill.

Here’s Brian, cutting a corner in the trail and making a fresh line with his snowshoes:

And here’s Sarah, taking a break:

One last mountain shot:

We re-entered the Copper Mountain ski area and hiked down the slopes. Along the way, we chatted with a few skiers who were riding the lifts overhead and were surprised to be sharing the mountain with snowshoers. Copper actually encourages snowshoeing, but we still kept to the side of the trails to stay out of the skiers’ and snowboarders’ way. After a quick cruise down to the base, we took a shuttle bus back to our car and headed home.

Staying in a backcountry hut was the perfect way to spend a Valentine’s Day. We were fortunate to have the entire hut to ourselves for over three hours on the day we arrived, and we really enjoyed just relaxing and watching the snow fall outside. The backcountry sauna was a truly unique experience, and then, flying in the face of the weather forecasts, we got a completely blue-sky day for our hike out on the second day. We couldn’t have had a better trip, and now we can’t wait for our second hut trip, to a different cabin at the end of March!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Car Woes

After a day off to rest, we got up Monday morning, February 11, planning to head back to the slopes. We decided to go to Keystone since we’d been to Breck a lot recently. On the way, we made a quick stop at the grocery store in Frisco. Frisco is a small town about 10 miles from Breckenridge. It offers more services than the resort towns do, but it is still mostly a tourist town.

After our quick stop at the store, Sarah was driving through the parking lot when our car died. It just shut off while she was driving. Since we were in a parking lot, it was easy to stop, but the car was in the way and wouldn’t restart. Brian tried pushing the car by himself, but he was pushing uphill and the pavement was coated in ice, so he couldn’t get any traction. Eventually, Brian and a couple of other guys in the parking lot pushed while Sarah steered and we moved the car off to the side of the gas station parking lot.

Now that it was out of the way, we had the problem of what to do with the car. We haven’t been here that long, so we didn’t know a reliable mechanic that we could call. The guy working at the gas station recommended either the Shell station across the road or High Country Auto, about a mile away. We walked to the Shell station and they said they could tow the car, but they couldn’t spend time diagnosing it for several days. That wasn’t going to work. The person we talked to at Shell recommended calling High Country. They could work on our car immediately, but they didn’t offer towing services, so we arranged for Shell to tow the car to High Country.

A friendly tow-truck operator appeared shortly and took us back to our car. He loaded Caroline (our Honda CR-V) onto the flatbed truck. Then he drove us back across the road and a few blocks down the street to High Country, where we hung out waiting for our car to be diagnosed.

After only about a half hour, Warden, the mechanic, came out and asked if we wanted the good news or the bad news. The good news was that the car was running, and they’d driven it into the garage from the parking lot. How annoying – we’d just paid $90 to have the car towed across the road and now it was starting! The bad news was that he couldn’t find anything wrong with it. He suspected the distributor, but distributors are expensive so he didn’t want to replace it without proof that it was really causing the failure. He said he was going to leave the car running for a little while in the garage, but if it didn’t stop, there wasn’t much he could do but send us on our way. He also mentioned that he thought there was a recall on the ignition switch for our car, and maybe that was related.

Awhile later, Warden came back out, excited to tell us that the car had died. He gave us an excellent, detailed explanation about the ignition coil and how with this type of car you can’t replace just the ignition coil; you need to replace the whole distributor. We groaned, because this wasn’t a cheap proposition, but at least a shiny new CR-V distributor could make it to Frisco the next morning, so we’d have our car back the next afternoon. We gathered up a few of our things and off we went to the Frisco transit station and caught a bus back to Breck.

Back at home, Brian turned on the computer and started searching for information on similar car problems. He found out that the ignition switch recall had the same symptoms as we were seeing – the car would just die but after cooling off for a while would start back up. We called Honda’s customer service number and determine that our car was, in fact, affected by that recall. The recall was from 2002, before we bought the car, and apparently the previous owner had never had the work done. Brian also found out that the ignition coil can be replaced separately from the rest of the distributor. This didn’t make sense based on what we’d understood from the conversation with Warden. Brian called Warden back, and this time he said it wasn’t the ignition coil that was the problem, it was actually another part of the distributor, and the entire distributor needed to be replaced. The fact that the story seemed to be changing didn’t give us confidence.

Since it seemed possible that the recall work would fix the problem, we decided we should have that work done before replacing the whole distributor. Honda customer service told us to call the local Honda shop to get the recall work done, so we called a Honda dealership in Denver. They told us to have the repairs done locally and submit the bill for reimbursement – this made sense, since towing the car to Denver would cost hundreds of dollars.

So we called Honda customer service back to find out how to submit our bills for reimbursement. Next we called High Country to tell them to do the recall work. They suggested that we should confirm with Honda that they would reimburse parts and labor, not just parts.

So we called Honda back again. At this point, we got a different customer service rep (CSR) who said that the car needed to go to a certified Honda service center for the recall or we wouldn’t get reimbursed. This completely contradicted what the previous CSR had told us and what Denver Honda had recommended. Sarah pointed out that there was no way to get the car to Denver in its current state. The Honda customer service rep said she’d open a case for us and we’d hear from a case manager in 3 to 5 business days.

At this point, Sarah was getting pretty annoyed and pointed out, yet again, that we only have one car and waiting around for 3 to 5 days for someone to get back to us was not going to be acceptable. Eventually, the CSR found a case manager and promised we’d hear back from him by the end of the day. The case manager called back shortly and said that they were going to tow the car to a Honda dealer about 75 miles away in Golden, Colorado, for the recall work. This couldn’t happen until the next morning, so in the meantime we should get a rental car and Honda would pay for it. This seemed better than any of our other options at this point, so we agreed.

In the morning, Sarah spoke with Honda customer service again and made the final towing arrangements. Then we hung out at home and played Scrabble for much of the morning, while waiting for the car to get to Golden or a rental car to become available. Eventually after lunch, we called Hertz again and found out that they had a car available. So we walked 2.5 miles to the free Breck gondola which would take us down to the Breck transit center where we could catch a bus back to Frisco to get the rental car.

On the way to the gondola, Planet Honda called to confirm that our car had arrived. Unfortunately, when their tow truck driver had picked up the car, he noticed that the left rear control arm (part of the suspension system) was badly bent. Given the damage, he said it could have only happened during towing. Ugh! Now the car was inoperable for not one, but two different reasons! And it was 75 miles away, so we couldn’t show the towing company the damage.

We made another round of phone calls to try to decipher what exactly the damage was, how the towing would have caused it, and whether there was any other way it could have been caused. We eventually made it to Frisco at 4:40. Brian went to get the rental car while Sarah dashed over to the Shell station that had towed us to talk to them before closing.

Shell had already heard about the issue from High Country by the time Sarah got there. The owner of the Shell station seemed skeptical that his driver had caused the damage, but said we should have Planet Honda get them a quote for the repairs.

When we got home, we wondered if High Country had towed our car around with their four wheeler, so we called them up to find out – we didn’t want Shell to pay for the damage if it wasn’t their fault. High Country said that the car had started every time they needed to move it, so they hadn’t towed it at all. So we were back to the previous explanation, that it had been damaged during the original tow.

Wednesday morning, Planet Honda called to say that they’d done all the recall work on our car. When they’d taken it on a test drive, it had promptly died again, so they had a mechanic investigating why. Bummer – the recall didn’t fix it.

In the meantime, the Shell station owner had talked to Planet Honda, and it was apparently clear to him that the damage was caused by a towing job. His driver swore he couldn’t have done it, but if it had happened prior to them towing the car, the driver should have noted it as preexisting damage, so the Shell owner agreed to pay for the control arm replacement. We were grateful that this part of the car troubles seemed to be solved.

Planet Honda called back later and said that the stalling issue was caused by a bad ignition coil that needed replacement – now we were back to Warden’s original diagnosis! They also said we should have our valves adjusted. They’d have Caroline ready for pickup near the end of the day.

In mid-afternoon, we headed to Golden. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the views from the highway were truly amazing. We got to Golden around 4:30, talked to our customer service rep, got a half-dozen-page printout of all the work that had been done on our car, and forked over $600. We also found out that they’d replaced the ignition coil but that didn’t solve the problem, so they’d ended up replacing the igniter unit instead. Hmm…

Sarah went out to start Caroline and thought the engine sound odd. The odd sound while idling turned to a loud clunking as she accelerated enough to drive through the parking lot. Back to the service center we went. The mechanic who had worked on the car came out and tried to convince us that this was a normal sound for an older car when the valves were correctly adjusted. He insisted they were too tight before and he’d had to loosen them. If we really wanted him to, he could tighten them back up, but we’d be risking engine damage. We weren’t happy about the noise, but it wasn’t a big deal if it wasn’t going to hurt the car, so we got ready to drive off.

At this point, the service manager quietly told us that we should shut off the car and leave it for further work – no matter what the mechanic said, it shouldn’t sound like that. Off to the waiting room we went. It was getting close to closing time, so we weren’t sure if they could get it running right that night, but an hour later, the customer service rep came back to let us know that they’d had a “master technician” readjust the valves. When we turned the car back on, it was back to sounding normal.

We had an uneventful drive back home and finished packing for a backcountry hut trip, which is another story. On Thursday, we drove twenty miles or so to Copper Mountain where we parked our car overnight, and on Friday we drove back to Breck.

Saturday was the start of President’s Day weekend. Knowing that the slopes would likely be packed and given that the weather was good, we decided to ski at A-Basin for the day. The weather was bright and sunny all morning, with very little wind. It was entirely different than the last time we’d been to there, when there had been whiteout conditions. A-Basin is really high so the views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular. Around 2 pm, it clouded up and we decided we’d had enough skiing for the day.

As we left the parking lot and got back on the highway, the car died again! Luckily, Brian was able to pull the car safely off the road. A-Basin is located on a two-lane windy mountain road through avalanche country with a lot of traffic on a day like this. Had the car died any further down the road, this could have been a real nightmare.

Cell phone service is really spotty at A-Basin, but we finally got through to Planet Honda. Jason, our service rep, said we should bring it back to Golden and they’d take a look. Sarah again found herself stating the obvious – the car wasn’t running so we couldn’t just drive it down to Golden. Then he said that we should have it towed, and if it was their fault, they’d pay for the towing. This was a bad option, too, since towing is $350 for a trip that long, and there was a chance that we’d get stuck with the bill. Finally, after a bunch more arguing from Brian, Jason agreed that they would pay for towing and a rental car. He mentioned a couple times how inconvenient the timing was for him, given that it was the end of the day on a Saturday. We weren’t very sympathetic. Having the car dying repeatedly is more than inconvenient for us – it’s downright dangerous.

Brian left A-Basin right away to try to get to Frisco in time to get a rental car. He ended up hitching a ride back down the mountain to Keystone where he caught a Summit bus to Frisco. Sarah stayed with the car and waited for the tow truck driver. When he arrived, Sarah politely noted that we’d had a bad towing experience recently and if he could please not hook to the control arms, she’d appreciate it. He laughed and said “oh – that was you”. Apparently, word gets around in a small town…

Nothing was open on Sunday. We drove our rental car (a sweet Hyundai Sonata with XM satellite radio) to Keystone to ski. Despite the holiday weekend, the crowds weren’t bad. There hasn’t been a lot of snow in the past week, so the conditions weren’t great, but it was another sunny day.

On Monday, Honda pretty quickly got the car to fail again. This time a different mechanic was working on the car. He performed a set of tests to determine whether the problem was the fuel system or the distributor. We thought they’d narrowed it down to the distributor days ago, so this was discouraging. Since they’d seen the car fail several times already, you would think they’d have been able to figure out what was wrong with it.

After determining that the problem was indeed the distributor, the new mechanic disassembled the distributor and found a loose wire. Apparently, when the first mechanic had erroneously replaced the ignition coil, he hadn’t reconnected a wire correctly, and that was causing the failure. By this point, it was near the end of the day and we weren’t all that confident that the problem was really fixed, so we decided to leave the car there for another night. That way, it would have another chance to fail. In this whole process, Jason had gone from sounding annoyed with us to being very apologetic, since it was his mechanic who had caused the problem.

Tuesday morning, we picked up the car bright and early. It has run fine for the past two days but we are still nervous that it’ll quit again. We have our fingers crossed that we’ve finally put this hassle behind us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bemrose Ski Circus

By Saturday, February 10, we were ready for a day off from skiing and snowboarding. It was a beautiful sunny day, though, so we still wanted to spend some time outside. We looked through our book of Colorado snowshoe hikes and found a place called the Bemrose Ski Circus, which is just south of Breckenridge on Highway 9. The book described it as a short hike, just a mile each way, that offers great views of backcountry skiing. It sounded perfect for a rest day!

The parking lot was right at Hoosier Pass on the Continental Divide:

We crossed the highway and looked back. Even from the road, the views of the surrounding mountains were amazing:

Above the parking lot, we could see some of the skiers’ lines through the snow:

There were a lot of different cross-country ski tracks, so we just picked a set of tracks that went up the mountain and followed them. With the sun beating down, we quickly realized that we were overdressed, so we threw some layers of clothing into our backpack. After skiing at Breck, frequently with below-zero wind chills, being too warm was a very welcome change!

The surface was a little bit crusty, but the snow underneath was often light and fluffy, and we postholed pretty frequently. We got our snowshoes when we lived in the Seattle area, and they work great on the wet, heavy Pacific Northwest snow. On Colorado’s powder, though, we sometimes wish we had bigger snowshoes for better float.

We kept hiking upwards, and the views got even more amazing. Here you can see our snowshoe tracks, right next to the ski tracks we were following, with snow-covered mountains in the background:

Here’s Brian on the trail:

After hiking up the mountain for around an hour, we decided that we didn’t really know where we were going. We didn’t seem to be any closer to the backcountry ski area – it very well may have been down one of the other sets of ski tracks that we hadn’t followed. It had been a beautiful hike, though, with constant amazing views. At the point where we decided to turn around, we took a few more pictures.

Here’s Sarah in her snowshoes:

Then we headed back down. We didn’t reach our planned destination, but a gorgeous day made for a fantastic hike all the same.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Deep Powder, Uncontrolled Slides

From Monday, February 4, to Saturday, February 9, we went to Breckenridge six straight days. Brian snowboarded five of the six days and skied once, and Sarah snowboarded twice and skied four times. All over Colorado, the snow was fantastic during the first part of February, and the Front Range area was no exception.

The most notable day for snow was Friday, when we woke to find that Breck had 11” of powder! Even better, I-70 was closed due to the volume of snow and, in particular, blowing snow. The four-mile corridor between Frisco and Breck on the west and Silverthorne and Dillon on the east was open to allow commuters to get through, but otherwise, the highway was closed for a 100-mile stretch that started well east of here and ended to the west in Avon, past Vail. Why is the I-70 closure important? It meant that no one from Denver could get out to the Front Range ski slopes – we locals would have the mountains all to ourselves!

Sarah and I were on one of the first chairs up at Breck, and we had several runs by ourselves on totally fresh untracked powder. It's entirely different snowboarding in 11" of powder – you feel like you're floating, just surfing on a blanket of snow, without your edges ever digging into anything. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling.

The technique is different, too. Brian spent an entire snowboarding lesson two winters ago with his instructor telling him repeatedly to keep his weight forward, on his front leg. Well, in powder, that doesn’t work so well – you’re liable to get the front tip of your snowboard stuck in the snow and somersault over your board. Granted, on a powder day, even doing unintended faceplants is a blast, but still, it’s worthwhile to develop the right technique. Just like on skis, you want to keep your weight back and your tips (or just tip, in this case) up. We saw one snowboarder who practiced this technique to such an extreme that the front tip of his board wasn’t even touching the snow. Over the course of the day, Brian improved, but he still spent much of the day covered in snow and loving it.

On the first run, Brian got partway down the slope and looked up to wait for Sarah. Five minutes later, there she came, making turns through the powder. It turned out that she had lost a ski and had to dig it out – no small feat in this much snow! On the next lift ride up, she pointed out where the snow was all torn up from her search for her ski.

We went to the 6 Chair when it opened at mid-morning, a little two-seater chair that accesses some of Breck’s best upper-mountain terrain. It was us and a few hundred of our closest friends – apparently, even though Denver folks couldn’t make it to Breck, there were plenty of locals, and they all knew about the great powder under the 6 Chair. We took three or four runs there, and each time, we managed to find a foot or more of untracked powder. On our last run, we noticed that the lift was running empty, and soon after that, it stopped. They had closed the lift, apparently due to high winds! Brian was so enthralled with the powder that he didn’t even notice the wind, but Sarah pointed out that this could be our windiest day yet.

We dropped further down the mountain to where the winds weren’t as strong, but pretty quickly, other lifts closed one by one. We got to the bottom of Peak 8, and as we got there, they closed the last high-speed quad on that peak. We had no easy way to get up and no way to get down – the parking lots are way down below the Peak 8 base, and the gondola that takes you there was, like the other lifts, closed. There were masses of people lined up for the two old-school chairs at the base area, so we joined them. After about 20 minutes or so of waiting around, as beginners got to skip past us in line because they were taking lessons, we finally got on the lift.

We made our way from the top of the lift to the Four O’Clock run, so named because people take it at 4:00 since it’s the run that goes down to the parking lots. We got back to the car and went to Mi Casa, a Mexican restaurant with dollar tacos and cheap beer for happy hour. Although it had been an abbreviated day of skiing, it may very well have been our best snow yet, and it was a blast.

The next day, we went back to Breck, again with Brian on a snowboard and Sarah on skis, but this time for only a couple inches of new snow. Nevertheless, the snow on the upper mountain was amazing, particularly the terrain accessed from the Imperial Chair – that’s North America’s highest chair lift, reaching an elevation of 12,840’. That chair hadn’t opened at all due to the high winds on the previous day, so that day’s 11” of new snow was still untracked.

On one of our previous Imperial Chair runs, we had traversed over to the Whale’s Tail bowl, one of several upper-mountain bowls. Brian had his weight too far forward and predictably flipped, landing head-first in the snow. A snowboard instructor happened to be nearby and inquired if he was OK. Brian wasn’t setting a very good example for his student.

On this day, in the same bowl, Brian had a less sanguine fall. What’s usually a double-black-diamond run was behaving more like a blue run – all of the moguls were filled in with fresh powder, and although the slope is steep, the snow slowed us down a lot, so it was a pretty laid-back run. Well into the run, we were traversing to bypass a section of great powder in favor of a section of even more awesome powder. There was a roped-off section below us, and we were traversing well above the rope. Suddenly, Brian caught a patch of ice, which was quite surprising given that everywhere else on the upper mountain, there was a foot of powder. The edge of his board slipped on the ice, and he went down onto his stomach, sliding feet-first down the mountain. He reached the rope and slid right under, over a several-foot drop-off that, as it turns out, was the reason for the rope. Then he continued sliding – it was ice all the way down on a steep, double-black-diamond slope, and there was no easy way to stop the fall. After the dropoff, the only change in terrain was that small rocks joined the sheer ice – the rocks made for better traction but also threatened to tear up the base of his board or his clothing.

Eventually, Brian got flipped over onto his butt, and after perhaps a 30-yard slide, he got the back edge of his board pushed hard enough against the ice that it brought him to a stop. After that, he just sat there for a few seconds and took stock of himself and his surroundings – he didn’t seem to be hurt, but there were probably two dozen people around, including four ski patrol, most of whom had been watching the fiasco. Sarah said afterward that it was like watching a low-speed train wreck – Brian wasn’t sliding all that fast, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop the fall.

Eventually, one of the ski patrol asked if he was all right and instructed him on how to get back to the in-bounds terrain. Brian had thought he was safe once he came to a stop, but now he looked around – apparently, he’d fallen into an avalanche area. The drop that Brian had fallen over was the lip where the avalanche had broken off. Now, to get out, he had to pick his way through the avalanche run-out, which consisted of lots of large, compact snowballs – basically, snow boulders. He bounced off a couple of them, somewhat painfully, but made it out without further incident. One of the ski patrol guys then advised him to “be careful,” which wasn’t especially helpful advice. Although Brian’s not the most cautious snowboarder in the world, this wasn’t one of his reckless moments – he had actually been treading pretty carefully on the traverse, but was surprised by the icy patch. At least he made it out safely, and despite the long slide over rocks, the only lasting damage was a small tear on the bottom of his jacket, which Sarah sewed back up at home.

We did another run after that and then ended our ski day. After six straight days on the slopes, we decided that the next day would be a good time to take a break!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mardi Gras

Tuesday wasn’t just any Tuesday; it was Fat Tuesday. Practically every ski resort has at least one tree near a chairlift that is covered in beads and various undergarments. We were wondering if the undergarments were brought in pockets for the specific purpose of throwing on trees or if they’d actually been removed while the lift was in motion. It’s hard to imagine removing a pair of underwear from under ski pants, long johns, etc., while on a chair lift twenty feet in the air. Then again, stranger things have probably been done. After a full day on the slopes, though, we didn’t see any more adornments being added to the trees, so our questions went unanswered.

Later in the day, Breckenridge hosted a Mardi Gras parade down Main Street. “Parade” is a generous term, as the procession consisted of fewer than ten vehicles total, but there was a decent crowd on hand to partake in the silliness. There was a large group of older ladies from Florida on the sidewalk attracting attention by showing off the most “skin” of the night. There must have been a dozen of them. Sarah had her picture taken with a few:

The parade kicked off with a police escort followed by a walking group of gun-toting cowboys that were shooting blanks. Boy, were they loud! Next up was a group of guys riding in a snow-covered SUV with no doors. Check out the dude in the blue pants -- he is brave! Also notice in the last photo the driver of the vehicle is about to spray him with champagne. Brrr! He was rewarded with lots of hoots from the crowd.

Their truck was also towing this sad blow-up skier:

They were followed by the Bud Light truck, which was typical of most of the parade’s floats – a moderately decorated vehicle containing people in masks and/or hats throwing beads.

The most elaborate float was the snow-sculpted “Ship of Fools”:

They were towing a couple of live skiers, who seemed to be having an easier time of it than the blow-up doll:

The parade finished off with another couple of generic floats:

Then the Florida ladies joined in:

After the parade, we went to a couple of Mardi Gras parties at bars in town. First, we decided to check out the Motherloaded Tavern (the name is a play on the area’s mining history) since we’d never been there before. We sat at the bar and each had a hurricane. Though the place filled up, it was relatively subdued, so we moved on to Napper Tandy’s.

Napper Tandy’s is our happy-hour favorite because they have great specials and good food. When we got there, the only table left was in the corner, but this gave us a good view of the action around the room. The Mardi Gras Rex and Queen were there, in full costume, and the Rex spent much of the night dancing with a very drunk woman about half his age who kept doing cartwheels. While we were sitting there, we kept getting free or very cheap stuff. We got beads, Brian got a long-sleeved Bud Light shirt (Bud Light and Budweiser sponsor everything around here it seems), and we got lots of food. Our corner table placed us right next to the servers’ area, so when other tables mis-ordered or over-ordered, our waitress kept giving us free or very cheap stuff. Our total tally for the night – 16 bbque wings, four huge potato skins, one pitcher of Natural Light beer – all for $5.15! This is a new record for us for amount of cheap food:

(Oddly, notice the subtotal, tax, and final total.)

Later, here are Jay, Isaiah, and Casey (the kids who live upstairs) showing off all the beads we gave them.