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!


Lloyd said...

Except for the fall, it sounds like an almost perfect couple of days. It's so much fun to be able to go down those double-blacks as if they were blues. There is no better thrill in the world!

twoinatent said...

It's been an amazing winter for snow here. I hear Washington's been great, too -- hope you've gotten out there a few times!

Anonymous said...

My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
I was looking for blogs about the Four O’Clock run to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
Hope to hear from you :)