Category Archives: Skiing and Snow

The West is Blessed with Record Snows

Colorado to California mountains catch the big white wave

My inbox is filled with fabulous images of deep snow in the West. The Rockies have been pounded by storm upon storm (except for the sunny week I spent at Steamboat). I’m thrilled that California’s Sierra have gotten big dumps, not just for skiers and snowboarders but also for farmers and Californians in general who hopefully are seeing the end of the drought. I love all of the photos, but nothing so far approaches this YouTube video of Wolf Creek in southern Colorado. This powder magnet has snared five feet of snow this week. I love watching this deep snow video:

 

Alaska Railroad Adds March Midweek Train Service

Anchorage-Fairbanks service offered for the first time

AlaskaRailroad-logoAre you as fascinated as I am by the north-country experiences captured by the camera in “Ice Road Truckers” and especially “Railroad Alaska” on cable television? For me, and maybe you, the news that for the first time ever, the Alaska Railroad is offering midweek Aurora Winter Train specials between Fairbanks and Anchorage, is cheering. While travelers don’t have an unlimited choice of travel dates this winter, this inaugural season is a good start.

With northbound trains departing from Anchorage on Tuesday, March 11 and 18, and southbound trains departing from Fairbanks on Wednesday, March 12 and 19, these trains come at a time when Alaska’s two largest communities celebrate the winter season — and celebrate they do. Both residents and visitors the opportunity to ride the budget-friendly rails and experience “the real Alaska” without sharing it with hordes of cruise ship passengers. The days are getting longer (approaching 12 hours of daily sunlight), and with the trip taking roughly 24 hours, there’s plenty of time to sightsee and mingle. I’ve been to Alaska four times during the winter, and take from me: It’s fabulous.

The Alaska Railroad traveling through the spectacular snowy winter landscape of Alaska. (Photo: Wes Barnett via Pinterest)
The Alaska Railroad traveling through the spectacular snowy winter landscape of Alaska. (Photo: Wes Barnett via Pinterest)

Visitors to Fairbanks can book adventures such as aurora borealis viewing tours (those Northern Lights have reportedly been spectacular t this year), visiting Chena Hot Springs Resort, gazing at the intricate ice carvings at the BP World Ice Art Championships, experiencing the 2014 Arctic Winter Games and much more. Although the Iditarod is scheduled to start in Anchorage on March 1, that month is also a great time to visit Alyeska Resort for skiing and snowboarding, and the Great Land’s biggest city is also its cultural, entertainment and shopping hub.

This new train schedule coincides with University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Anchorage School District spring breaks, making travel even more accessible for students and enabling visitors to meet some locals. For $215 roundtrip (students,$178; children,$108), trips taken with March departures and returns by May 10 are ideal for those who wish to linger longer. Tickets may be booked online or by calling 907-265-2494 or 800-544-0552.

Squaw Valley Offers Olympic On-MountainTours

1960 Winter Games at California area were simple affairs

SquawValley-Olympic-logoAs the crescendo builds toward the Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I am positively nostalgic for the Games of bygone years — intimate, inexpensive and athlete-focused. The investment in Sochi 2014 has been quoted as $50 million, but it’s Russia, so if the true figures were even higher, organizers are not letting on. Reports are that while the sports venues are shaping up nicely, hotels, restaurants and much infrastructure at the Black Sea resort are wa-a-a-a-ay behind schedule.

The 1960 Winter Games took place in a tight valley on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. Compared with today, there weren’t all that many events — no freestyle skiing, short-track speed skating or snowboarding (not yet invented); no women’s hockey, cross-country skiing or ski jumping (thought to be men’s sports)and no luge or bobsled at all (eliminated because the organizing committee decided not to build a track in order to reduce expenses). The resort was built virtually from scratch for the Games and cost $80 million — that’s million with an M.

Closing Ceremonies for the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Closing Ceremonies for the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Squaw Valley is offering skiers and riders a glimpse into that past with new 1960 Winter Games Heritage Tours, three-hour private excursions of the on-mountain Olympic venues that highlight historic moments with professional guides who lead participants down the same trails that were used as Olympic venues during the 1960 Winter Games. The outdoor ice rink, ski jumps and speed skating oval are long gone.

The guides will share insider-details on Squaw’s rich heritage and the incredible story of the 1960 Winter Olympics. renowned winter sports destination. As the first fully televised Olympic games, the 1960 Winter Games had a profound impact on winter sports in the United States by sparking an interest in winter athletics that continues to grow today. For more information on Squaw Valley’s Olympic heritage, click here. To view a short film on Squaw Valley’s Olympic history, click here.

The private tours are available for individuals or groups of up to five people and cost $200 ($40 per person for a group of five). Book by calling 800-403-0206 or emailing lesson@squaw.com. Reservations are required for the Heritage Tours. Given the terrain used for the Olympic venues, it is suggested that participants have intermediate to advanced skiing or snowboarding skills.

Powder-Free Steamboat Still Pleases

Good cover, good grooming & sunshine, but no new snow at Steamboat.

Steamboat-logoThe trails are white, but they are covered with “used snow.” Good overnight grooming and afternoon sun make the surface softer and more pleasant, but then, when the shadows fall across the slopes, the snow hardens again. I only wish that my skis were newer, my edges sharper and my nerve stronger, but I am on snow again after two years of barely (and painfully) skiing after a back injury and surgery. Even with my own limitations and less than ideal conditions, I love the sliding, the sunshine and the big sky overhead.

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With Jim Vance, my long-time friend without benefits who escapes from New Jersey comes to Colorado to ski once or twice a year.
With Jim Vance, my long-time friend without benefits who escapes from New Jersey comes to Colorado to ski once or twice a year.
Trailside picnic table with a Yampa Valley view.
Trailside picnic table with a Yampa Valley view.

 

A group on a mountain snowshoe tour crossing a trail.
A group on a mountain snowshoe tour crossing a trail.

 

After a couple of days, I picked up a pair of newer and well-tuned skis at Black Tie Rentals
After a couple of days, I picked up a pair of newer and well-tuned skis at Black Tie Rentals. What a difference! I just got them near Ski Time Square at the base of the mountain, but the company will deliver gear to guests’ accommodations. I can’t let myself get that spoiled!
Tethered balloons were inflated on arrival evening. Here's one gliding along the air current.
Tethered balloons were inflated on arrival evening. Here’s one gliding along the air current.

No “champagne powder” this time, but I know that it will come. It always does.

Sun Peaks Celebrates Chinese New Year

Resort in the Canadian Rockies ready for the Year of the Horse

YearOfTheHorseOn the Chinese calendar, January 30 marks the beginning of the Year of the Horse, and the beguiling mountain resort of Sun Peaks , British Columbia, is celebrating  its first Chinese New Year event from January 31 to February 2. Guests and locals can usher in the Year of the Horse with fireworks, traditional decorations, Asian food and cultural activities.

Festivities begin on Friday with the distribution of red envelopes  decorated with characters representing happiness and wealth, and participating  village restaurants feature Asian-inspired cuisine to get diners in the spirit. On Saturday, guests can participate in an afternoon Tai  Chi session, watch street dancers perform and gaze at a freshly hewn, life-sized ice sculpture of a horse. Children’s activities introduce them to the cultural significance of the occasion. The  evening culminates with fire dancing, a Year of the Horse torchlight  parade and traditional Chinese fireworks, all visible from the village base.

The weekend includes a Chinese New Year Dinner on Friday evening Mantles Restaurant. The Sun Peaks Spa is offering a special treatment from January 31 to February 13, featuring a hot foot soak with sunflower petals to wish guests good luck all year, compression, tapotment and reflexology massage techniques and a hydrating mango mandarin butter massage. Capping the weekend’s celebratory offerings is a dim sum brunch (“dim yum!,” I call it) on Sunday.

40th Annual Cowboy Downhill at Steamboat

Ski Town USA retains its Western edge, even on the slopes

Billy Kidd, Steamboat's Stetson-wearing Director of Skiing.
Billy Kidd, Steamboat’s Stetson-wearing Director of Skiing.

Once a year, Billy Kidd, Steamboat’s Director of Skiing (the title bestowed on the northern Colorado resort’s congenial ambassador), is not the only one on the mountain wearing a Stetson. For 2014, that was yesterday, January 20, the day that a squadron of rodeo cowboys take off from the National Western Stock Show in Denver to put on a show on snow. This year was the 40th annual Cowboy Downhill, a hoot-and-holler race that spices the mountain with the flavor of rodeo.

I rode in the gondola with two saddle bronc riders and one rodeo clown.
I rode in the gondola with two saddle bronc riders and one rodeo clown.

The short course is set up at the bottom of the mountain, right above Gondola Square for optimum spectating. The first part of the race involves two cowboys racing down parallel red and blue courses. Some are on skis, others on snowboards, but  all wearing their chaps and cowboy hats. They make regular helmet-topped skiers and riders seem like wimps.

In the middle of the short course is a jump. Some contenders land on their feet, others don’t. But they continue downhill, some on just one ski. At the bottom of each course are a Broncos cheerleader and a rope that the competitors use to try to lasso her. She won’t be thrown to the snow and tied up — just the target of a rope throw. Then each competitor grabs a saddle from the ground and throws it on a placid (maybe sedated) horse standing there, before racing to the finish line. There are rodeo-style rules timing and disqualifications, but for spectators, it’s just wildly entertaining — because the cowboys are both athletes and entertainers.

Even non-skiing cowboys are fearless coming down the parallel courses.
Even non-skiing cowboys are fearless coming down the parallel courses.
Broncos cheerleaders are lassoed as part of the event. The steer wrestlers and bull riders don't tend to be all that good with rope.
Broncos cheerleaders are lassoed as part of the event. The steer wrestlers and bull and bronc riders don’t tend to be all that good with a rope.
The wildest part of the Cowboy Downhill is the stampede, with all the competitors starting at the same time.
The wildest part of the Cowboy Downhill is the stampede, with all the competitors starting at the same time.
There's a big mountain above waiting to be skied, but the Cowboy Downhill is just too much fun to miss.
There’s a big mountain above waiting to be skied, but the Cowboy Downhill is just too much fun to miss.

Next year will be the 41st! Better get it on the calendar now.

Balloons at the ‘Boat

After-dark inflation of hot-air balloons a thrill.

Hot-air balloons, when tethered to the ground are huge. At night, they are huge and glowing in brilliant colors. As they inflate, they rise majestically from the ground with loud whooshes. It’s easy to get up close and personal at Steamboat’s base area. Balloons reign, beer flows and excitement builds for the next day’s Cowboy Downhill.  It’s the most fun you can have without skis or a board on our own feet.

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Mallard Mountain Lodge Opens in B.C.’s backcountry

Small, simple and sensitively conceived and built lodge

MallardMountainLodge-snowFifteen years since the vision of a small, sustainable wilderness lodge was conceived and after a decade of planning and building, the Canadian Adventure Company opened its fly-in backcountry lodge on January 6. Located at 6,400 feet in the newly minted ‘Punch Bowl’ area of British Columbia’s western Rocky Mountains, the Mallard Mountain Lodge sits in a remote area of the Hugh Allan River Valley northeast of Mica Creek.  It offers guided excursions into the pristine backcountry, designed around ski and snowboard touring in winter and llama hiking in summer.

The Mallard Mountain Lodge offers doorstep adventure into the British Columbia backcountry.
The Mallard Mountain Lodge offers doorstep adventure into the British Columbia backcountry.

The lodge accommodates just seven guests in winter (eight in summer), has a living / dining space with a wood-burning stove on one level, semi-private sleeping quarters and showers on the second floor, with washrooms adjacent to the lodge. Every bolt and brace were flown in by helicopter, and the lodge was designed for maximum efficiency, occupying a small footprint with solar panels to generate power and incinerating toilets that produce no waste. Internet access? Of course not. Being out of reach is a bit part of the appeal of the backcountry.

The “Punch Bowl,” adjacent to the area originally named “Committee Punch Bowl” by David Thompson of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the fur trade era, is at the base of the Mallard Peaks with an area comprising five valleys: Whirlpool, Mallard, Simpson, Canoe and Iroquois, which connect to the Hugh Allan River Valley and flow into the historic Columbia River.

The Canadian Adventure Company offers winter itineraries that delve into of one of BC’s remote wilderness areas via ski and snowboard touring, with optional snowmobile assistance to access a wider area. In summer, friendly llamas carry guest packs on hiking expeditions, adding a new dimension to the trekking experience.

Three-, four- and seven-night winter and summer packages cost $1,530 CDN for 3 nights, $1,890 CDN for 4 nights and $2,200 CDN for 7 nights. For US dollars, do the math. Packages include helicopter access between Valemount and the lodge,  all meals, accommodation and guide (A.C.M.G, Canadian Ski Guide or equivalent winter, and hiking guides in summer). Future years may see the addition of snowcat skiing and snowboarding. FoMoInfo: 250-835 4516.

Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road Opens

 The opening of the road in this Montana National Park signals the start of summer

The Conservancy funded plowing of Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The Conservancy funded plowing of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The monumental task of plowing out Glacier National Park’s 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road has been completed, despite federal budget cuts that promoted last-minute funding from the Glacier National Park Conservancy. Plow crews ran on schedule despite high elevation snows just two days ago, and the road is expected to be fully open this afternoon — that is, if weather forecasts calling for rain showers, wind gusts up to 40 mph and more possible snow. It is still winter on Logan Pass, but the Visitor Center is supposed to open tomorrow, June 22, though operating hours may remain limited.

The temperature at Oberlin Bend, just west of Logan Pass, was reportedly 30 degrees on Friday as crews continued to remove mud and rocks from the road. The pass crests at 6,646 feet, not much higher than where I live, but northern Montana’s latitude makes winters longer and summers shorter than Colorado’s.

With the plowing completed, Going-to-the-Sun Road will see vehicle traffic rather than only occasional cyclists.
With the plowing completed, Going-to-the-Sun Road will see vehicle traffic rather than only occasional cyclists.

If weather and imperfect road conditions are not enough of an early-season challenge, visitors need to know that construction on the west side of the park will be happening between Logan Creek and Avalanche Creek through August, and on the east side, construction will happen between Rising Sun and Siyeh Bend, beginning July 8, with activity occurring 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday morning.

Sun Point will also be closed to the public beginning June 30 due to construction. Visitors should expect 40-minute maximum construction delays for one-way travel across the entire road. Still, the visitor shuttle system on the Going-to-the-Sun Road is scheduled to operate from July 1 through Labor Day between transit centers near Apgar on the west side and the St. Mary Visitor Center on the east side.

McKinley Climb Centennial

100th anniversary of conquest of North America’s highest peak

McKinleySummit-logoOne hundred years ago today, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens,  Hudson Stuck and Robert Tatum reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mt. McKinley from this commanding mountain’s north side. Today, the continent’s highest peak is known by its Koyukon Athabaskan name of Denali (“The High One”), or as Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park.

Karstens and Tatum on Mt. McKinley 100 years ago. Project Gutenberg image.
Karstens and Tatum on Mt. McKinley 100 years ago. Project Gutenberg image.

The main feature of this centennial year is a guided climb by descendants of Harper, Karstens and Stuck. The party is making the Denali 2013 Centennial Climb” following the historic pioneer route up the mountain from its north side. In partnership with Alaska Geographic, the park has produced a new exhibit about the climb, First Ascent of Denali 1913-2013,” for display at the Eielson Visitor Center, near the base of Mount McKinley at Mile 66 of the Denali Park Road, that opened on June 1 and will remain until September 16. Some aspects of the exhibit may also be duplicated for display at the Talkeetna Ranger Station.