Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thanksgiving Ski Trip 2015

For serious skiers, the week of Thanksgiving is a popular time to take a ski trip to somewhere with snow. The West Yellowstone Ski Festival is pretty trendy amongst US skiers. I partook in this festival twice, back in 2005 and 2007. It was a great time and both years I felt the early season training at altitude gave me a boost and both years I had some good ski results.

Move ahead a few years and although West Yellowstone is fun, my husband and I and some others decided we wanted more kilometers of trails and change of scenery. Two years ago, in 2013, a group of us went to Silverstar and Sovereign Lake in British Columbia. We were there for a week and it was a challenge to ski all the trails over that time. There were a couple trails I wanted to get back to but never made it and of course I had a few favorite trails I did 3 or 4 times.

This year I was really eyeing Colorado for a Thanksgiving week ski trip. There are lots of great Nordic ski areas in Colorado. And all of them are at really high around 9,000 feet. I initially thought about the Crested Butte area which I’ve heard has early season snow but this area is a bit off the beaten track and would be an even farther drive from Minnesota.

I got pretty excited about skiing at Devil’s Thumb Ranch and Snow Mountain Ranch around the Winter Park/Tabernash area with each area touting 100 kilometers of trail. In the end, our friend Emily Johnson was able to get us some free lodging compliments of her aunt and uncle, and so we based much of our trip out of the Breckenridge area.

There are 3 good Nordic ski areas around Breckenridge: Breckenridge Nordic, Gold Run (which was not open due to low snow), and Frisco Nordic. Because each of these areas are at significant elevation (remember, 9,000 feet and above as noted earlier) I tried to not have any kilometer goals. Two years ago I tried to ski at least 42 kilometers every day but Silverstar is at half the elevation of the Breckenridge area. 

On Saturday November 21st Erik (my husband), Craig Cardinal, Emily Johnson, and I began the drive to Colorado. We spent the night in Greeley, Colorado with our friend Graham Baird who is a geology professor at Northern Colorado University. We met Graham at the University of Minnesota (where the rest of us all met) when he was a doctoral student. He was a good 6+ years older than the rest of us and so we gave him the nick-name Graham-pa! He’s a really fun guy to talk to and grew up in upstate New York (where Erik and I lived for 4 years) so there’s always good stories to share. 

After a big pancake breakfast we drove over the continental divide on Sunday. Our first stop was Frisco Nordic. We began skate skiing around noon under a very hot sun. Temps must’ve been in the upper 30s and the snow was melting in the parking lot but fortunately there didn’t seem to be much melting on the trails. We have a theory that since it’s so dry out west we think the snow on the trail just sublimates rather than melts. Tickets were half price since the snow was pretty thin. At least half the trails were open; everything except the black trails. We skied for well over two hours without getting bored. We had to do some grass and pavement dodging but the views were exceptional and we found really good snow and gradual climbs on RJ’s Vista and Crown Point Road. My skis felt pretty long for the first few minutes but after that I enjoyed working on my technique- mostly the V-2 with good balance and compression on my poles. 

Taking my first fall of the year during my first ski of the season after poling between my legs. Photo: Craig

It was so warm Emily and I did the last part of our ski in sports bras. It does give some "snow burn" though if you fall. Photo: Craig.
Monday morning we went to Breckenridge Nordic for a classic ski. This was probably our biggest disappointment of the trip. Due to low snow only about 5 kilometers were open. We skied a good number of loops on mostly flat terrain although by combining a couple trails there was a good 1 kilometer climb Craig did a few times. Here the trails are surrounded by quite expensive cabins.

That afternoon we skate skied the upper area of Breckenridge Nordic (also called New Nordic World). There is a ski trail connecting these two areas but due to low snow that trail was closed. We skated and were in for the biggest surprise of our trip. The trail immediately began climbing from the small parking lot for about a kilometer on a trail named Otter Slide. I next took a trail called Heaven’s Gate which contoured around the mountain and provided some stunning views. I removed just a few rocks from the trail. Then I started on Elk Dance. After a bit more contouring the trail took an abrupt left turn and began climbing a 30% grade! Moreover there were some tiny trees growing up in the middle of the trail. After a ¼ kilometer, the grade decreased and became glide-able but kept going uphill. I imagined I was climbing the Alp Cermis but since this trail tops out right around 11,000 feet my ski technique wasn’t of World Cup caliber. When I finally made it to the top of “Jeffrey’s Biff” as it is called I saw a sign which read “Caution, Expert/Advanced skiers only.” I think they need a more bold sign like “this is the steepest XC trail in the US- suicidal skiers only.” I then skied back downhill to the parking lot dropping about 1,000 feet in 5 kilometers. The trail was nicely groomed and wide enough to get in lots of parallel turns. 

Looking north from New Nordic World

Looking across the valley towards the continental divide from New Nordic World

Tuesday morning we classic skied at Frisco Nordic. I worked on my double pole but mostly just tried to keep my heart rate from getting too high. For some reason I decided to do 2 minute intervals. I did good on these but did just 3 because I don’t want to be a Thanksgiving Turkey. Towards the end of the workout we did some double pole video as a group.

Practicing technique at Frisco Nordic. Photo: Erik

Tuesday afternoon we headed back to New Nordic World so Emily could climb Jeffrey’s Biff as she had missed out on that hill the day before. I climbed Jeffrey’s Biff again. Unfortunately a caterpillar type vehicle had gone up the ski trail making it pretty hard to parallel turn on the way down so it wasn’t nearly as fun as the previous day.

On Wednesday Erik, Emily, and I went downhill skiing at Breckenridge. I mostly skied with Erik who wore his Garmin and reports we did 21,000 feet of vertical and around 84 kilometers. Turns out taking chairlifts and skiing mostly downhill (I DID ski just a bit uphill) really makes getting the K’s in easy!

Thursday morning we skated at Breckenridge Nordic again. I climbed the 1 kilometer hill 4 times. A couple other trails involving a ski tunnel and a ski bridge were now open. Actually, the outer black loop (Shock Hill) was technically closed but the groomer let us on it “because we’re expert skiers from Minnesota.” On that loop there are some fun downhills that fortunately all face north because we had to do some walking on woodchips on the south facing uphills BUT we did have a great view above the town of Breckenridge. Then it was off to Conifer to have Thanksgiving dinner with Emily’s aunt and uncle. Much thanks to the Cheronis for their kind hospitality (and for showing us there are a few Chicago Bears fans in the world…)

Friday we drove back over the continental divide to the Winter Park area. We skied for about 4 hours at Devil’s Thumb Ranch. Erik and I ended up skiing together. We did a classic ski followed by a skate ski. They had more snow than the Breckenridge area and they had just gotten a couple inches of fresh snow so conditions were pretty slow. We skied for quite awhile on green trails that are flatter than most trails in Minnesota before we climbed a bit on Blue Extra which offered superb views. We headed to the west side for skating and got some really good clear views of the continental divide from the Black 10 trail and Molly’s Meadow and then on to Homestead which had a surprising big downhill (I admittedly fell) and then back on Blue Extra. They had most of their terrain open and we skied a decent amount of it. Like most ski resorts, we do think they over report their kilometers (like include trails twice if they are both classic and skate) but we were only able to ski about half their trails in 4 hours so they have a decent amount.

More great views of the Continental Divide from Devil's Thumb Ranch. Photo: Erik

Friday evening we stayed at YMCA of the Rockies (also called Snow Mountain Ranch). If you stay there, you get free Nordic passes (I think Devil’s Thumb has the same deal but their lodging is more pricey). The 4 of us got a room for $85 (you get a slight discount if you are a YMCA member). Craig immediately made use of the lighted ski trails and a full moon and put in an hour of classic skiing. When he came back he announced the tracks were beautifully hard thanks to piston bully grooming (Bill Pierce, former Birkie Trail groomer, is now the groomer at Snow Mountain Ranch). We only had about 3 hours to ski on Saturday so the rest of us plotted our route. 

Saturday morning we began skiing by 8:30 am. Erik again skied with me as we eyed the trail that climbs to the Summit Overlook. This trail climbs 2,000 vertical feet. As soon as I realized this was an actual groomed trail, I had to take up this challenge. I decided to skate ski since I’m a much better climber on skate skis than classic skis. Unfortunately the trail had about 3 inches of powder on top of solid piston bully grooming. This slowed our progress but I would not be deterred; I’ve never climbed 2,000 vertical feet in one go before (sure, I’ve done 1,000). So we pretty much trudged up the mountain slowly with our stops getting more and more frequent the higher we climbed. This ridge/hill/mountain (whatever you want to call it) topped out at 10,670 feet). Unfortunately we were in the clouds so the views weren’t good, but the snowflakes were AMAZING. I would’ve liked to spend more time looking at the snowflakes landing on me but alas we had a time limit so I had to keep going. We finally made it to the summit after climbing for 1 hour 40 minutes. It took us about 30 minutes to go 9 kilometers downhill (the fresh snow made it slow both ways).

The powder conditions on the way up to Summit Overlook at Snow Mountain Ranch. Photo: Erik

Then it was back over the continental divide for the last time and back to Minnesota on Sunday.
Total: about 16 hours of skiing and 180 kilometers over 6 days with an additional day of downhill skiing. I was a bit surprised my numbers were so close to Craig. Hopefully I didn’t train too much at altitude but I have been training more than Craig this summer and fall.
I’m hoping in a couple years to ski again at Devil’s Thumb and Snow Mountain Ranch. I need to ski all their trails and make it back up to that summit on a clear day….and maybe by then I will feel confident to stride the whole way!

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