I have written in this column before that Beaver Creek Resort seems like heaven to me. Well on my trip in early April, 2011, it almost became true to form. My family and I were on what has become a mini tradition, the spring break trip to Colorado. For these trips we have purchased lift tickets via the Peaks Program and then taken advantage of the interchangeability and skied at the various resorts. This trip called for 6 resorts in seven days. Today on the menu was Beaver Creek. Of the “A list” resorts in Colorado (Aspen, Vail, Breck, and Beaver) Beaver is our favorite. A little slice of heaven… However, on this trip, it almost became the chairlift to heaven.
The day started out fine enough. We had skied the day before at Ski Cooper, one of the “Colorado gems,” and one of my favorite throwback areas. The day had been bright and sunny with highs in the fifties: classic spring skiing. We woke at Breck (base camp this year) with the temperatures still in the 40’s. The forecast called for some wind, light snow and highs in the forties. “Perfect day to drive to Beaver,” we thought. Little did we know we were experiencing the high temperature at 8 am.
The drive over Vail pass was uneventful and it was apparent the previous high temps had cause a huge snow melt. As we passed Vail I noted there might be enough green on the Vail golf course to get a few holes in. We arrived at Beaver Creek just after 9 am. Beaver has a great set up allowing you to park down in Avon and ride the bus up to the Village. Changing into our ski boots in the lot, I noted the temperature was fifty degrees and I was worried we had overdressed. I decide to drop a layer. We boarded the bus and quickly made the transition to the village up the escalators and to the lifts. We were on the lifts just before ten -; a near record for this party. My boys and I were joking around on the lift ride up, taking the classic self portraits and planning our day. We noted a light rain had started to fall as we rode the Centennial lift. As we got higher up the mountain the rain changed to snow, but still it seemed like no be deal.
We got off the lift and skated the transition past the mid-station lodge over to Chair 6 to ride to the top. Beaver is odd in that a lot of the greens and easier blues are on top. As soon as we got on Chair 6 the weather began to turn. The wind really picked up. The snow now was becoming more like hail and we were pelted with ice pellets! We still were not worried figuring it was just because we were higher. We all popped on our hoods and marveled at pellets of snow bouncing off our jackets. Then it hit.
The storm front slammed into Beaver Creek with a vengeance. Visibility dropped fast -; so much so that we could only see a lift tower or two ahead. Those pellets of snow were now flying sideways. “Hang on,” I said, as the winds battered the chair. The automatic triggers must have gone off as the high speed quad dropped in speed. Then it happened.
The sky, woods, snow and everything around us went brilliant white. This was followed by a booming crack of thunder. We were now in a snow thunderstorm. What had been lighthearted fun before was now really extreme skiing.
I heard my youngest son riding with my wife on the chair ahead cry out. I watched him scoot closer on the lift to her. My oldest was with me and looked just as scared. I was too. We were trapped on a metal chair lift, suspended from a metal wire attached to a metal tower, all seemingly good conductors. “We have to get off this lift,” I thought. But how?
We were only halfway up at best, but visibility was so poor we couldn’t see. We strained looking into the whiteout for the lift station. Every new tower brought hope of yellow signs telling us to “prepare to unload”, but every bare tower also bashed those hopes.
Above us the sky boiled and we heard more thunder. Thankfully no more lightning flashes. Upward we climbed, locked into our metal chair and tempting the lightning. Every now and then we would see small groups of skiers sprinting down the mountain which would lead us to hope that we were near the lift station. But still no yellow signs.
How ironic I thought it would be to die on a ski lift. Especially given that I was not supposed to be on this trip at all. I had broken my neck in a bike crash during a triathlon six month ago and was only approved to ski two weeks prior to the trip. Did the metal plate in my neck make me more attractive to lightning, I wondered? More than a few prayers were said as we rode up the mountain deeper into the storm.
After what seemed a lifetime but was probably no more than ten minutes, we saw a yellow sign and another and then the lift station. Sliding off the lift my first thought was we need to get lower fast. There was a ski patrol hut and a mountain top warming station nearby. However, in my mind staying on top of the mountain in an electrical storm near of bunch of metal structures seemed like the wrong idea. Also given Beaver Creek’s high reputation for customer service I was surprised there wasn’t an employee directing us to cover? Instead we were on our own -; “we have to get lower” I screamed into the wind at my party and we started down.
I know everyone is taught in electrical storms to stay away from trees. However in a gale of blowing snow with low visibility staying in the middle of the trail was futile. My party hugged the tree line as we headed down Red Buffalo, the wind and snow whipping around us the whole way down. We quickly came to Jackrabbit Alley, the favorite trail of my kids. It twists and turns through the woods and in and out of teepees, wagons and other structures the resort set up for kids. “This way, dad,” my kids screamed, as they headed into the woods. Again the advice of “staying away from trees in storms” echoed through my head. However I figured the odds of lightning picking one of the millions of trees on the mountain verses the lift towers and other metal structures was low. So off we went.
In the trees the wind was blocked and the visibility was quite good, however we had another problem. The other half of my party had decided not to follow. My mother-in-law, although quite a good skier having lived in Switzerland for many years, was averse to skiing in the trees. My sister-in-law, also a Swiss-bred skier, was staying with her. My wife was trying to keep her boys in sight in the trees while leading the other two. This was a recipe for disaster. My mother-in-law made a wrong turn. My sister-in-law followed and they were lost in the storm.
The boys and I continued through the woods and popped out of the trail on to Red Buffalo just below the Rose Bowl. The wind was still howling and the snow blowing. My wife showed up a minute later. “I lost them,” she said. We were not sure if they had somehow gotten lower than us. We waited for a bit then decided to head for the lodge. Again probably the wrong choice, but the snow was flying, the boys were cold, and I figured they could not be that far behind.
It was slow going. Into the wind. We both were pushing and pulling our boys along. Six inches of snow had already fallen and conditions were poor on Cinch, normally a nice safe green. It was slow going. After awhile we could see Chair 6, now stopped, in the distance. We skated for it and then across to the midpoint lodge.
Here Beaver Creek customer service kicked back in. We were greeted at the door by staff bearing Kleenex and info. We were told all the lifts were stopped and it was best to stay inside for a while. I mentioned we had two more in our party out there and was told they were trying to herd folks down.
A frozen twenty minutes later the rest of our party joined us. The whiteout had given grandma vertigo and she had fallen several times. My sister-in-law had not been to Beaver and was trying to figure out where to go. Another skier tried to direct them but lost them. A staff member found them 100 yards from the lodge. They had no idea how close they were.
The rest of the day was not so eventful. After a stay in the mid loge the resort reopened about noon. The lost wanderers called it quits after reaching the village, as did my youngest. My wife and my oldest spent the afternoon skiing off the Elkhorn chair which is normally just used by residents. We found some great untracked powder on these trails. My son, who has been raised an east coast skier, declared he was no fan of powder as you can’t go fast. But still all had fun. Having had enough adventure we called it a day.
Not so fast -; Mother Nature had one more curve ball. The influx of snow had also caught CTRANS off guard and I-70 was shut down. Thus we were trapped in Avon shuttling between BK and Starbucks till 5:30 pm when the pass opened. It wasn’t till until 7:30 that we made it back to Breck.
Once again Beaver had shown itself providing some heavenly skiing, but also providing a glimpse of hell.
Robbie Allen is an avid small hill skier. He has written several articles on the many small hills he has sought out.