Took advantage of a long weekend to sneak off to CO for a trip. After much deliberating, I decided to head to Cooper... yes, that's Cooper, not Copper, the slightly-better known big brother just down the road. Moreover, I decided to do the road trip from KC to CO, as most people here have done it at least once, if not once a winter, I thought it was time to join the ranks of desperate KC skiers who are willing to drive 11 hours to make turns.
Just so you know, the drive was excellent.
There was a very nice windfarm just west of Salina. I could go on and on, but apart from the lights of Denver that's about all you see for the first nine hours. At least it was an easy drive.
Cooper sits above Leadville- the highest incorporated town in the United States- on Tennessee Pass, at the headwaters of the Arkansas River. It's trail map makes the place look alarmingly like Ski Liberty: Cooper... or Liberty?
though it has twice as much vertical and about five or six times as much ski terrain. Cooper has no snowmaking at all, and was sporting a 6 foot base when we showed up.
Despite being small, the skiing was quite simply some of the best I have ever experienced. There are so few people at the ski area that there were almost no moguls, there are simply not enough skiers to build them. There are also not enough skiers to ski off the snow, so the base was deep, consistent, and softly packed. I was able to make "hero turns"- giant, high speed, one-end-of-the-run-to-the-other- on almost every single run I took there. With the exception of one novice run off the front lift, it was rare if you were on a slope with anyone else. And the backside was spectacular: comprised of three open fields and numerous glades and small trails, you could probably take 25-30 different ways down. In three days, I did not ski all the options on the back side, and was still finding trails on Sunday.
Now, there is nothing difficult at Cooper. Most of the blacks would be blue even by east coast standards- the only one that might not would be Boot Leg, their gladed semi-mogul run, but even that isn't as steep as Devil's Drop at Wisp- but it is fantastic for people looking to step their skills up a notch or just crank around on wide open terrain that overlooks the highest peaks in Colorado (Mount Elbert and Mount Massive are just south and across the Valley).
And then there is Chicago Ridge. The tickets ($39, or $31 if you get them at the local ski shop) and lodging ($69-$95 a night, sometimes that price includes ski tickets as well) is so much cheaper than skiing in the Dillon/Frisco area ($86/$65 lift tickets, $160 or so lodging) that I took the savings and bought a day of snowcat skiing. It was the first time I have ever been snowcat skiing in my life. Cooper uses an area called Chicago Ridge- approximateyl 2,500 acres scattered across four vast bowls and two burn ridges, the size of Copper itself but there's only 12 people on the tour.
The folks on the tour were as cool and mellow as any you could imagine, and the guides were simply outstanding. John- 2 years guiding on Chicago Ridge, proud new dad, whitewater guide in the summer- and Ralph- 19 years of guiding on Chicago Ridge, native of Ski Denton PA, probably knows every inch of the mountain- were both as excited as anyone else on the trip, extremely helpful in pointing out how to ski the snow, and knew how to set us up to pitch us into progressively harder and better terrain with confidence.
The powder? Bottomless. The runs? 1,200-1,600 foot vertical each time. Tracks? Non-existent, unless you were skiing behind someone in the trees. Fat skis? As one guy who has been up over a dozen times said to me when he found out I rented fat skis- "you're cheating. It's so easy with fat skis you're gonna feel like you've mastered it all after one run." And indeed, it was easy. In the Buckeye Trees, probably the softest snow we hit all day (since there's no wind in the trees usually, and the run faces north, the snow settles very gently), I was able to swish the skis around almost like I was on packed powder. It gives you a fearless feel, and I pushed through tight spots in the woods faster than I've ever done before with complete confidence.
Fortunately, the best runs of the day were in the afternoon. The run we took crossing from the morning bowl to the West Elk Meadows was simply spectacular. The upper 800 vertical feet or so were in an open bowl about 12,500 feet above sea level that no one had touched since before the last 2 foot snowstorm. After we got to the bottom of that, we were all going nuts with joy. Then Ralph said "follow my line through these trees here" and took us into an open burn for another 600 feet of vertical or so in soft, also-untracked snow. We were doing all we could to keep from screaming with joy by the time we got to the bottom of that one.
The last two runs were in the same meadow, but maybe a quarter mile apart and with completely different exposures and wide enough that you didn't cross a single track descending. Ralph even brought me over to one edge of the ridge and let me go down an area where the nearest ski track from our group was probably 100 yards away.
Oh, did I mention the grilled salmon and rice pilaf they served for lunch in the backcountry kitchen? Yeah, it tastes even better when you've been skiing powder all morning.
In a word, Chicago Ridge was superlative. I would go back snowcat skiing with them tomorrow and was seething with envy when I saw the folks up there on Sunday. If you haven't tried snowcat skiing yet folks, YOU HAVE TO TRY IT. Pay the couple hundred bucks and get back there. You will not regret it.
So, overall, I think Cooper was a great place to spend a few days just chillin' and livin' easy. Oh, also- Leadville is surprisingly undiscovered. Sure, there are some vacation homes in the area, but most real estate there is still well south of $500K. The downtown still has some vacant storefronts, dinners are in the $10-$15 range, and as far as I can tell there were no chains whatsoever downtown- every store was local. It's definitely worth getting to and checking out before it becomes discovered (there's talk of a luxury ski resort being built in the next pass west of Cooper, which could transform the whole area for the worse in my opinion).
I'm really enjoying trying out the local hills in Colorado. Last year it was Wolf Creek, this year Cooper, I think next year I might do Monarch in March. We'll see.
Oh, the whole weekend, I had this song
stuck in my head, which has to be by far the best song I've ever had stuck in my head while skiing. And it goes perfectly with powder on Chicago Ridge!
ps- JohnL, I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of powder skiing, you'll be thankful to know.
pps- Cooper isn't just a local hill. I discovered this right before leaving, which made it really, really sweet to ski at the area (the following is from their web page):
Ski Cooper's origin goes back to World War II. In 1942, the U.S. Army selected a training site near an isolated railroad stop of Pando, CO. Nearby Camp Hale was built as the training site for the ski troopers of the famed 10th Mountain Division. The Army selected the site because of the availability of rail transportation, its rugged mountainous terrain, and a 250-inch average annual snowfall which assured a six-month-long ski training season at the nearby, 11,700-foot-high Ski Cooper. Following two years of rigorous training, the 10th Mountain Division was ordered to Italy in 1945 to spearhead the advance of the U.S. Fifth Army. In a series of actions that included Riva Ridge and Mt. Belvedere, the 10th Mountain Division breached the supposedly impregnable Gothic Line in the Appenines and secured the Po River Valley to play a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy. By the time of the German surrender in May, 1945, 992 ski troopers had been killed in action and 4,000 wounded, the highest casualty rate of any U.S. Division in the Mediterranean.