Colorado Spring Skiing - Don't Fear the April
By Jim Kenney
Seasons don't fear the April
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain...
we can be like they are
Come on baby...
don't fear the April
We'll be able to fly...
don't fear the April
(with my apologies to Blue Oyster Cult)
Though I have deep affection for our mid-Atlantic ski areas, there is no denying it's awfully fun to indulge in a Western ski trip to cap a fine local season. My 18 year old son Vince and I took a trip to Colorado in April of 2009 that was so good I'm compelled to do a final recap. We hung together for five awesome ski days visiting Loveland, Arapahoe Basin, and Copper Mountain in conditions that ranged from blistering sunshine to 18" of fresh powder.
I confess that for decades I resisted traveling to the US West in late, late season out of concern that I'd trek a long way only to find marginal conditions. Recent successful experiences have convinced me otherwise. When it comes to Colorado ski country, don't fear the April.
I love the way a late, late ski trip feels like stolen time, a bonus mini-season between the last and the next. Usually the crowds and prices are low, the snowpack deep, and the weather muy simpatico. Surely, the high elevation resorts we visited in Colorado are among the best places on the planet for the distinctive joys of an April ski trip.
Loveland Ski Area
Our first ski day was April 14 at Loveland, the latest launch of a ski week I'd ever undertaken. It's always a good omen when you start a ski trip with free parking 50 steps from the ticket window and lifts. About an hour west of Denver via Interstate 70, Loveland is the Front Range "locals' hill" 90% of us flatlanders would kill to have as our home mountain. Typically, Loveland operates from October to May and has one of the longest ski seasons in the US. With approximately 1,300 skiable acres spread across a high alpine cirque/basin about 4 miles wide, it's plenty big from my mid-Atlantic perspective, especially on a deserted April weekday. Most of the skiing occurs between 10,900 and 12,700 feet above sea level and the area was 100% open the day of our visit.
Vince and I had been to Loveland a couple times before, but the section we knew the least was Zip Basin. We headed over that way and skied a few runs including the intermediate Awesome trail which comprises the far northern perimeter of in-bounds terrain. The bottom half affords opportunities for intermediate glade skiing through impressive old growth evergreens. Zip Basin has a fun "side-country" feel due to being somewhat removed from the rest of the ski area. It's served by Chair #8 with a vertical of approximately 900 feet.
Moving south across Loveland's huge basin we used Chairlift #9 (1255' vertical) for a few rides to the top of the Continental Divide. This lift summits at 12,700 feet where the air is thin, the views are great, and the wind often stiff. Trails descending near the chairlift rate upper-intermediate in steepness, but the high elevation subjects them to challenging wind buffed conditions. Skilled snowriders can hike along the Divide for a mile or more to access a whole batch of extreme chutes called The Ridge. http://i981.photobucket.com/albums/ae292/dsckiphotos/Copy2ofDSCF0626.jpg
Over the Rainbow trail at Loveland
Vince and I packed a lunch and continued our southward progression across Loveland to stop at the vintage E-Tow Cabin for an open air picnic in the 50 degree F spring weather. An inclusive characteristic of Loveland is that much of the acreage consists of easy-skiing open bowls. It's a great ski area for beginners and intermediates with a low key/low crowd vibe. E-Tow Cabin is set at approximately 11,500 feet amidst this gentle terrain and must be 50+ years old. It dates back to the days when Loveland was served by an alphabet of rope tow and t-bar surface lifts.
After lunch we moved on to Chairlift #1 which serves a stellar group of black diamond bump runs with about 1,000 feet of vertical. All the steeps in this section had great coverage with forgiving spring snow. It was the best skiing of the day. Eventually we made it to Over the Rainbow trail which represents the farthest in-bounds run on the southern edge of the main ski area, a perfect bookend to our morning warm-ups in Zip Basin.
We spent April 15 and 16 making our first ever visit to Arapahoe Basin ski area. Scenic and steep, A-Basin opened for skiing in 1946 and is deservedly referred to as The Legend. The retro A-Frame base lodge once served as a missile testing facility. Changing into our ski boots under the massive interior wood beam framework I felt pretty confident the building could withstand a direct hit from a missile or an avalanche.
A-Basin is perched on the western flank of the Continental Divide just across from Loveland Pass. The first thing you'll notice descending from the pass on US Highway 6 is the hike-to extreme terrain of the precipitous 13,000 foot East Wall. It towers over a choice selection of lift served options from corduroy cruisers on the Lenawee and Norway Faces, to world class black diamond bump runs in the Pallavicini trail pod, to the wide open ridges of Montezuma Bowl. This place rocks, literally and figuratively. http://i981.photobucket.com/albums/ae292/dsckiphotos/Copy2ofCopyofDSCF0632.jpg
Vince and I tried to sample a little of everything lift-served during two very different ski days at A-Basin. Our first day was sunny and spring-like. We started by ripping cord down sweet upper-intermediate groomers off Norway and Lenawee chairs, both with about 1000 feet of vertical. Then we hit black diamond chutes off Founders Ridge in the Montezuma Bowl, a favorite of mine. I'd rate the skill level of this area, also known as Zuma Cornice, as single black diamond during our visit. It featured a fun 10' cornice drop with awesome backdrops of Rocky Mountain vistas. Montezuma Bowl and the accompanying Zuma Quad Chair opened in 2007. With ~1100 feet of vertical this area is the perfect complement to the existing A-Basin terrain, adding a big serving of blue square and single black diamond slopes, chutes and glades.
Later we followed the sun to the impressively steep Pallavicini trail pod on the front face of the mountain. They were running the 20th annual Enduro race; a couple dozen teams of two doing as many laps as possible in the "Pali" section for 10 straight hours. The record is 71 laps! This trail pod contains about 20 double black diamond runs and is served by its own chairlift rising 1,329 vertical feet. I had a yard sale on Pali Face and a friendly female Enduro competitor picked up my gear and brought it down to me. Great athletes and nice people too, all race proceeds go to charity.http://i981.photobucket.com/albums/ae292/dsckiphotos/CopyofCopyofDSCN5784.jpg
Takes the right stuff to patrol A-Basin
Our second day at A-Basin marked the end of mild spring skiing and the beginning of three amazingly snowy ski days. Visibility was low early in the day so we skirted snow fences and dipped into glades such as Torreys in lower Montezuma Bowl and Cabin Glades under the Lenawee Mountain chairlift. Both are moderate angle with some areas of nice tree spacing. After ten inches of fresh snow the skies cleared during our lunch break in the new mid-mountain Black Mountain Lodge.
We passed the afternoon in the Pali section. The new layer of cut-up spring snow over serious mogul fields presented extremely stout skiing. Young Vince made me proud by seeming to thrive on it. As for my own performance, a t-shirt I picked up later in the base lodge summed it, "this is not a souvenir, it's proof of survival."
If you are a strong skier/snowboarder and dislike the hassle and pretension of larger resorts, I suggest you make a bee line to the genuinely hardcore, yet friendly scene at A-Basin. Its 900 acres represent a condensed version of the cream of Colorado. Never in the context of skiing has the adage "quality over quantity" been more apropos IMHO. Lift served skiing takes place between approximately 10,800 and 12,500 feet. Hiking the East Wall can add another 500 vertical feet. The high elevation and mostly northern exposure make A-Basin one of the premier spring skiing destinations in the US with lifts routinely spinning into the month of June.
My memories of Copper Mountain are somewhat of a blur, or should I say - a whiteout. More often than not it was snowing during our two ski days there. 12 to 18 inches of new snow awaited us the first morning and an overnight refresh gave us about the same depth in many spots on the second day. Visibility never exceeded more than a couple miles. Vince and I met some very friendly local powder freaks who showed us midwinter-like fun on April 17 and 18.
We got a crucial transportation assist from the free Summit Stage during the stormy weather, ensuring a safe bus ride each day from our lodging in the nearby town of Frisco to the central entry point at the base of the ski area - The Village at Copper. The back bowls of Copper were closed during our visit, not for lack of snow cover obviously, but because the resort was winding down services for closing day at the end of the weekend. Nevertheless, we had 2600' of vertical, about 10 operational lifts, and close to 1500 acres of ski terrain, a tall order to explore in just two days.
The Summit Stage took about 15 minutes from Frisco to reach the stop at Copper's base near the American Eagle express quad chairlift. From there we'd ascend its ~1500 vertical feet to the mid-mountain Solitude Station Lodge, store our gear, and fan out in either direction across the enormous front face of Copper Mountain. To the east were tougher groomed runs served by Super Bee and Alpine chairs, to the west were easier cruisers beneath American Flyer and Timberline chairs. All of these rise between 1100 and 2200 vertical feet! But our search for the deepest fresh snow invariably led us to even higher ground (elevation >12,000') via key springtime lifts: the Excelerator quad chair, the Storm King platter surface lift, and the Sierra triple chair. http://i981.photobucket.com/albums/ae292/dsckiphotos/1000x600px-LL-copyofDSCF07551.jpg
Entering the Enchanted Forest
The highlight of our first day was when a friendly local offered to lead us for three afternoon runs in 18" of largely untracked snow from the 12,370' summit of Union Bowl. Through chairlift conversations we found out he was Non Denominational Christian Minister playing hooky on a snow day. Given the low visibility in magnificent, but unfamiliar black diamond terrain we were real glad to have him as our shepherd for the most righteous powder baptism of our lives.
The snow continued overnight and we had more of the same primo conditions on our second day at Copper Mountain, unbelievably the penultimate day of ski operations. We warmed-up on the great blue square and single black diamond runs off the Excelerator chair (~850' vertical). It's located high above the mid-mountain Solitude Station, our daily dining venue.
During our lunch break some online friends who I'd never met in person somehow recognized us, introduced themselves, and offered to show us the mountain. They were really gracious and over the rest of the afternoon treated Vince and I to a guided tour of great runs we would never have found by ourselves including a pass through the Enchanted Forest off 12,440' Copper Peak and some deep, deep pow in an area called Union Meadows beneath Union Peak. These guys were GOOD and inspired Vince and I to raise our game. It was an exciting finish to a ski week father and son will never forget.http://i981.photobucket.com/albums/ae292/dsckiphotos/CopyofCopyofDSCN5861.jpg
Proof there are friends on powder days at Copper Mtn
When our final day was done we hung out at the Copper base area for food, drink, music, and après ski fun at the Sunsation end-of-season party. The Copper Mountain clientele includes a mix of savvy locals and enthusiastic destination vacationers creating a great resort experience in an action packed base complex about 90 minutes from Denver via Interstate 70. As skies cleared during the après ski party we learned that State Transportation officials had just reopened a long stretch of the interstate slammed with as much as three feet of snow west of Denver. Even powder spoiled denizens of the Front Range joined us in toasting the epic snow conditions for Copper Mountain's last weekend of the season.
Links and Tidbits
Home video put together by Vince Kenney depicting our trip. Our bad for the poor resolution and shaky camera shots. Everything was a first take, but hopefully you'll catch our drift; any regular Joes can find spring skiing adventure in Colorado Ski Country USA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IjWOg-fFJs&feature=channel_page
All photos and video by Jim and Vince Kenney
Ski Area websites:
Arapahoe Basin: http://www.arapahoebasin.com/ABasin/default.aspx
Copper Mountain: http://www.coppercolorado.com/index.htm
Loveland and Arapahoe Basin reopened for skiing in October 2009.
Colorado lodging: http://www.georgetownmountaininn.com/
- The Georgetown Mountain Inn is 11 miles east of Loveland Ski Area right on I70, good hot tub, affordable rates.http://www.keytotherockies.com/
- The Dakota Condos at River Run in Keystone were an upscale treat. This property is managed by Key to the Rockies. Five miles from A-Basin, walk to Keystone Gondola, high class with a beautiful outdoor heated pool and hot tub. Lots of nearby shops and restaurants, found 50 cent beers across the street.http://www.friscolodge.com/
- The Frisco Lodge is 90 miles west of DIA in the center of the shopping and dining district of historic Frisco, good hot tub, great breakfast, comfy/cozy, a block from Summit Stage bus stop.
Bargains and fun:
-Lots of emerging bargains on the Loveland website, including cheap four-packs of lift tickets. Even their walk-up window rate for tickets was only $42 during our April visit.
-If you're up to it enter the annual Enduro Competition on A-Basin's Pallavicini trail pod, if you're not then spectate and tailgate among locals at the famous "Beach" located at the base of the lifts.
-A crazy assortment of Red Bull games and serious après ski activities are offered at Copper's two-week-long Sunsation slopeside party each spring. Bob Marley's original band The Wailers made an appearance in 2009.
-Check out the Colorado Ski Country USA website for the latest on all resort news, deals, conditions, and fun events: http://www.coloradoski.com/