VAIL PASS — We’re six ski runs into our day and I am beginning to wonder, “What will give out first?”
My arms, reduced to useless noodles from the strain of being towed repeatedly up a 30-degree slope?
My legs, burning with the effort of making turns in waist-deep snow?
My hips, screaming from the unnatural body position it takes to ride a snowmobile with two people in ski gear?
But, oh, the powder … .
The pain is worth it, as our group of 10 skiers with three snowmobiles has spent the day carving up pillowy hillsides and alpine bowls where nature’s latest gift of snowfall had waited untouched. As of this day, nearby Vail Mountain had gotten 322 inches of snow for the season. And here, where there are no chair lifts, you feel like you’re gliding on top of every flake.
In the old days, skiers had to hike or skin up to reach such terrain, being content with one or two runs a day. Or they had to fork over hundreds of dollars for snowcat tours or even more for a helicopter drop-off.
The snowmobile, or the sled, as it’s now known in snow-sports parlance, has become the working man’s helicopter. And so-called hybrid skiing has become one of the fastest-growing trends in backcountry skiing.
“It’s a lot more relaxed. On a powder day at Breckenridge it’s a big race to get to the snow first, but right now it’s not going anywhere,” said Breckenridge skier Simon Farrell, one of our group. “It’s a different vibe.”
Booming in popularity
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning and White River National Forest ranger John Hare expects the parking lots to be full by 10 a.m.
“Warm weather, blue skies, a big snow cycle over the last week,” said Hare.
In summer, this is a rest area along Interstate 70 and a launching point for hikes and four-wheel-drive expeditions. But in winter, it’s the main access point for some of Colorado’s best backcountry and cross-country skiing, the 55,000-acre Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area. The snow-draped landscape of peaks, ridges and wooded valleys varies from 9,200 to 12,693 feet in elevation, laced with 67 miles of motorized and 52 miles of non-motorized trails.
Five years ago, there may have been a handful of hybrid skiers here. These days, Hare estimates at least half of the 26,000 annual visitors are using snowmobiles to access ski terrain.
Snowmobiles aren’t as expensive (about $3,000) and prone to breakdowns as they once were. Newer machines can access steeper terrain and go deeper into the backcountry than ever before, a natural fit for the ever-fatter skis and snowboards being produced each year.
No pain, no gain
Our day starts with a quick lesson on avalanche beacons. Though we’ll avoid slide-prone areas, anything can happen in the backcountry.
“In general, snowmobile (skiers) are a little bit more at risk to get caught in avalanches, just because they’re so much more mobile,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “They can cover so much more terrain in a day than a non-motorized recreational user.”
About 3,300 acres of Vail Pass are open to hybrid skiing, an area larger than nearby Copper Mountain ski resort. For most hybrid skiers, the snowmobiles are mainly a conveyance, using the network of roads to drop skiers off at the top of a mountain and rotating drivers so everyone gets to enjoy the “gnar.”
To maximize the number of runs, it’s good to have a larger number of skiers. The downside is you’ll spend much of your day being towed, which is more stressful to the body than it sounds. After two runs, my arms were sore. After four, they were numb. After six, I was hooking my elbow around the handle, even though that could mean a dislocated shoulder if I fell.
It gets easier the more you do it, I was assured by others in the group.
Greene and others use a snowmobile as a tool for getting into backcountry areas. He enjoys driving in, then spending the day hiking to the skiing terrain.
Deep in the snow-draped wilderness, the sudden noise and exhaust of a snowmobile operating beyond motorized boundaries can put a damper on a day, said Jay Heeter, of the Colorado Mountain Club’s Backcountry Snowsports Initiative.
“People are going out there to experience a quiet winter wonderland. To have that interrupted by a noisy, dangerous, high-speed machine — that really takes away from the escape a lot of people are looking for,” he said.
But at Vail Pass, he said the U.S. Forest Service has done a great job keeping conflicts to a minimum, by having designated snowmobile areas away from backcountry hiking routes. There are even different parking lots for overnight skiers using a hut in the area, day hikers and cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
Talking to skiers planning a day of hiking or skinning, the only complaints I heard were about the $6 per-person fee the agency charges to use the area.
“I would rather not be around snowmobiles if I had my choice, but you just select a place where there aren’t snowmobiles,” said skier Jerry Brockway, of Boulder, setting off for some cross-country skiing.
To the north, at Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes near Steamboat Springs, it’s not always as smooth, and there have been reports of vandalism to vehicles. Complaints and conflicts led Routt National Forest officials to designate certain areas for hybrid skiing and others for non-motorized use, but they still get some 200 complaints a year of snowmobilers going out-of-bounds, usually in search of deep powder, said recreation program manager Kent Foster.
“Some parts of it are OK. Some parts, we still have some people who just don’t respect the boundaries. The boundaries are pretty well signed,” he said.
At Vail Pass, Hare, the ranger, said there are about 100 complaints a year, and an average of 15 citations — including a $275 fine — written.
He credits the relative peace of the area to a task force of motorized and non-motorized users that meets regularly to advise the agency and hash out conflicts.
Vigilance is needed, he said, because if a single sled-skier creates a path, it can quickly become a new illegal route.
“One track quickly becomes two, two becomes six, six becomes 10 and then our non-motorized areas are totally tracked out, which is not good for the users who are looking for that untracked wilderness experience,” he said.
As we rolled into the parking lot after a gruelling yet exhilarating day skiing the glades, bowls and forests, I never felt like it was a pure wilderness experience.
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