PIKES PEAK – Dan Fleming tried to persuade the other skiers perched on the verge of a 1,000-foot snow gully that conditions were perfect.
“A little crusty up top maybe, but beyond that nothing but butter, pure perfect butter,” he said, describing how the April sun had settled the snow in the gully known as Little Italy into a thick, smooth spread of corn snow, prized by spring skiers in the Rockies.
Pikes Peak hasn’t had a ski area for more than 20 years, but skiers of every ability return each year about this time, riding up in cars instead of a chair lift. A whole winter’s supply of high alpine snow awaits them, but conditions have to be right. When they are not, near-vertical snow chutes such as Little Italy become long tongues of ice that spit skiers into the granite teeth below. Two men have died skiing Pike Peak’s slopes, and others have been injured beyond full repair.
But when conditions are right, the snow is butter: firm but soft, safe, and — most of all — a delight to ride.
Butter is what had drawn Mike Miller, than a Mountain Chalet backcountry ski guru, and a few stragglers from The Gazette, the local daily newspaper, to the mountain on the morning they met Fleming. And butter was what waited in the boot-shaped chute of Little Italy, promised Fleming, who has been skiing the peak for years.
“I wouldn’t mislead you. That’s when people get hurt and that wouldn’t be fun,” he said with a smile.
The group had to take his word for it — Little Italy is so steep that skiers can’t see the run they’re about to make. Beyond the icy edge in front of them, the slope plunges at 60 degrees; beyond that hard edge, the view reveals only distant mountains disappearing into the Denver haze.
DOWN A SLIPPERY SLOPE
Daredevils have been skiing this notch in the rocks for more than 50 years, according to Pat Pfeiffer, a ski historian and former owner of the Pikes Peak Ski Area. But that doesn’t make it any safer. Pfeiffer used to shuttle riders in her station wagon.
“One time in the 1950s, we were horrified to watch a girl slide on her back the entire length of the run. The rocks chewed up her parka and her back. We put her in a station wagon on her stomach and a friend took her down to the hospital,” she said.
More serious accidents have happened since then. A few years ago, Fleming said, he watched a friend on a snowboard fall at the top of the chute, slide face-first into a batch of rocks, bounce, and slide another few hundred feet before snagging on a second batch of rocks. By the time he stopped, he was dead.
Fleming still returns to this spot because the skiing trumps the risks, but he said it takes special care and knowledge.
“This is not a resort. You’ve got to think. You’ve got to know what you’re doing; there’s not a lot of room for mistakes,” Fleming said.
The group stood silently. Just minutes before, we’d been literally hooting and hollering as we tailed Miller down a more manageable slope called Cornice, next to Little Italy.
“I love it, I love it,” Miller said when he reached the road at the bottom of the run, pulled off his headphones (he’d been “busting some Snoop Dogg”) and looked back at the zipper of tracks running down the broad cirque.
That morning, Miller had shown me around the mountain. We started with easy runs on the old Pikes Peak Ski Area, while the snow was still coral-reef solid. Then we explored the great white open of a bowl called The Hollow as the sun began to tenderize the slopes. At every turn, there seemed to be more enticing snowfields to explore. A week of skiing would not scratch the surface.
“I was blown away the first time I came up here,” Miller said after a particularly velvety run. “Living in the Springs, you just don’t consider that there could be so much skiing so close.”
Of course, many locals are well aware. The Forest Service and the city, which owns the toll road, neither encourage nor discourage skiers, but they come anyway. On prime, sunny Saturdays, the peak might harbor two dozen skiers doing laps down the chutes to Glen Cove, then hitching back up with a passing tourist.
There were no tourists up in the throat of Little Italy on this day, just a group of skiers and snowboarders trying not to picture a body sliding down into the rocks. I’d been told stories: a local TV news producer was severely brain-damaged doing this exact run; the last Gazette reporter to ski the peak for a story tumbled head over heels for “several hundred feet.” Obviously, the mountain has a penchant for mauling journalists.
BRING ON THE BUTTER
Fleming led the charge, bouncing his fat alpine skis in quick turns until he disappeared over the edge. Miller followed, leaping and crouching down like the expert telemark skier that he is. Soon it was just me and the gully and the ghosts of wrecked journalists. I shook my head. Enough thinking.
I pointed my board down into the chute and took a breath as it slid over the lip. I finally could see where I was going: straight down.
These chutes are so steep that, in one of them, Fleming once met a rock climber on the way up and asked him for directions. I dug in an edge, trying to fight gravity, and the rock-hard snow protested with a sound like tearing fabric. I turned, dug in another edge, and gritted my teeth against the tearing sound.
This was not butter. This was boilerplate. This was survival skiing. One tumble and I would pinball down to the rocks.
It was the first time I’d ever wished I had an ice ax while snowboarding. I knew what I had to do. I used every bit of concentration to execute a daring combination of turns and simultaneous quiet curses directed at Fleming. Curse, turn, tear. Curse, turn, tear.
Then, halfway through the next turn and the next curse, everything changed. The tearing noise stopped. The snow turned soft.
“Oh yeah!” shouted Miller, who was just ahead of me, as he carved a buoyant arc down toward the heel of Little Italy’s boot, with snow spraying up from his tails.
Instantly, all tension deflated. I followed him, arcing effortlessly through the chute, bouncing from edge to edge through one blissful turn after another, finally shooting out into the open snowfields below.
We had found butter — a glorious thing. No wonder people come back to ski the peak year after year.
Fleming pulled off to the side to let us pass and gave what may have been the most gracious, silent “I told you so” smile Pikes Peak has ever seen.
PIKES PEAK CAM
For a virtual glimpse of snow conditions on Pikes Peak, check out the Devil’s Playground cam at www.dohc.com/devilsplayground.
Always check the projected avalanche danger before heading into the backcountry by thoroughly reading the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports online.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- The ski season on Pikes Peak can last well into May, or even June, depending on the weather.
- Alpine tundra is fragile. Try to walk on snow or rocks to save the vegetation.
- Avalanches can happen at any time. Be aware of conditions and carry the proper safety equipment.
- The Pikes Peak Highway toll road is open daily. Cost is $12 per person age 16 or older ($5 for ages 6-15) or $40 per vehicle (up to 5 people); annual passes available.
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