9,000 Feet High And Rising

Record Snowfalls, The Open Road, And Go-Time In Colorado

It was mid January. The arteries of the snowboard world were clogged, and a nationwide Olympic attack was eminent. Riders were catching planes to the next qualifier, boards were being precision-tuned at the top of the pipe, and if you listened hard enough, you could hear the soft flutter of money pouring into the sport in anticipation of Torino. However, way up high in a place called the central Rocky Mountains, Colorado was having its best season in years. Snowboarders were snowboarding. Powder was accumulating. And to plenty of average, good-hearted shred people, well, that was enough.

The reality was this: It snowed in Colorado for 25 days in January and nearly 70 days since November 1. Resorts in southern Colorado were getting pounded by heavy snowstorms reminiscent of their record snowfalls during the previous season. Silverton received over a foot of snow each week in December, and Telluride had 156-percent above-average snowfall for the month of January. Steamboat was in the midst of its third snowiest season in the last 30-odd years. Vail was eight feet ahead of its historical snowfall average and had just announced it would extend daily operating hours by a half hour to allow more time to schralp. Breckenridge had its best upper base in recorded history (it was almost 300 percent of normal by early February).

In other words, resorts across the state were experiencing the sweetest snow conditions in decades. It was mid January in Colorado, and lucky for us (Leanne Pelosi, Ryan Thompson, TJ Schneider, Josh Sherman, Dustin Craven, photographer Scott Serfas, and me), we had nowhere better to be.

I grew up in Colorado. Because of this, people tend to say stupid things to me like, “You’re from Colorado-why are you cold?” or “You grew up in the mountains-why are you out of breath?” Well, I live at sea level now, and contrary to popular belief, thick skin and altitude acclimatization just don’t stick with you in life. For this reason, a ten-day snowboard trip to Colorado kicks my ass as much as the next person-maybe more. Bad sleep. Intense thirst. Extreme fatigue. The one-beer drunk. Ah, good times!

Ahem, so the Rocky Mountains are the backbone of North America, a bulging continental apex that dissects the state of Colorado right up the middle. As part of the Rockies, Colorado resorts are basically at the highest point in the country, and by high I’m talking about upwards of 10,000 feet. High altitude is a powerful thing, and when you’re not used to it, it affects your entire world. Let me explain.

As you gain in altitude, the barometric pressure drops along with a corresponding drop in oxygen pressure. At 12,000 feet (around the height of the top of Breckenridge), there’re roughly 40-percent fewer oxygen molecules per breath, and before you’re acclimatized, your body experiences real oxygen deprivation: Your once supple expanse of sponge-like lung constricts into a tiny straw-like thing, causing you to struggle relentlessly for every small gulp of thin mountain air you can suck in. Each step up the bootpack is a monstrous feat of energy exertion. A subtle taste of iron floats into your mouth, as if your lungs really are bleeding (actually, lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from capillaries and build-up in both the lungs and the brain). You feel light-headed and loopy, and every now and then a mysterious altitude headache pierces your peaceful skull.

However, the payoff for this experience is the sort of snow that, as a rule, is pretty much heaven: football fields of light, dry powder that engulfs you as you lay in turns-it shoots up and over your head, momentarily blinding you and obstructing your airway, and lingering in the air for several magical moments once you’re gone. It’s a breed of snow that lower elevations and warmer climates simply never see. Some call it “champagne,” others “blower”-whatever you call it, it’s rare andd wonderful.

So with all this snow piling up and more big flakes spread all across the TV weather map, we were determined to ride not just the normal stuff, know what I mean? Sure, everyone’s heard of Breck’s perfect park and Vail’s wide-open groomers, but why ride that when there’re bomb drops galore into feet and feet of snow in every town on down I-70? And what about all the hikeable mountain passes, from Vail and Loveland to Berthoud and Red Mountain?

The ‘Rado might be infamous among schralp-snobs for being “flat,” but there’re crazy steeps down south in the San Juans-places where Robot Food and Mack Dawg have logged hours of footage over the years, real-deal avalanche-prone backcountry that scares the crap outta ya in a very addictive way. That’s the stuff we were looking for, and we found it all thanks to our trusty guide Alex Pashley.

Things started out in the town of Breckenridge, where we sniffed out every bomb drop to fluffy tranny in the tri-state area. A deep cold had descended upon the state, and we woke up to minus-teen temperatures and a somber, gray veil-the kind that accumulates when the air is so cold that every drop of moisture gets squeezed out into strange billows. We spent a few days hiking and sledding around Vail Pass (sweet cliff bands and deep tree runs within spitting distance of I-70!) before packing up the car and heading west and then south toward Ouray, Colorado, home of the legendary Red Mountain Pass.

Small towns in Southern Colorado are as weird as they get-two parts cowboy and one part redneck, with a little crazy mountain-man hippie sprinkled in for good measure. The nice couple who owned our hotel had played host to any number of shred crews over the years, and they were very hip to the snowboard scene: “Are you filming with the Mad Dog crew up there?” one of them asked, before warning us to be careful and make sure to wear our transceivers. Red Mountain is notoriously slidey-dry snow doesn’t stick to anything, and slide-prone aspects lurk around every corner. The terrain is insane, though, and all within a short, high-altitude lung-burner of a hike from the road. We proceeded with extreme caution and laid waste to a handful of homemade powder kickers.

Just on the other side of Red Mountain Pass sits the little town of Silverton: population 500. It’s a relic out of the West’s mining history with an insane “backcountry resort” right up the road. We stayed in an old, converted brothel that was semi-haunted and chock-full of ancient black and white photography from the building’s past. Days up at the mountain were spent hiking steeps off the resort’s one chairlift and gawking at the Alps-esque views of cirques and craggy peaks. There was quiet time in the trees. Breaks to catch our breath. Blessed powder runs. Lunch by the fire in the tent lodge. Wind-burnt faces at the end of the day. Big laughs. Knowing nods. Silverton is the place-it scares you, but you love it.

Anyway, sometimes it’s hard to know if global warming is really affecting us yet or if it’s just one of those cases of your memory being slightly, um, unreliable. Wasn’t there always snow on the ground at the Thanksgiving when we were kids? I never remembering it raining on the mountain before … Back in the day, we used to walk to school in three feet of snow, uphill, both ways, et cetera, et cetera. However, have a little faith in lady nature, and know that even if the governor of California is a spokesman for Hummer and oil wars continue raging in the Middle East, we can still have epic winter in a magical place like Colorado.

High Times!

Important elevation measurements that perhaps explain our crew’s extreme exhaustion throughout the trip.

11,090 feet: Red Mountain Pass

9,600 feet: The town of Breckenridge

10,550 feet: Vail Pass

9,712 feet: The base of Copper Mountain

12,300 feet: Off the chair at Silverton