The minute the work assignment landed, the gears were set in motion on a plan to fit a ski day into a business trip.
Denver in December. I’d done it before when I flew into Denver on a Thursday night, rented a car and stayed downtown, then hit the road early the next morning bound for Copper Mountain. I rented skis, met up with my cousin Tim, and had a chilly but bright day on some beautiful Rocky Mountain slopes. The crowd was light for a Friday, I recall.
This time around, I took a couple vacation days and flew out early on the Thursday before the weekend work assignment. I rented skis in the city — the guy at Christy’s picked out a perfect set of high-performance Völkls — then stopped for supplies at a Whole Foods before making my way to the home of Uncle Paul and Aunt Maureen, who had offered a standing invitation if I ever needed a place to stay in Denver.
A great family dinner with Paul, Maureen and my cousins was the perfect prelude to what was shaping up to be a magnificent ski day. Some snow was expected in the Front Range of the Rockies, and I was headed for Winter Park, which is only a 90-minute drive from Denver.
I was flying solo because my relatives had obligations, but that enabled me to get a super-early start. There was no traffic, and soon I was off I-70 and headed into Berthoud Pass. I presumed the light traffic was because it was a weekday. A little snow started to fall as I neared the ski area.
I was there well ahead of the opening bell, which was exactly what I wanted. I had visions of first chair, but I also wanted some time to scope out the expansive base area, get my prepaid ticket, and gear up.
I was on the snow a solid 15-20 minutes before the lifts started taking passengers, and spent the time stretching near the lift corral. The snow was picking up, beautiful soft flakes that blanketed my shoulders.
Somehow, right as the entrance to the lift line opened, a flurry of skiers and boarders arrived, so I hustled to click-in and get in line. I wasn’t first, but I was pretty close, and with the way it was snowing, I knew there was going to be great skiing anyway. Plus, Winter Park is huge, and I had a hunch it would be easy to separate from the masses.
By the time the Zephyr Express lift started loading, the corral was full. My rule No. 1 in those situations, especially when at a multi-peak area, is to get away from the main base lift as soon as possible. A few of those who had gone up ahead of me already were skiing right back down the lift line or adjacent trails that went back to the base.
I went the other way, dropping off the backside of the unloading area and into a valley that was simply breathtaking — the vast open trails were lined by snow-covered trees. It was pure powder and only getting deeper, which made the skiing almost effortless. At first it was maybe 6-8 inches. By day’s end, I was skiing in 18 inches of fluff almost everywhere.
I started on the backside of the Winter Park peak, one of many peaks across the vast resort. A few rides on the virtually empty lift back there allowed me to be among the first to hit many of the trails. It was snowing pretty hard by this point, and visibility was a bit of an issue. But the snow underfoot was so soft and easy to maneuver in that I felt strong and confident on my skis. It also was really quiet.
At one point I stopped and realized I needed to take a few pictures to capture this unbelievable tranquility. As I did, I had a moment, asking myself, “Am I dreaming?” At that point, I put the phone away and focused on the enjoyment of such good fortune.
I really didn’t know where I was going, I just eyeballed slopes from the lift and then hit them. But at one point, I missed the base station of the lift that had proven to be such a great find, and dipped down a connector trail that led farther away from Winter Park peak and into the “territory” known as Vasquez Ridge.
Here, there was only more euphoria, for as secluded as the first part of the resort I’d checked out was, this was even more away from it all. There was a lift running, with a loading station tucked into some trees that lined a valley, and I skied right on every time.
This was a smaller peak, but hardly anyone had been there, and no one was in sight. I spent the next two hours exploring all the trails, which included a few steep black diamonds that were pretty challenging, even in the amazingly forgiving conditions, as well as a few trails that ran side-by-side down a ridge and absolutely were loaded with light, deep snow.
Once I hit everything there, I moved on and methodically skied as much as I could at the rest of the area. After an expensive, but worth it, lunch at a summit lodge — my only break of the day — the afternoon was a blur. I just know that fresh snow fell on top of fresh snow, and every trail was pure heaven.
It truly was the best ski day I’ve ever had.
Going home was tough, because I was sore and a bit melancholy that the day had come to an end. Besides, the snowy weather conditions on the way back were considerably more difficult to deal with than on the way there, especially going back through Berthoud Pass.
I was late getting back for dinner, and I felt bad that everyone was waiting for me. But they all understood. Who wouldn’t?
Matt Pepin can be reached at [email protected].