By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“There is nothing in the world like going out onto an untouched, open,
virgin, mountain slope drenched under a thick blanket of new, powder
snow. It gives a supreme feeling of freedom and mobility. A great sense
of flying, moving anywhere in a great, white paradise.”
— Hans Wolfgang Gmoser, Austrian/Canadian mountaineer, 1932-2006.
Ordinarily, I’m a lifelong firearms enthusiast, recreational shooter and deer hunter. But high-energy outdoor adventure comes in many forms, and I simply couldn’t pass up the exceptionally rare opportunity recently to ski along the famous Continental Divide – very high up in the majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado with my oldest son and grandson. I’m not an expert skier by any means, having learned later in life, but I truly enjoy the exhilarating sport. During the course of my 21-year Air Force career and since then, I’ve been genuinely blessed to be able to ski in 11 U.S. states (including Colorado, Montana, California and New Mexico) and overseas in Austria, Germany, Italy, Romania and Turkey.
Loveland Ski Area in central Colorado is nestled snugly against the eastern slope of the lofty Continental Divide with Golden Bear Peak right on the very summit at 13,010 feet elevation (2.46 miles high!) according to Google Earth satellite imagery. There are 94 available ski trails over 1,800 acres of rugged terrain. This was precisely where my two sons and I learned our parallel skiing techniques in 1989 while I was stationed in South Dakota. Now,in the 2022-to-2023 ski season, it was finally time for my oldest grandson, Adam, to transition from snowplow skiing for beginners to parallel skiing for more-experienced skiers.
We stayed at the Hotel Chateau Chamonix (8,488 feet elevation and pronounced “shah-mo-NEE,” the name of a famous French ski resort) in Georgetown, Colorado, just 14 miles to the east of the nearest town of any size to the ski area, right off of Route I-70. There are certainly cheaper (and more expensive) accommodations in the area, but this small hotel (only 10 rooms, built in 2010) had all the European charm and style of a French alpine resort. It has king-size beds, private hot tubs, a rushing 25-foot-wide mountain stream (Clear Creek) in the back, and warm, continental breakfast with croissants, fruit and orange juice served daily in your room.
I should quickly point out that liberal Colorado does not honor my Maryland resident handgun permit at all, nor my Pennsylvania non-resident permit (it honors PA residents only). But it does honor my Utah non-resident permit (but only with a MD resident permit as well), probably because Colorado and Utah are neighboring states. Does this sound complicated and confusing? In any event, I decided not to pack a concealed handgun on this purely leisure-filled trip, so that was not an issue. Also, most people who can afford alpine skiing are typically not within the category of people who commit violent crimes, so the overall vacation environment was reasonably safe in that regard.
It’s important to remember that snow skiing is about so much more than just another outdoor sporting event. It’s about adventure, excitement, high spirits, fresh mountain air and absolutely spectacular, awe-inspiring scenery. But it’s also about learning a new skill set, exploring outside your comfort zone, leaning uncomfortably downhill instead of uphill, and mastering that delicate mixture of breathtaking speed, sharp-edged control, caution, cool precision, basic physics, timing and balance on a pair of thin, fiberglas boards strapped to your feet. The courage and confidence that you develop in these complex scenarios translates into similar courage and confidence in other aspects of your everyday life, so it’s definitely a worthwhile experience.
Even the modest entrance to the parking lot at Loveland Ski Area is at 10,860 feet elevation (2.06 miles high!), according to Google Earth. It is just a half mile from the entrance to the 1.7-mile-long, 14-foot-tall Eisenhower-Edwin C. Johnson Memorial Tunnels – 11,013 feet on the low end, which pass well beneath the Continental Divide itself. So, the entire area is quite imposing and spectacular in the aptly-named, Rocky Mountains.
Skiing is a very high-energy, high-speed, adrenaline-pumping activity, and at 12,000 feet altitude, we’re breathing 38 percent less oxygen than we do at sea level. So, it’s harder work, and there’s a slight hypoxic effect on your body with a sense of euphoria amid the incredible surroundings.
Because our young grandson attends fifth grade public school, he was only available for ski lessons during the Christmas-to-New Year’s break. So, we hit the very crowded slopes at peak holiday season on Saturday, December 31st (New Year’s Eve), 2022, and Sunday, January 1st (New Year’s Day), 2023. Normally, my wife and I prefer to travel at mid-week and during off-peak seasons to avoid the huge crowds, but the school schedule ruled the timing of this particular ski vacation.
According to DestinationLuxury.com and several similar web sites, “The Best 12 Ski Resorts in North America” includes Loveland Ski Area at the #2 spot (just behind Grand Targhee, Wyoming.) They wrote, “Perched at the top of the Continental Divide, Loveland is one of the highest ski areas in North America…consistently one of the first resorts to open…with a lot of natural snow, making it one of the best places to ski powder in the country…this ski resort has a huge amount of great terrain above timberline, fantastic powder, and stunning views of the Colorado Rockies…One day dropping into the fluffy powder…at the top of the Divide and you’ll be hooked for life.”
The airline travel to and from Colorado during this peak holiday season was horrendous due to the massive crowds, fog in Denver, bad weather and numerous delays, but that’s almost to be expected when traveling to the Rocky Mountains just before New Year’s Eve. We didn’t allow these relatively minor inconveniences to detract from the overall adventure.
Our first ski day, December 31st, was characterized by a regional snowfall (the forecasters called it a blizzard) with an average temperature of 24 degrees, blowing wind at 26 miles per hour, and wind chill of 3 degrees Fahrenheit all morning. So, the ski conditions were certainly less than ideal, but we made the best of it anyway. Our grandson had a very successful, three-hour, private ski lesson at Loveland Valley, a very short distance downhill from Loveland Basin (the main ski area) and learned valuable parallel-skiing techniques.
Meanwhile, his Dad (my oldest son, Mike) and I used that morning time to perform some reconnaissance runs on the primary slopes at Loveland Basin, assessing which ones my grandson might be able to tackle the next day after his lesson. We rode chairlift #6 (11,888 feet elevation at the top), Chet’s Dream (11,885 feet) and Ptarmigan lift (12,016 feet elevation) up to approximately 2.27 miles high and skied down beautiful, tree-lined runs up to two miles long, making a total of five runs under snowfall conditions.
All of the snow on the slopes was completely natural, averaging four feet deep with no snow-blowing necessary. The lift lines and slopes were great, but the main lodge and restaurant area very rapidly became overcrowded on this holiday. We departed just before one o’clock PM, returning to Georgetown for lunch at a local, creekside bistro and then to our cozy European-style hotel. After an energy-burning morning of skiing, the hotel’s gas fireplace and 104-degree, private, outdoor hot tub on the patio felt wonderful! I even used the hot tub well after dark with a glowing, two-thirds moon above the Rockies.
The skiing on New Year’s Day was simply amazing, and we had enough time for six truly awesome runs including three from the very edge of the Continental Divide, above the timberline. There are no words to adequately describe the majestic mountains all around the ski area, the clean fresh air, and the astounding views up at that altitude. Our best and most enjoyable run was the very last, from Ptarmigan Roost lodge at 12,016 feet elevation all the way back down to the main lodge area at 10,860 feet.
During our departure the next day, our flight home was delayed at Denver International Airport due to heavy fog, so we had time to enjoy a delicious lunch at the Timberline Steak and Grille restaurant in Concourse C, where my wife ordered the trout almondine ($33), and I had the tasty elk medallions ($36), experiencing one final Rocky Mountain treat at the end of our brief vacation.
I’ve had many memorable ski experiences over the past decades, but skiing together with three generations of family members in this amazing setting was a very rare high-altitude adventure and an awe-inspiring opportunity!
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, hunter, and avid skier. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.