Spring Ahead, Fall Down

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 3, 2002

It was 14 degrees. Denver International Airport was shut down. Denver schools were closed for the first time in seven years. More than 150,000 were without power, 80 mph winds were being reported and up to 22 inches of snow had fallen. Major highways were impassable.

It was April 11, 23 days into spring.

As all weather hell broke loose in Denver last year and temperatures hit the high eighties back home, we were happily stranded in Steamboat, a Colorado ski resort about 3½ hours northwest of the Mile High City. Pushing our skis through more than a half-foot of fresh powder, nearly blinded by wind-driven snow, we couldn't help but laugh at how we'd come prepared to exchange skis for mountain bikes.

Back in November, we'd looked at the calendar and cursed Fairfax County's late school spring break, questioning whether there would be anyplace on the continent that would have decent snow in mid-April. Like all devoted skiing families, we're faced each year with choosing between forgoing the big trip or taking a chance on the weather, especially when school vacation falls just days before most major ski resorts are scheduled to close for the season.

Starting each fall, my friend Margie and I begin scanning the long-range weather forecasts, looking for traces of El Niño, La Niña or any other weather pattern that would foretell huge snowfall amounts in specific regions. Last year, we threw an educated dart at Colorado, which hadn't charted good snow for a few years – it was due. With a leap of faith, both families plunked down thousands of dollars for nonrefundable airline tickets and condo rentals and anxiously logged on to ski reports as the months progressed.

We chose Steamboat rather than other resorts closer to Denver simply because we wanted to try someplace different and a bit out of the way – a place far enough from a city as to not draw weekend crowds. We were also attracted to the idea that the resort is adjacent to Steamboat Springs, a real town with an identity separate from the skiing.

The drive from Denver to Steamboat on a clear, sunny day was long but easy, and we arrived smug about our decision to save $200 each by flying to Denver instead of Hayden, just 22 miles from Steamboat.

As we pulled up to the resort and took a look at the brown earth dotted with slushy gray snow, I started thinking biking and hiking instead of skiing. But I didn't understand then the sheer size of the mountain. From the base, just a small portion of the ski area is visible. Entirely different weather patterns exist on its summit, which rises to more than 10,000 feet, a full 3,668 feet higher than the base. While rock bands play in shirtsleeves at the bottom, skiers in full Gore-Tex regalia fight the cold on the top. While rain falls below, blizzard conditions often exist above.

We checked into our three-bedroom condominium in the Dulany complex adjacent to the gondola, a $500-a-night indulgence we'd rationalized by saving all that money flying into Denver instead of Hayden. Cheek-to-jowl condo complexes within easy walking distance of the gondola creep up the mountain, a layout that's hard on the eye. But there was no arguing its convenience, and within an hour we had unpacked and were headed for our first runs.

The European-style gondola comfortably transported us nearly 2,200 feet in nine minutes, offering panoramic views of the resort village, surrounding valleys and lower portion of the mountain. Noting that the bottom half had definitely suffered from warmer spring temperatures, with patches of rocks and dirt poking through the slushy snow, we strapped on our skis, took the short spur over to the Sundown Express lift and kept heading up, to the 10,384-foot Sunshine Peak, where colder temperatures had preserved the packed powder conditions. A lazy intermediate skier's heaven, this corner of the mountain became my safety net, a place I kept coming back to after tackling more difficult runs.

The expert skiers in our group quickly moved on to the more challenging terrain in the Storm Peak area and the backside's Morningside Park. Our 16-year-olds, Steve and Brian, traversed the ridge of the summit to the Christmas Tree Bowl, a double-black diamond, tree-studded bowl that even these fearless speed demons described as "real hard."

As the week progressed, we noticed plenty of indications that the ski season was about to come to an end. An entire section of the mountain served by the closed Pony Express lift was inaccessible. The mountaintop restaurants were no longer open for dinner. Sleigh rides and snowcats were not operating. But nature didn't seem to realize that it was almost time to close shop. Every day more snow fell, and conditions improved dramatically. Packed powder turned to powder, and we gladly exchanged our spring gear for cold weather outfits.

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