The Anti-Aspen

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 2, 2003

When skiing through the trees in nearly a foot of fresh powder, the violent release of one's ski bindings can sound a bit ominous. This was recently pointed out by one of my ski partners, who heard me torpedo head-first into the fluffy white stuff during one of the many days when it absolutely dumps snow at Colorado's Wolf Creek Ski Area.

"I just heard snaps," said Mark Smith, shaking his head. "I thought it might be your femur."

Coming from Mark, an emergency medical technician and a member of a backcountry search-and-rescue unit, this statement didn't exactly instill a desire to test my limits. It did, however, make me thankful that Wolf Creek consistently receives more powder than any other Colorado resort, giving nearly every run a coating of what may well be nature's softest and most forgiving substance.

And it is the allure of all this snow -- and very little else -- that keeps me coming back to this low-key mountain tucked 30 miles over the New Mexico border.

You see, there is no lodging, no shopping and no night life at Wolf Creek itself. Neither are there movie stars, film festivals, fur coats or high-society types sipping cognac and speaking foreign languages.

The mountain is modestly sized, boasts no high-speed lifts and has little in the way of an advertising budget. What Wolf Creek does have, however, is nearly 39 feet of snow per year and 1,600 acres of terrain, more than half of which is essentially ungroomed, wide-open backcountry. And although the ski area's snowfall plummeted last ski season due to drought, Wolf Creek still gets enough early-season snow to periodically host workouts for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team.

In general, this is a laid-back place, a family-owned ski area where camouflage-clad Texans mix with instructors from visiting ski areas, united only by their contentment with a no-frills ski experience and the relatively cheap $43 lift ticket.

Being after the same thing myself, I was thrilled to step out of the car in mid-February and immediately hear a series of muffled booms, evidence of avalanche blasting somewhere within the swirling cloud of white that obscured the mountain above. After spending roughly no time in ticket or lift lines, I headed uphill for an afternoon on the faces and clear-cut runs of Wolf Creek's older, more traditional half.

It was on my second day, however, that Mark led me and Dave Hale -- a blond, ponytailed art teacher from Arizona -- on a headlong plunge into the experts-only section of the Water Fall Area, part of the 1,000 acres of backcountry-style skiing.

The day had promised to be a good one from the beginning: We'd seen little snow outside our condo in Pagosa Springs, 3,300 feet below the ski area, but knew that the storm was still swirling above. And although the road to Wolf Creek was miraculously clear, snowdrifts were already sluicing off the roof of the warming hut at the mountain base by the time we pulled into the parking lot.

But standing on wobbly legs above a steep, tree-lined clearing, I was suddenly unsure of my ability to navigate through all this snow and all these trees. I watched Mark whoop his way downward, yelling for us to follow, then looked sideways at Dave.

"I don't know that this is such a great idea," I told him.

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