‘A real piece of heaven’
VAIL PASS – A group of New Yorkers finally beat the powder doldrums of too many vacations past. Each January trip to the mountains was a failure: even world-renowned resorts like Whistler came up shallow.The seven thick-accented travelers wanted a guarantee they’d get a piece of the powder pie. A day near Vail Pass with outfitter Vail Snowcat Skiing was a sure thing, they thought. Ten runs and about 15,000-feet of vertical in 3,000 acres of terrain paid-off for the East Coasters.”About time we get a trip in with some” good snow, Paul McKellar said.And at the end of the day, Ken Lanning summed up the experience, leaning in so he could be heard over the roar of the snowcat. “What an epic day,” he said quietly.Uproarious laughter filled the snowcat’s passenger compartment in response to the “epic” remark. Lanning seems to be the black sheep of the group; sooner or later, he’s bound to say something comical.”He’s been long overdue for something,” Matt O’Hara said.
Cattin’ aroundThe group of backcountry adventurers met at the rest area on Vail Pass. Waiting there were owner Bruce Baca, guide Ben Bartosz and driver Craig Dodge. These folks have it rough jumping out day after day for fresh powder runs.”I can think of other jobs I’d not want to do,” Dodge said.The New Yorkers and three Canadians exchanged greetings and hoped aboard the vehicle. The snowcat, similar to the grooming machines at ski resorts, seats 12 passengers in a cabin. There is additional room for the guides to sit fore and aft of the compartment. Skis and snowboards are placed outside at the rear of the snowcat.Inside, the ride was a bit noisy and bumpy. Bartosz handed out avalanche beacons and gave a quick lesson in backcountry survival. Bartosz and Baca’s two decades of experience stripped away everyone’s fear of avalanches.Tackling the slopes south of Vail Pass requires a strong-intermediate skier or beyond. Trees, rocks, steeps, deep powder and exhaustion challenged each rider.The group unloads at a gentle rolling glade stacked knee-deep with powder. The plan is to take two runs down the southeast-facing slope before the sun can bake the surface to a hard crust.
Bartosz led the group down. Nearly everyone whooped and hollered as they got blasted in the face with powder. One-by-one the skiers and snowboarders popped out of the woods where the cat would scoop them up for another run. Some of the riders were covered in snow and others’ legs were burning but everyone acclimating to the powder.Energy filled the cabin as the group was shuttled up to the top for a second run.Following the run, the group crept further into the backcountry atop the sometimes teeth-chattering snowcat. Dodge took us to Machine Gun Ridge, where Baca told us the 10th Mountain Division trained and left behind an intimidating name.The views from atop the ridge alone were worth the trip. The Maroon Bells and Mount of the Holy Cross hung in front, the Gore Range behind.A short traverse across some rocks, peeking grass and hard snow brought us to quality powder and we drop in. Nothing but fresh tracks the entire way down. The ride down the ridge was wide open. From afar, the group would look like ants skating down the massive hill.All day, Bartosz and Baca kept the group moving ahead of the sun. If things got a little crusty, the group moved on. Run after run was the same – exhilarating untracked powder in breath-taking country.Still, skiers and snowboarders must have their head on a swivel. During weekends snowmobilers cruise the area, providing yet more obstacles.Take care under the cornicePrior to lunch, Bartosz guided the group down Ptarmigan Mountain, a route that dropped under a massive cornice prone to sliding. Baca set out, waiting at the bottom for the group. Bartosz instructed everyone to ride one at a time close to the trees on our right to avoid the slide path.I went first, remembering to leave an escape route in case of an avalanche. But a gentle rollover pulled me toward the avalanche chute. I saw Baca at the bottom motioning for me to move right out of the slide path.Safe at the bottom, we watched the other riders come one-by-one down the mountain, some stopping to catch their breath, dangerously close to the middle. Baca motioned all of them to head right.A few tense minutes later everyone was safely at the bottom and we rode into the trees to meet the cat for a short trip to our lunch rendezvous. The group was tired and hungry.Bling-bling skier tripA lunch of chicken noodle soup, coldcuts and sweet, ripe fruit awaited the staving bunch in a yurt, a mountain shelter that is similar to a tent. The group re-energized and was ready for the final two runs amongst sparse trees. Between runs the group talked about the day.
“I feel like a real skier,” McKellar said. “It’s the bling-bling skier trip.”A terse Tom Pinz puts in his two bits.”I love it. That’s it,” he said.The ride back to the rest area provided some additional reflection.”In Canada we can’t do this,” Michael Ford said. “It’s illegal to have this much fun.”Back at the parking lot, the group dispersed. Everyone said good-bye to new friendships only knee-deep powder and good company can form.”It’s a real piece of heaven up there,” Rob Black concluded.Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail, Colorado