Valley residents enjoying Colorado’s endless winter
Think winter is over?
There are those of us who stash our ski gear in the garage or in the back of the closet the minute the chairlifts shut down, and then there are those who are gearing up for some of their favorite skiing and riding of the season when May hits.
The late spring and early summer months in Colorado are times when guys such as Mike Whitfield, Colin Murphy, Zach Taylor, Ben Koelker and Jarrett Luttrell are having the times of their lives. Their main reasons for continuing to get their fixes on the snow are simple – the conditions are great and the terrain is safer than in the winter, plus these guys like a good challenge.
“This time of the year is really when the state turns into world-class mountaineering,” said Whitfield, 37, of Eagle-Vail. “Some of the best riding of the season is in the end of May through June.”
That’s right, Whitfield and plenty more argue that what the rest of us call “mud season” is really the time when winter offers skiers and riders new, safer terrain – expert terrain, that is.
Luttrell, of Gunnison, became the first snowboarder to ride down all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks on May 16.
There’s a melt-freeze cycle that happens in the mountains in the spring that makes Colorado’s high, steep terrain finally safe to ski and ride, Whitfield said.
“Colorado is one of the most dangerous places in the world for avalanches,” he said. “In the winter, it’s hard to safely ski really steep, technical terrain – a lot of things have to line up.”
Those things begin to line up almost everywhere, though, when the chairlifts shut down and ski resorts close for the season. That’s when the snow starts to be more forgiving for those willing to hike through the early-morning hours to ride steep slopes they might not have survived in the winter.
“You can ski stuff in this state (this time of year) that rivals anything in Alaska,” Whitfield said.
Murphy, who lives in Denver and spends a lot of his time seeking out steep mountains to hike and ride, said he started seeking out spots to ride about 15 years ago because he wasn’t ready to stop when the ski resorts closed. He would hit Pikes Peak every year, right around the Fourth of July, and said that backcountry snowboarding became a passion.
“It just became almost like an addiction,” said Murphy, 36. “The more you get, the more you want.”
Now Murphy does it for those same reasons, combined with the fact that the snow is just more stable this time of year.
“In the spring, things kind of solidify,” Murphy said. “The same slopes in the winter would probably release.”
Murphy said this spring is one of the best he’s seen in a long time, and he’s been doing this for about 20 years.
“It’ll be July, easily, before we’re done skiing,” Murphy said.
For those dedicated enough to hike through the night and early-morning hours, facing all kinds of difficult elements, the reward is why they do it.
Murphy said it takes a lot of energy to get to the top of a 14,000-foot mountain.
“Add 40 to 50 pounds of gear to your back and you’re really tired,” Murphy said. “But the adrenaline rush you get for dropping into something very steep and very committed – you don’t need more than one run.”
The reward is fresh tracks on terrain that’s hard to find in-bounds at most resorts.
“I don’t know any resort where you can drop 5,000 vertical feet,” Murphy said.
Ben Koelker, 30, of Avon, has been getting into late spring backcountry skiing in recent years and said he’s finding that it requires a lot of motivation, which he has.
“It’s always a motivation issue, whether you can keep going,” Koelker said.
Koelker, who skied about 140 days this winter and spring, said a hike and descent he did on April 29 was the best snow he skied all year.
These guys aren’t alone when they’re hiking and riding, either. They’ll bump into other dedicated skiers along the way, and they’re all out there with a common bond – serious dedication for the sport.
Whitfield bumped into a guy recently who had done 10 14ers in eight days.
“There are some amazing athletes out here,” Whitfield said.
Avon’s Zach Taylor, who runs the site 14ersnowboardproject.homestead.com, is also on a mission to snowboard down all of the state’s 14ers. He’s already finished more than 40.
“Zach’s the guy who got me motivated,” Koelker said. “It’s tough.”