Skieologians: The crust is the best part
The sport philosophy column
Along with millions of other oppressed children, I was often cajoled into one particularly cruel snacktime practice as a youngster: finishing crusts.
“The crusts are the best part,” an adult — most likely my mother — would argue.
“Crusts give you a hairy chest,” another adult — definitely my dad — would add.
Per usual, Mom was right, but only when it refers to spring skiing. In regard to Dad’s claim, if you forget sunscreen, you might singe off your chest hairs while spring skiing, I suppose.
Bottom line is, it’s now April, which means you have at least one month (almost two for me last year) to enjoy one of the more mystical mountain pastimes. Crust skiing, the act of magically floating over smooth cloud-like valleys in majestic mountain scenes, is done with skate cross-country skis in the early morning after a cold night. It’s main requirement is a resolve to not give up on winter quite yet.
One of the most sure local places to crust ski is the top of Vail Pass. “Crust skiing on Vail Pass is always a great springtime skiing spot when the grooming at lower elevation trails has ended for the year,” said Chris Marcione of Silverthorne. The elite local loppet racer has skated from the pass as late as Memorial Day in the past. “When you have cold nights and warm days it is always good in April,” he stated.
Marcione advises starting no later than 7 a.m. Starting from the main Vail Pass parking area, he likes to head toward Shrine Pass Road. One can double pole along the skin track heading west to navigate the bushy area dominating the first kilometer. The initial climb is worth it, as the area opens up into several drainages and bowls, where smooth crust can take you all the way to Shrine Pass and a myriad of exploratory options.
“There are incredible views and lots of fun descents. I always take a moment to take in the early morning spring sun,” Marcione wrote in an email. Be careful descending.
“Heading back to the car can be tricky in lower snow years because the bushes are not covered in snow,” Marcione warned.
“The skin track is an option, but you can also use the bushes as slalom gates and cut turns back to the parking area.”
If you venture out to the “Moly Mine” on Highway 91 5 miles north of Leadville, you will find dozens of ski mountaineer enthusiasts skinning up to catch a virgin line. I like to skate hard past the ski-mo crews, climbing in solitude to the highest point in the amphitheater. When the throbbing of my pumping heart forces me to stop, it’s time to look around. Suddenly in staggering proximity to the authoritative jagged peaks, my soul is forced to reconcile with its humble place on Earth. There’s something righteous about the breathtaking realization and meek sense of fear; it’s hard to explain.
Fish flats by Tennessee Pass holds onto the final grooming from the Nordic center well into late April, providing remnants from the racing season. Meanwhile, high up on Hagerman Road, the white stuff almost never goes away. I once double-poled on fast, smooth snow all the way to the famed tunnel, an 11-mile roundtrip with about 1,700 feet of climbing that only took about 90 surreal minutes.
As I descended with slight terror, I could only imagine what the 10th Mountain Division skiers felt like while making a similar journey from Camp Hale to Aspen — only four times the distance — on wood skis.
Moments like that, off the manicured trail systems, traveling with just a loyal canine companion, are what it’s all about, folks.
Last year I trained on snow 196 days from mid-October to May 23. If you play your cards right, you can do the Colorado Double — a morning ski followed by an afternoon mountain bike or trail run. Let me tell you something: you can’t do that everywhere on Earth. Traditionally, the last day is whenever that fateful ceremonious drive from secret snow stash to secret snow stash comes up empty. It’s always a little sad when I return home after 90 minutes of driving and 10 minutes of “test” skiing.
Some people treat the winter season like that snacktime peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They savor the middle months, but elect to abandon the crusts, leaving their plate before the bell rings so they can go play a different game on the playground.
They forget that the crust is the best part.