The thrill of making first tracks

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— When night couples with strong snow flurries in the Yampa Valley, serious skiers and riders will set their alarm clocks to ring early in the morning with one intention in mind to press glass.

For those who don't know, to press glass, or pressing glass, means to get to the mountain early, before the lifts open, to reserve an early spot on the gondola for first tracks on the mountain.

Technically, explained longtime local ski instructor Rob Mattern, pressing glass describes what happens to the first people in line on a powder day. Before the glass doors in front of the ticket checkers at the gondola open at 8:15 a.m., the antsy crowd behind them waiting for the fresh snow pushes the first souls in line forward.

"Their faces press right up against the glass," Mattern said.

Even during the old days in Steamboat, when the first gondola was in operation, people were pressing glass, he said.

Beyond the technical definition, however, today pressing glass has evolved to have a looser meaning. Basically, most people in line before the lifts open claim to be pressing glass, even though they are not actually being smashed into the glass doors.

No matter what the meaning is, the result of the pressing-glass phenomenon on a new snow day is hundreds of people creating a part-carnival, part-competitive race, part-rock concert atmosphere at the base of the gondola for an hour or so before the lift begins taking the crowd to the top of the mountain. Ski- and board-carrying participants spill out of the covered portion of the gondola house, lining the walkway at the base of mountain. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. employees sometimes have free hot drinks, while the people in the front of the line, often having been there for more than an hour, brought their hot drinks to go.

When it gets close to the time to load people up, a wave of excited hollering and cheering is passed through the crowd, while everyone constantly jockeys for a better position in line.

"It would be cool if they served drinks," joked Scott Erickson, who experienced pressing glass for the first time this year.

Erickson admits the people in front of the line the ones who truly are pressing glass usually get the best first runs on a powder day. If he doesn't get that position early, he'll wait for the crowd to thin before getting in line.

Snowboarder Jason Reese made pressing glass a lifestyle.

"Anytime it snows, even just an inch, I'll press glass," he said.

Reese, who has been in town for three years, works as a waiter in the evening and said he will work only night jobs so he can ride in the daytime.

Though pressing glass for Reese is "totally about the riding," he added that there is a relevant social aspect to it.

"It's totally fun to have a gondola car with all your friends when you are pressing glass," he said.

But not all people pressing glass do it only on powder days.

"The motivation is to get early fresh tracks, whether it's freshly groomed or fresh powder," local Robert Gould said.

Even on days with no new snow, Gould is leaning on the glass doors while holding his skis, waiting for the gondola to take him to the top of the mountain.

But Gould said pressing glass isn't really what it used to be. Today, people can pay extra to participate in the First Tracks program, in which Ski Corp. provides guided first tracks on the mountain before the rest of the crowd goes up. Also, those who pay for the Breakfast Club program go up early, too. So those who are truly pressing glass, who adjust their lives to have the opportunity to wake up early and wait at the door for sometimes a couple of hours, are beaten to the top by numerous skiers and riders.

"It angers people," Gould said.

As a Ski Corp. ski instructor, Mattern said he gets first-up gondola privileges and deals with the shower of boos from the glass pressers each time. However, he said for the ski instructors, it's not all fresh-track skiing.

"They don't realize in an hour I could be on Preview," he said.

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