Tom Ross: Powder skiing on Rabbit Ears

When everything comes together, sport transcends human bounds

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Winter wrapped us in a big bear hug over the weekend, and we enthusiastically returned its embrace.

I don't want you to think I'm prone to exaggeration, so let me see if I can understate how good the powder skiing was Saturday on Rabbit Ears Pass. It was cosmic. It was mind blowing. It was magical. And it was cold. There is a south facing slope on Rabbit Ears that isn't always skiable. If the snow is wet, it doesn't work. Too much snow and the terrain isn't steep enough. If you let the sun get to it before you arrive on the scene, its sets up quickly and it's like skiing wet cement. But when you hit it just right, it's everything a powder hound could ask for.

The three of us were the first ones to arrive in the parking area Saturday morning, and we knew exactly what that would mean. For at least the first few runs of the day we would face no competition for untracked snow. But we would have to earn our turns.

We chalked a little extra "special blue" kick wax onto the bottom of the Telemark skis and set out on the easy climb into the ski run. When you arrive, you are at the top of the run, and the first trip down is free. The slope offers perhaps 250 feet of vertical, certianly no more than 300, over a running length of about a quarter of a mile. That adds up to maybe 25 or 30 turns per run. It doesn't sound like much until you arrive at the bottom and face the prospect of climbing back to the top. That involves breaking trail through 12 to 18 inches of untracked powder and executing big kick turns at every switchback.

The first trip down the slope began with a straight run through an open meadow before the pitch increased and we could begin to rhythmically turn through the phalanxes of evenly spaced aspen trees. The snow boiled up under our armpits and then began to slap us in the face. Momentarily blinded by snow after one turn, I let my weight slip into the back seat and had to push my hands forward to recover my equilibrium.

We quickly realized that the cold, dry powder gave us all the time we needed to pick our line through the trees.

"Let me see now, should I ski through that open gate? Or should I squeeze through that little opening to set up a perfect flush? I think I'll take that narrow opening, the rewards will be greater." At the bottom, we stopped and waited for the dogs to come swimming down in our tracks, three minutes behind us. I think they must have sensed our excitement. Cheyenne, the quiet little pound dog, showed amazing heart as she worked to keep up. At times, all we could see of her was a pair of pointed black ears protruding above the snow. Buck the Wonder Dog insisted on a stick to chase. When he pounced on the cut in the snow that revealed the location of the dead aspen branch I tossed for him, he disappeared entirely from view.

We climbed back to the top of the hill eight times. Stopping briefly to catch our breath and notice the markings on the aspen trunks that resembled abstract black tattoos. One tree bore the unmistakable healed wounds left by the claws of a bear.

I stopped at the bottom of one run and looked up to see Schlapkohl and Whiddon floating down through the trees and trailing a plume of snow as if they were riding a wave.

We became actors in a slow-motion film, dancing with gravity, rather than merely skiing. And that's the thing about a really great powder day, whether it's up on the pass, or on the lift-served trails of the Steamboat Ski Area. Skiing allows us to transcend what it is to be human. Humans cannot glide down a mountain at 20 miles an hour. But strap on a pair of skis or a snowboard, and magic happens.

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