Tom Ross: Buffalo Pass miracle


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Don't tell Santa, but I opened one of my Christmas gifts early on Dec. 22. It was 1,400 feet tall and 12 inches deep, and when I took it out of the box, I howled like an Absaroka "song dog."

Skiing on a nearly perfect day on Buffalo Pass has the magical ability to give you the vocal chords of a coyote, and I exercised mine.

We laid down several sets of tracks on a long gentle powder run that looks straight across Fish Creek Canyon and into the distant Lightning and Whiteout trails at the Steamboat Ski Area. The altimeter on my buddy's wristwatch told us the run took in 1,400 vertical feet. And I can promise you the powder was a foot deep. More than once, I had to dig myself out of it.

Let's get something straight. I'll always be primarily a Nordic skier in the backcountry - one who is willing to climb for his turns. But when someone offers me the rare opportunity to go hybrid snowmobile skiing, I'll always consider it gratefully. Besides, I can always fall back on the rationale that it's my professional duty to experience snowmobile skiing firsthand so that I know what I'm writing about.

All of my previous trips up Buffalo Pass in winter have been with Steamboat Powdercats. There was a memorable day when Warren Miller sat down at lunch to tell stories about being a ski bum in the 1940s. It was that same day that Klaus Obermeyer gave us yodeling lessons.

Another time, we skied with disabled athletes who helped us gain a deeper understanding of the joys of the sport.

On Saturday, it was just four aging ski bums-at-heart, who rode three snarling snowmobiles up Routt County Road 38 to powder paradise.

I've stopped counting how many stories the newspaper has published over the years about the increasing demand for commercial backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, independent backcountry skiing, and the hybrid form of the latter two - using snowmobiles as ski lifts. If you've been following along, you are well aware that when those different forms of recreation are all blended together on public lands, it gives rise to a certain amount of tension.

So, it was a pleasant surprise on Saturday to find everyone cheerfully greeting one another in the Dry Lake parking area and showing courtesy to others up on the mountain.

It began in the parking lot, where the U.S. Forest Service personnel checking our Buff Pass recreation permits and snowmobile registrations could not have been friendlier.

Most people who utilize Buffalo Pass are aware that the resources Powdercats pours into building snow roads every winter make most forms of independent recreation possible in the area. Without the hard work of the Powdercats crews, all but the hardiest among us would be out of the picture.

We made certain to yield to the commercial snowcats we encountered and, whenever possible, shared brief, but friendly greetings. The Powdercats guides were cordial to us, and we never crossed their clients' paths while skiing.

Other snowmobilers, purists and hybrids, raised their fists in greeting as we passed - at least I took it for a friendly greeting. What do I know? I'm a granola head.

Maybe the good vibe in the air was due to a Christmas miracle, or just enthusiasm for one of the biggest powder days of the young winter.

I guess it's too much to seek divine intervention in an ongoing difference of opinion over competing forms of recreation on the National Forest. That's just too mundane when compared to the world's troubles this Christmas morning.

Just the same, Saturday added up to one big powdery gift I won't soon forget. Here's hoping all your holiday wishes come true.


jhartless 9 years, 4 months ago

A raised hand by a snowmobiler is an indication of how many sleds are coming along behind him within his group. A fist would indicate there is noone behind him. If he raises three fingers, for example, you should anticipate three more snowmobiles behind the one you just passed and so on. This technique is commonly used by snowmobilers to enhance safety along the trails. For more safety tips and local snowmobile information, visit


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