Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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If I get my wish this Christmas, Santa will leave a pair of climbing skins for my telemark skis under the tree. However, I've already promised Mrs. Claus that I won't play with mountain lions when I go out skinning.
In fact, after listening to a Steamboat skier describe his pulse-pounding encounter with a cougar last week, I might just limit my skinning trips to daylight on Emerald Mountain.
The skier, who asked that his name be withheld from this column, told me he suddenly came upon a mountain lion after dark Dec. 10 at the top of Christie Peak. The big cat was clearly watching him.
"He was just to the left of the (ski race) start shack," the longtime Steamboat Springs resident said. "What made the difference for me was that I was wearing a headlamp."
The intense beam of the headlamp picked out the greenish glow of the cat's eyes in the darkness.
"If I hadn't had my headlamp on, I might have bulled right into him," he said. "I was heading right to where he was to take my skins off. I could just see his eyes above a ridge about 25 feet away. If that lion had wanted me, he would have got me."
The skier had tied his jacket, with gloves and hat inside, around his waist for the sweaty climb up the mountain. His heel lifts were in climbing position, and his boots were unbuckled.
When he saw the lion, he began yelling. Unwilling to bend over to remove his skins, he lifted his skis in front of him and reached for the buckles while keeping an eye on the lion.
After hastily removing his skins, he clutched his gear to his chest and with his boots still unbuckled, fled down the Sitz trail doing his best to stay on his skis.
The lion did not immediately give pursuit. But when the man glanced over his shoulder, he saw the cat trot down the trail in his direction before veering into the trees.
For the uninitiated, skinning is a rapidly growing form of skiing that is particularly popular at Breckenridge. Groups of skiers head up the mountain with the aid of climbing skins that provide enough friction to climb moderate slopes. It's a way to earn one's turns, get some healthy exercise and poach a few powder turns. All of this takes place either before the ski lifts open in the morning or after they close for the night.
The skier in this incident faults himself for making some bad decisions.
He originally was part of a group of skiers, but when they arrived at the mountain, he discovered he'd left his climbing skins at home. All's fair in love and powder, so the others climbed to Thunderhead without him. The solo skier retrieved his skins and set out for a lower summit, the top of Christie.
"We know the lions are there, and I was all by myself," he said. "I won't do that again. If I do, and a lion gets me, I'll deserve it."
Division of Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins confirmed that his office looked into the incident.
"The lions typically don't want anything to do with people, particularly if there is prey in the vicinity," Haskins said. "Lions are perfectly capable of working on elk."
Haskins added that he also had received a report of ski area crews observing a lion while they made snow on nearby Vagabond.
District Wildlife Manager Danielle Domson visited the area with ski area personnel and found what appeared to be lion tracks. Domson was unable to locate any evidence that the lion had made recent kills.
When he had time to reflect, the skier was philosophical about his close encounter.
"I'm indebted to the lion for just toying with me," he said. "We need lions, and we need bears. I love that they're here, and I love that we live with them. I think they become dangerous when they become accustomed to people."
He added that he believes it would be a good thing if there were a way to put some fear back into the heart of this particular lion.
Steamboat Ski Area spokesman Mike Lane said the resort is offering free uphill access permits at its information center at the base of the gondola. It's an opportunity to educate the public about what they can expect to encounter on Mount Werner at night.
Haskins said he has no plans to attempt to remove the animal. However, he has asked ski area personnel to alert his office to any additional lion encounters.
I'll be dreaming of a lion-free Christmas. Just like the ones we used to know.