Steamboat Springs Jake Birdsall, Shane Trojanowski and Jake Degroot trudged out of the mountain backcountry above Steamboat Springs exhausted, Trojanowski and Birdsall dragging snowboards behind them as they took the final few steps toward the Bruce’s Trail parking lot on Rabbit Ears Pass southeast of Steamboat.
Still, as soon as they reached their vehicle, all wore broad smiles.
First-year students at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat, they were well aware of the area’s reputation as a winter sports paradise.
“The skiing isn’t the reason I came, but it was a big part of it,” said Birdsall, of Vermont.
This, though, they didn’t expect. This was October.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the best I’ve ever had,” Birdsall said. “But for the early season? Yeah, this was great. It’s not like this in Vermont.”
He’ll find no shortage of agreement in the Yampa Valley, which celebrated the week’s early season dumping by carving, jumping and skating in ways that’s just not always possible while the jack-o’-lanterns still are fresh.
Reports and rumors of snowfall totals flew around Steamboat Springs through last week. Some said 47 inches on Buffalo Pass, others three feet on Mount Werner.
Plenty didn’t just listen; they went out and checked for themselves.
“I was up on the ski area Wednesday morning,” John Saunders reported. “We skied down from the 4 Points Hut, and it was pretty good, all things considered.”
He said the mountain’s October popularity was obvious from the hike up from the base of the Thunderhead Express chairlift as several other groups were headed up, as well, or already skiing down.
“It gets a little thin down low, but people were making tracks up there,” he said.
The early season weather has been a boon to competitive skiers in the area, and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in particular took advantage.
Cross-country ability coach Josh Smullin hit the first groomed Nordic skiing trail, Bruce’s Trail, on the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass, twice Friday, going early with Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, and then later with his Winter Sports Club athletes.
The trail has been fully groomed by Dave Miller and his son Carter Miller.
“It’s in great condition,” Smullin said. “A lot of the West has snow, but we’re one of the first places with a groomed trail, so it helps. Right now, Alaska and the east don’t have any snow, so that’s a real advantage.”
Even with this year’s early and comparatively substantial snowfall, the dangers of early season skiing and snowboarding certainly are there. Nearly as prevalent as rumors of snowfall totals were rumors of early season disasters, broken limbs and trips to the emergency room.
“It’s important to be patient — to wait for it,” said Kent Vertrees, of Steamboat Powdercats.
He said the snow definitely has started stacking up on Buffalo Pass — where his operation guides skiers to backcountry powder stashes during the winter — but they’re still a long ways from operating.
He hopes to have his cats going by Dec. 11.
Those who are hitting the backcountry now need to be extra careful to avoid hitting a rock, a tree stump or even just a clump of grass.
That danger is obvious, but skiers and snowboarders should also consider they won’t have the extra cushion of several feet of snow when they fall.
“The snow is going to come,” he said. “Let the base set up a little bit more. The deeper it gets, the safer you’re going to be.”
Saunders said he popped off the skis to hike through sections at the bottom of his Wednesday-morning dash, and that’s something everyone should be prepared to do if they’re out seeking snow this early.
There’s no need blowing the season before it starts.
“Some of the diehards will still be out there any chance they get,” he said. “For me, I might not get out again for a few weeks if it doesn’t snow more. Still, that was a really nice taste of winter.”
Eating it up
Michael Martin was certainly among those taking part.
Martin, the director of the ski and snowboard business program at CMC, said he logs more than 100 days of skiing every year. There have been multiple years where he’s managed to ski every month, so in principle, there wasn’t much unique to him about skiing in October.
Except, there was.
“Generally speaking, this is one of the better starts we’ve had in the last five years,” he said.
He started his season by traveling with a few friends to Cameron Pass, between Walden and Fort Collins.
It’s a good spot, he said, because skiers can park their vehicles so as to maximize the carving and minimize the hiking.
“Last year about this time we went, and there was maybe 12 inches of snow,” he said. “This year, we were up there before the big snow we got, and there was already three feet of snow there.”
That, he said, is what it’s all about.
He’s heard the saying, the one as ubiquitous in Routt County as Champagne Powder.
He loves the summer here, he insisted. But already this season, he’s taken a few days to show why he’s still living in Steamboat Springs.
“They say people come for the winter and stay for the summer,” he said. “I love the summer, but I came for the winter, and I stayed for the winter. Everything else is filling time until I can ski again.”