Steamboat Springs November was easy. Steamboat Ski Area always opens for Thanksgiving weekend, and anyone in town easily can log a day of November skiing in Routt County with nothing more than a ride up a lift.
The story is always the same in December, January, February, March and April. But those months weren’t going to be the problem, and as the snow continued to pile up all through April, Steamboat Springs skiing savant Mike Martin knew it was the six months to come that he’d have to worry about.
It takes a special kind of skier to try and a very special kind of season to make it possible. Martin knew all that when he set out to ski in Routt County at least once every month for an entire year.
There was no expectation that May would prove difficult. While spring usually begins to light up Steamboat Springs and the valley, lingering snow in the high country offers targets for adventurers.
May 2011 was a bit different. Winter was slow to let loose of the Yampa Valley, and that meant more than just good news for Martin’s goal. It convinced him, after years of waiting for the right conditions, that it was possible.
May was so cold and snowy, the month almost proved too much of a good thing, storms wiping potential skiing days off the calendar. Still, he collected a few trips to Rabbit Ears and Buffalo Pass and marked May off.
“For me, that was still about looking for good powder,” he said.
Winter and spring proved so long in Steamboat that Yampa River fly-fishermen were held at bay, and the summer rite of tubing the river was pushed back a month.
It brought a few twists to skiing in June, too.
On one hand, there still was plenty of snow.
On the other, it still blocked all the usual early summer access points.
“There was so much snow, it was blocking your normal routes in,” Martin said. “When things did open up, there were a lot of changes that happened because of the runoff. Roads caved in.”
Martin waited for the right chance and finally got it June 20 while skiing an unnamed peak near Sand Mountain.
July wasn’t made for skiing. Even in incredibly snow-blessed years, the most determined ski areas bow out early in the month, focus turning to barbecues and long summer nights.
This year, though, it provided one of Martin’s favorite trips, a July 18 outing to North Routt’s Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
“I skied from the summit of Little Agnes down this perfect little strip from the top all the way to the bottom,” he said. “The wildflowers were growing up right on the edge of the snow. It was definitely full-on summer.”
Things get tricky in August.
Martin had attempted this before. He and a buddy set out to ski every month through summer 2007, and by August they were driving to the far corners of the state, chasing rumors of snow like a Depression-era family looking for work.
“We wanted to do something that made sense, that was actually skiing,” Martin recalled.
That ruled out a two-turn hop into a receding snowdrift and eventually led the pair to Saint Mary’s Glacier, the perennial snowfield above Idaho Springs, a desperate measure Martin still considers halfway cheating.
The search taught him a lot of lessons, though.
■ Always look for shaded north-facing slopes.
■ A rainstorm can kill snow as fast as a microwave.
■ The earlier in the day, the better the chance for acceptable snow conditions.
That knowledge was gold as summer 2011 pressed on and the last bits of snow became harder to find. He satisfied August’s requirement with a dash down a ribbon of snow above Gilpin Lake.
“I hiked in on the Slavonia Trail, and summer tourism was in full swing,” he said. “I was the lone goofball out there with skis on my back. Every 20 yards, someone would stop me to take a picture. A guy from Texas took a video.”
September is when things are supposed to start getting easier again. An early storm frequently will build vanishing snow deposits back up.
Waiting for that snow is a gamble, though, and it wasn’t one Martin was willing to take.
A planned trip to Big Agnes was called off as the remaining two snow patches had shrunk too small, but the Zirkels again yielded just enough snow to make a pass.
There was no snow in sight when he left his truck, but he hoofed it to an area he’d remembered from a hiking trip a few summers prior and made his month.
“I swung around to an almost exactly true north aspect just past Little Agnes’ summit and found a really small sliver of a snow patch that had some good vertical,” Martin said. “I just had to make jump turns down it to stay with it. It was such a narrow patch, just about three times the length of my skis wide.”
That early season snowstorm never came, but September was in the bag.
Skiing in October is no big deal for Martin, but unaware he’d be chasing an only-in-Routt goal, the turns he took in October 2010 came outside the county.
The snow finally had come, however, and he skied from the summit of North Sand Mountain. It wasn’t perfect, he said. The powder was fresh but thin with rocks and debris poking through all along the route wreaking havoc on his equipment.
But it was enough.
“It was three or four good turns, then a drift and three or four more until I got down into the trees where there was some nice pockets,” Martin said. “I got a lot of strange looks from hunters going by on four-wheelers.”
It was a season of strange looks from hikers and hunters and at times even friends and family, but there were no regrets.
“For me, it was sort of a rite of passage,” said Martin, a 17-year Steamboat Springs skiing veteran. “People always talk about how they’ll travel the world to ski and realize they have great skiing in their backyard, and that was true for me. I’ve been here but only am just starting to poke into the Zirkels.
“It was eye opening. I definitely encourage people to check it out and see what Routt County has to offer. There’s more than meets the eye.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com