Eugene Buchanan: Cruisin' the crust

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Eugene Buchanan, magazines editor

— Save for pie, society isn’t too big on crust. Pizza crust gets left in the box, toast crust heads to the trash bin and morning-crusted eyes get wiped clean, Sandman be damned. And when the mountain crusts over, sane skiers head for brunch and a bloody mary.

But one aspect of this monosyllabic medium contradicts all of this. That’s when a perfect crust forms on the spring snowpack atop Rabbit Ears Pass, serving up something relatively unusual in Steamboat and its high-altitude flats: crust skiing.

It doesn’t happen every year. To get it, you need a series of warm, sunny days followed by clear, cold nights, which turns the snowpack into a giant popsicle. The keys: It has to get warm enough to create water in the snowpack but cold enough for it to freeze and bond together, keeping your skis on the surface. Miscalculate either way, and you might as well skate-ski through creme brulee.

Get these perfect conditions, and you’re still not done. You also have to time it right. The early bird gets the workout, which usually means rallying in the magic window from 6 to 10 a.m. The earlier you arrive, the more frozen the snowpack, but the harder it is on every ankle muscle you never knew you had. Show up or stay too late, and your punishment is punching through.

Although it’s not an exact science, there are crustmasters among us who study it diligently, waiting to pounce at the right conditions. They monitor temperatures, weather patterns, cloud cover, evaporation rates and intuition like a broker does stocks. And when the skate-skiing stars align, they’re up there daily, milking meadows for every herringbone track they’re worth.

There’s good reason for the obsessive rallies. It’s finite. The conditions can disappear as quickly as they arrive. A snowstorm or overnight warm spell and it’s sayonara skate-ski season. And too many sunny days suncup the surface like dimples on a golf ball. Even the most ardent skate-skiing soothsayer never is quite sure when the last outing will be.

Nail it, however, and you’re in for one of Steamboat’s most unsung sports. While everyone else oils bike chains and hangs up ski gear, the 10,000-foot topography becomes a palette letting you glide anywhere you want to. Adios, 8-foot-wide trails confining you all season, and hello, coloring outside the lines. It’s like a kid getting his first bike, leaving boundaries in the dust.

The trick is finding open areas. Venture into thick timber, and you’re in for a grovelfest. It’s a giant game of connect the meadows. You follow the perimeter of whatever open finger you find and then foray through the forest to the next one. Some folks even have Google Earthed it to pinpoint meadows. Use one of those fancy GPS tracking systems, and your route looks like a plate of spaghetti.

This breed of backcountry Nordic skiing also offers features you won’t find at any Nordic center. You can skate up and over giant mounds, follow mini-ridgelines and soar aside slowly awakening creeks, schussing into their ramp-like wells. It turns usually cardio-centric skate-skiing into an actually fun sport with moves to attempt like climbing or running rapids. It also can be the fastest conditions you’ll ski all year, the frozen crystals needing no special wax.

You just can’t get too greedy. Nothing perfect lasts forever, and the same holds true for crust skiing. Like Cinderella staying out past midnight, push the day too far and things can get as gloppy as pumpkin innards.

And sometimes even the experts get hosed, breaking through as soon as they step out of the car despite all their meticulous predictions, watching their hopes to skate sink with their skis. But for every one of those times, there’s one when they nail it, lengthening the season after groomed trails long have gone away. And that’s what keeps them coming back for more with yet another reason to live in Ski Town USA.

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