We're spoiling the locals' best-kept secret. Sorry, guys.
This wasn’t my first ski trip. So when the lady behind the counter at the car rental agency at the Denver International Airport “helpfully” suggested an upgrade from the rear-wheel-drive Chevy Impala I’d reserved to a pricey 4 × 4, I wasn’t biting.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied, shaking my head at her presumption. Who did she think she was fooling? It was late February and Denver was basking a shirtsleeves-worthy heat wave. My biggest concern wasn’t whether to pay double for a sport utility, but whether the unseasonable heat would be wreaking havoc on my destination, the nearby Winter Park Resort.
In fact, I was heading to Winter Park exactly because of its proximity. Whereas the bold Colorado names of Aspen (four-plus hours and one dicey mountain pass) and Vail (two-plus hours and that same high mountain pass) are beloved by out-of-state visitors, ask any Denver local where they ski. Guaranteed, the answer will be Winter Park. It’s not just that it’s the closest resort to town (about a 90-minute drive), it’s that, for the most part, you avoid the dreaded I-70—the main highway that connects Denver to the other resorts (and becomes a parking lot on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons during ski season). It’s also owned by the City of Denver, so there’s a civic pride pull as well (although the resort is actually operated by the born-in-Vancouver Intrawest).
I zipped into town for a short cultural detour and by the time I pointed my wheels west, the blinding sunshine had been replaced by some low, slightly ominous cloud with a sprinkling of rain. So maybe I wouldn’t be driving with the window open, but the temperature was still well above freezing, so no cause for alarm. Leaving downtown Denver feels a lot like leaving Calgary—you emerge from banks of skyscrapers to be faced with a beautiful panorama of Rocky Mountains. But whereas the TransCanada remains pretty straight and relatively flat, the I-70 starts to gain elevation in a hurry. (The highway reaches a peak elevation of 11,990 feet at Loveland Pass. For reference, the town of Banff is at 4,537 feet.) And with that elevation came a rapid decrease in temperature, such that the light mist became a light snow, and then rapidly became a heavy snow. By the time I turned off at the Winter Park exit, there were easily four inches of fresh snow on the ground. With two rear wheels to power me through it.
I slogged slowly with a death grip on the imitation leather-covered wheel. Going mid-week had seemed the perfect idea to beat the crowds, but now it meant that I was the lone trailblazer making my way on an undisturbed blanket of snow on a road so squiggly that it looks on a map like it had been drawn by Jackson Pollock. Slow and steady did indeed win the day as I inched into the nearby town of Fraser, abandoned the Impala in the Safeway parking lot—and called the friends I was staying with to come fetch me in their 4 × 4.
Snow is a zero-sum game when it comes to skiing. The trouble it creates trying to get to the hill is repaid in kind the next morning when a) that same snow is sitting undisturbed on the mountain and b) you only have to share it with those insane enough to have driven through it along with you. So the next morning, a ragtag group of locals, those who value skiing more than family, and I had the entire 3,081 acres to ourselves.
Winter Park is actually the amalgam of three connected mountains: Winter Park, Mary Jane and Vasquez Ridge. My Denver friends had told me that Mary Jane was the place for tree skiing and steeps but, they added presciently, if it dumps, hit Vasquez. I hit Vasquez.
In some ways it was the sort of day of skiing you almost regret, like the one time you made an impossible three-point shot or ran the board watching Jeopardy: it makes you think the near-impossible is likely. I kept dropping into knee-deep powder like it was a natural thing to do at a resort. I began to wonder what dupe would shell out top dollar for heli-skiing when Winter Park exists. I ate a Clif bar for lunch, riding up the chairlift by myself, but as the sun came out mid-afternoon, I knew that the jig was up—the roads would be plowed, the hordes a-coming. So I skied until the last lift—something I hadn’t done in years.
I spent the night having dinner with friends at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a 20-minute drive from the resort, rumoured to have the best cross-country ski trails in the country. It looks like an Old West town, if towns in the Old West specialized in verticals of Château Margaux. The fire was roaring, the food supremely satisfying and everything was just as it was meant to be. My white-knuckle experience of the day before faded as I recounted the story of the epic powder day, pouring another glass of wine. Tomorrow I’d be skiing what would in practice be a different mountain, one with half the snow and twice the skiers. And after that, another sleep and the drive back to Denver.
And snow was in the forecast.