On the trail: Hitting the slopes

 

By IKE FREDREGILL

A bank of fog rolled through the mountains as my chair lift crawled up the ski slope opening day at the Snowy Range Ski Area. The lift swayed gently, and near the top, I was able to gaze across the Laramie Valley below.
At 10 a.m., the air was close to 30 degrees and a light dusting of snow floated lazily through the gray sky.
Despite dozens of skiers and snowboarders scattered throughout the ski area’s numerous trails, there was a quiet hovering over the slopes. Occasional laughter and conversation broke the silence, but for the most part, the visitors seemed content absorbing the serene setting.
Reaching the apex, I dismounted the chair lift without tumbling head over heels into the soft powder below — a triumphant start to the season, indeed.
I’ve only been skiing for three seasons, so getting up and down the mountain without eating snow is still quite an achievement. And, having not skied for the last several months, I was a little worried I might have forgotten how.
While my brain fired off a hundred scenarios in which the trip could end poorly, my feet settled into the groove with ease.
Sliding down the mountain, the wind was cold and refreshing on my face, but not so frigid as to leave icicles in my beard.
When I reached the bottom without a single wreck, I smiled, squared my shoulders and puffed out my chest.
It was a proud moment, but let’s be honest, it was just the bunny hill.

A solid base

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my insteps were throbbing after my first run.
Months of sitting at a desk, plinking away at the keyboard with only the occasional adventure to pull me away from my office left me horribly out of condition. I suppose five days of stuffing myself with Thanksgiving Day leftovers fit into the equation somewhere, but I planned to burn those calories on the slopes — right after I stepped inside for some hot coffee and breakfast.
A bi-level building, the ski area’s lodge is geared toward getting people out to the snow as quickly as possible. The lower area is dedicated to ticketing and ski rentals with a small cafe and gear store for easy access. And the upper floor boasts a large dining area, kitchen and bar, all of which were renovated this year by the lodge’s owners, Aaron and Becky Maddox.
The day was young, so I decided to stop in at the cafe, rather than get mired down in a mug of beer and burger upstairs.
For less than $10, I was able to score a 16 ounce coffee and medium-sized breakfast burrito, complete with homemade salsa. The meal was warm, hitting the spot while I rested my feet, and at a value I would be hard pressed to beat at most diners.
With my belly full, it was time to get back out onto the slopes and test my muscle memory against something a little more challenging.
In line for Chute Lift, I was struck by the depth of the snow base, which was about 31-inches deep, according to the ski area notice board.
Striking up a conversation with Shelley Liddell, a ski area regular waiting near the lift line for her husband, I learned this could be a record year for the snow base.
“I’ve been coming to Snowy Range for several years,” she said, pushing a handful of gray hair back into her hood. “This is the first time I can remember so many trails being open and so much snow on the ground.”
Shelley’s husband, Eric, carved gracefully into the line next to her. His voice rasped with exertion, but the smile on his face hid any suggestion of discomfort.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen it this early in the year,” he said, knocking the excess snow from the top of his skis.
Later, I caught up with the owners, who agreed.
“We’re completely done making snow,” Becky said. “That’s about three weeks earlier than normal. We’ve got 55 percent of our trails open and three of four lifts running. We could have all four running, but we had no time to groom the other trails.”
Aaron nodded, adding, “Normally, we can’t open the Sundance Lift until Dec. 15 at the earliest. This is the most snow we’ve ever seen this time of year.”
Hailing from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the couple purchased the ski resort in 2010.
“There’s a lot of talk among resort owners that skiing is in the decline,” Aaron said. “But, we’re not seeing that here. I think it’s because we’re not trying to sell you a condo when you walk through the door. We just want you and your family to have a good experience on the slopes.”

Liquid courage

Before heading out for one last run, I stopped in at the bar and ordered a coffee porter, brewed on site.
It was rich and stout, but light enough I didn’t immediately lose my desire to continue skiing. Becky explained the brewery was one of only two on federal land and offered ski area customers seven varieties of beer.
Instilled with a smidgen of liquid courage, I decided to step up my game and tackle a blue run.
It was to be my last for the day, so I tried the Rawhide Trail, a slope I’d become familiar with last season.
While the green trails were mostly groomed, Rawhide was loaded with fresh powder from a dump the previous night.
It would’ve been an excellent final run had I stuck to my guns and left right after. Instead, I found myself right back in line for the lift, gleefully lost to the enchantment of a winter wonderland.
Three runs, zero crashes and an hour later, I finally said goodbye to the slopes, hopped in my pickup and headed back to the 9-5.
If you’re passing through Albany County this winter, stop in at the ski area, tell Becky and Aaron I sent you and enjoy a few hours or an entire weekend of the best skiing and scenery southeast Wyoming has to offer.