Dan Rabin is a Boulder-based freelance writer and author of the guidebook, Colorado Breweries.
An early-morning run down a pristine untracked trail is an experience every skier or snowboarder should have at least once. If you think this privilege is reserved for a few hearty souls willing to rise before dawn and wait patiently at the front of a chilly lift line, think again. The First Tracks program, offered at several Colorado Ski Country resorts, puts you on the mountain ahead the masses. Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Steamboat and Winter Park all offer a version of First Tracks.
I had my first experience with First Tracks at Aspen Mountain during a mid-winter visit. First Tracks is implemented differently at different resorts. To take advantage of the program at Aspen Mountain, there are a few things you need to know in advance. The program runs daily, is free, and available to upper-level intermediate and expert-level skiers. There are a limited number of spaces allocated each day and a reservation is required. To reserve a space, stop by the gondola building or call a day in advance (970-920-0755). Be sure to purchase your lift ticket the previous day also as you’ll need to arrive at the base before the ticket office opens.
After taking care of these formalities, I made my way to the gondola loading area at 8 AM on a Saturday, the busiest day of the week. There, I was joined by about two dozen other First Tracks participants. We were divided into smaller groups based on our skiing style (i.e. leisurely vs. let’er rip), and each group was assigned an ambassador to escort us on our early morning run. There were three in my group, plus the ambassador.
The gondola ride up the mountain gave us a chance to get acquainted with our escort, Rollo Johnson. Rollo, we learned, arrived in Aspen in the 1970s. Although he’s been a local resident for nearly four decades, it hasn’t been long enough to diminish the southern drawl he inherited from his Tennessee roots. He spends one day a week as a volunteer ambassador at the storied Aspen ski area. Once we were geared up at the top of the mountain, Rollo led the way to a blue run named Copper, and sent us on our way with a friendly “after y’all.”
While a layer of untouched pillowy powder would have been welcome on this early morning outing, the snow gods had other ideas. A dusting of new snow sat atop the freshly-groomed slopes and looked inviting under a crystalline blue sky. Powder day or not, navigating an untouched trail is an exhilarating experience. We worked our way down the long run leaving sinuous tracks in our wake. Rollo stayed a short distance behind, letting us soak in the solitude without distraction. We made occasional stops to regroup, compare observations and prolong the novel experience before we would join the masses now on their way up the mountain. All too soon, we were back at the base, where we bid adieu to our early day companions and went our separate ways.
The First Tracks program at nearby Snowmass is also free and is offered on Wednesdays and Fridays. Reservations can be made at the Snowmass Ticket Pavilion or by phone (970-923-0560). Elsewhere in Colorado, Steamboat offers unguided First Tracks access to a variety of terrain. The cost is $35 per person. Packages of 6 are available for $180 and are transferrable. Winter Park offers a special First Tracks package that combines early access to the slopes with a 90-minute lesson. The cost is $139.