By R. Scott Rappold
Sometimes, a ski area is forced to limp into closing day, with melting, slushy snow and limited terrain.
And then there's Loveland Ski Area. The resort, which sprawls above the Interstate 70 Eisenhower Tunnel west of Denver, closes Sunday, May 7. But end-of-season conditions have been anything but spring-like.
The ski area was headed towards a more typical closing day just a couple weeks ago. April had been dry and sunny, and most of its neighboring resorts closed on their regularly-scheduled dates, with plenty of sun and slush but little in the way of powder.
Loveland always stays open later, catering to Front Range and Summit County locals. These folks were rewarded when it finally started to snow again around April 20.
And it barely stopped for 10 days, with 41 inches piling up. At a time when most of the nation's skiers were playing golf or biking or mowing their lawns, skiers here were hitting hero lines and slashing deep powder.
Being a confirmed powder addict - who had to miss the storms because of a previously-scheduled beach trip - I set out from the San Luis Valley in the first days of May to visit Loveland. My home mountain, Wolf Creek, had been closed for a month, and like many others in our tribe of obsessive snow lovers, I wasn't quite ready to let winter go.
Luckily for me, winter reciprocated.
For powder lovers, in-bounds skiing is all about timing. Laying fresh tracks through a blanket of virgin snow versus picking your way through the leftovers can be a matter of minutes, of getting to the right chairlift at the right time.
So it was that I got to the base of Chair 9, which takes you up to 12,700 feet on the Continental Divide, right as it opened at 11:15 a.m. Up here it's a snow-draped moonscape of cliffs, boulders and rocky spires, the kind of wide-open terrain that can make you feel like you're starring in your own personal ski movie. It's the stuff Loveland is known for.
Nobody had been skiing up here for two days, due to poor visibility, and my hands trembled as I stood atop Patrol Bowl. The blank white canvas presented an appealing spectacle, but what kind of snow would I encounter. This was, after all, May 3.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I'd arrived two days earlier, the day before it was supposed to snow again. I passed the first day ripping groomers and stretching legs that hadn't skied for a month. Having spent recent weeks hiking and biking, it's a great feeling to slide on snow, any kind of snow, and to have gravity work in your favor.
The next day it began to snow, just a few inches, enough to freshen up the groomers and off-piste terrain that hadn't been baked by the previous day's sun. The snow was coming down at a good clip as I rolled out, excited about the prospects for the next day.
It isn't lack of snow that make most ski areas close in April. It's a lack of skiers.
Tourists stop coming from out-of-state and Front Range residents are more interested in hiking and boating and backyard barbecues. It gets so warm one can forget the snow is still deep and very skiable up in the high country.
"The April snow reminded the Front Range that the ski season isnt quite over," said Loveland spokesman John Sellers. "Everyone came out to enjoy the bounty of spring snow last weekend and it felt more like mid-winter than the end of April."
The ski area always schedules closing for the first weekend of May, fresh snow or not.
Said Sellers, "Closing day is always bittersweet. It is hard to say goodbye to all of our friends for the summer, but its time to trade in the ski boots for flip flops and start getting ready for next season."
But skiers like myself who don't want to make that trade just yet don't have to give up. Arapahoe Basin, Loveland's neighbor to the south, also got several feet of snow from the late-April storm and 4 more inches this week. With a 72-inch base, the skiing is expected to go on for another month, if not longer.
A-Basin spokeswoman Adrienne Saia Isaac said June 4 is the tentative closing date, but the ski area could reopen on weekends if the snow sticks around.
"We're always open to the idea of extension weekends but that's all up to Mother Nature. We want to offer a good skiing product and we will keep the lifts turning as long as we can," she said.
As we were talking over a beer in Frisco, it was dumping big fat flakes outside.
"Mother Nature loves Summit County in the springs, she sure does."
Patrol Bowl powder
Back at Patrol Bowl, I had one of my best runs of the season, soft, deep snow flew in your face at each turn. Though I was skiing alone, I let out a loud war whoop, which I heard others repeating across the bowl.
Sure, there were clusters of rocks and grasses to remind you of the late date, but up in the windswept tundra, that's often the case anyway. I barely paused to catch my breath between laps as I rode 9 Chair three more times, finding some wind-scoured stretches but plenty of sweet stretches to make up for it. I may have felt a rock under my skis once over the course of three days.
There is nothing in the Rocky Mountains that compares with floating down a slope on a blanket of powder. For those of us obsessed with it, summer can't be short enough.
Good thing for us, some ski areas feel the same way.