By Daniel Gibson |
Top image: A sampling of some of the alluring, and easier, terrain in the vast permit area covered by Telluride Helitrax. Photo by Jeff Cricco, courtesy Telluride Helitrax. |
For a rare ski adventure off the beaten track, residents of Northern New Mexico are lucky to have not one, not two, but three extraordinary options relatively close at hand. Though the buy-in is hefty, for a skiing or boarding experience you will recall with delight for the rest of your days, treat yourself to a day spent skiing from a snowcat in the backcountry, or even hitching rides on helicopters to access the untouched goods.
Regionally, Purgatory Snowcat Adventures, Monarch Cat Skiing, and Telluride Helitrax all offer opportunities for some of the finest skiing in North America amidst spectacular terrain.
All three of the options require advance reservations, and include some basic backcountry safety guidance, provision of avalanche transceivers, lunch, and water. All three throw in fat skis or powder boards for free, and an après-ski drink, and Helitrax also offers an avie airpack at no additional cost.
Telluride Helitrax operates out of the town of Telluride smack dab in the middle of the mighty San Juan range, with many runs starting at elevations above 13,000 feet. This provides for terrific snow coverage, jaw-dropping views, and dramatic descents. Its permit area covers some 200 square miles, so you’ll never cross another track all day, or week! The operation includes guided single-day excursions; guided backcountry touring; custom, private outings for groups of up to 16 guests; and support for multi-day stays in high alpine camps. The latter includes heated tents, a cook, and two days of guided excursions from your base camp. In business since 1982, its management team has become intimately familiar with the terrain and conditions.
A typical day includes six long descents (totaling 10,000 to 14,000 vertical feet), along with lunch atop some high peak. It operates daily through mid-April, with the longest descents on sun-stabilized snow usually occurring at the end of the season.
A guided day with Telluride Helitrax costs $1450 per person. For details on other options noted above, call 877-500-8377 or visit their web site, complete with enticing video, at www.helitrax.com.
Purgatory Snowcat Adventures
I can attest to the thrill and end-of-day tired-glow satisfaction of an excursion with this company. With a permit area covering 35,000 acres, the largest in Colorado, you’ll not lack for diversity of terrain and quality of snow. Even following a wind event a few years back, in the forests the snow lay undisturbed and still silky smooth and light. Much of the skiing here is in the trees, but there are also headwalls and bowls to be had, cliffs and cornices, and lots of relatively easy-going low-anxiety descents.
You begin the day at 8 a.m. riding Purgatory Resort’s chairlift, then board a 12-person cat and rumble out on their “snow roads” to the isolated terrain located north of the resort. The runs vary from 500 vertical feet to 1,500 feet, with some 10 runs completed on an average day. If you book an entire cat, and your group skis fast, more runs are possible, and on terrain of your choosing (steeper or easier).
A day with this company runs $500 per person. To book a private cat for a day (up to 12 guests) costs $5,000. For further details, call 970-385-2115, or visit their site with cool video footage at https://www.purgatory.ski/activities/snowcat/.
Monarch Cat Skiing
Their operation encompasses 1,635 acres, as much territory as most ski areas, and has a nice range of terrain, including open bowls, steep chutes, and lovely glades and glens. Here you are skiing, or boarding, atop the Continental Divide in the soaring peaks of the Sawatch Range just outside of the Monarch Mountain ski area, near the charming town of Salida, Colorado. Many 13,000- and 14,000-plus foot peaks jut up around the terrain, with the famous Collegiate Peaks just to the north.
MSC has cleared dead timber and extended its “catways” further along Elation Ridge. The new Hall of Kings terrain offers steep hero lines through tight chutes and glades with a convenient snowcat pick-up location near the bottom of the drainage.
You must be an advanced or expert skier or rider to participate. The minimum age is 14 with a parent or guardian present, though they give special consideration to younger guests with full cat bookings. Participants ages 17 and younger must have a parent or guardian present, and a MCS release signed by a parent or legal guardian. The season The season is expected to run through April 10, but can be shortened or lengthened according to conditions. About half the slots are already taken.
You can book for a day individually ($525), or rent an entire cat for up to 10 people ($5,000). Proof of COVID vaccination is required, or a negative test within three days of your outing. For more information, call 719-530-5105 or visit https://skimonarch.com/cat-skiing/.
CONDITIONS & EVENTS as of 2/9/22
Sandia Peak, even as it now enjoys a two-foot base, has decided to forgo the season altogether, due at this point to a lack of staff. Here’s hoping for more early snow next year and a resolution of the personnel issues.
Ski Santa Fe rests on a 41-inch base, and 97 percent of its terrain is open. Still closed include Chiles Glade, Big Rock Chutes, Sunset Bowl, and Easter Bowl. But caution is called for on expert runs, with hidden rocks, roots and fallen timber. This Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., JJ & The Hooligans take to the stage with their entertaining mix of rock, blues, Americana, and pop. A tap takeover will feature suds from Santa Fe Brewery.
Taos Ski Valley checks in with a 49-inch base at mid-Shalako and 58 inches at the top of Chair 7. As I predicted, the Kachina Chair began spinning after the last big storm, and all the big terrain above treeline is now a go. Nineteen of the 21 runs off Highline Ridge are being skied, and everything off West Basin.
Wolf Creek reports an 85-inch base and all runs open, including its vast hike-to terrain.
Angel Fire Resort stands on a 22-inch base, with 52 of 81 runs open. Both of its terrain parks are rockin,’ including the state’s best, Liberation.
Red River has a 24- to 30-inch base, with 58 of 64 runs open.
Pajarito, with a foot base, is the good news story of recent weeks, having begun turning its Mother and Aspen chairs. This provides access to a slew of intermediate and even some expert runs, classics like Nuther Mother, Precious and Breathless, as well as beginner terrain. Its rental shop is still closed. The ski area is open Fridays-Sundays.
Ski Apache has a foot base, but no information is available on what trails are open.
Sipapu has a 22-inch base, and 31 runs open. On Feb. 26 – 28 it will present its annual free February Fun Fest. Activities will include a two- to three-story snow castle with stairways, slides, and other features; scavenger hunts; a penny toss; a costume contest; and a snowboard “worm” race.
Crested Butte enjoys a 57-inch base, and 174 this season so far. It’s prime time, with only three runs across its expanse closed.
Monarch Mountain has a 50-inch base, and all runs open. On Sunday, Feb. 13, join Telefestivus, a free festival of telemarking, with a look at the newest in telemark equipment, competitions, a guided social hike to Mirkwood, avalanche awareness classes, and lots of free-heelin’ fun. And, Feb. 24 – 25, Monarch will host an International Free Skiers and Snowboard Association comp in Mirkwood Bowl. Registration and IFSA membership are required.
Telluride sits on a 47-inch base. It has 128 of its 148 runs open, and three of its four terrain parks rockin’. Yet to go are the Gold Hill hike-to double-blacks and the upper reaches of Palmyra Peak.
Purgatory reports a 41-inch base, with 100 percent of its terrain open. On Feb. 19 Telefestivus sets up its tents, with free clinics and demos from the Colorado Springs’ shops Backcountry Experience and Mountain Chalet from Colorado Springs with gear from Scarpa, 22 Designs, and Bishop. Also on hand will be demos of Venture Snowboards.
Arizona Snowbowl has a nice four-foot base, all lifts running and 90 percent of its terrain open. Its hike-to runs are still off limits.
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). His new book, Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico, was recently released from Arcadia Publishing with 183 historic photos. He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead