Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
Our annual skiing vacation in Colorado neither started nor ended quite as smoothly as usual.
The bonus – for once – was that Geoff was very well behaved on the slopes and didn’t break anything of any major significance – neither his snowboard, his boarding boots nor a rib 😉
The problem was weather related and started within 30 minutes of landing at Denver International Airport. The forecast was for lots of fluffy white snow (yippee). This would have been perfect news if it weren’t for the fact that the worst of it was to land on Interstate 70 in the long, winding mountain pass which we were about to traverse en route to Steamboat Springs – the first stop of our vacation. It was only a 90 mile drive on I70 before we turned north off the interstate onto Route 9 at Silverthorne (the gateway to pretty much anywhere in this part of Colorado) and then we could head off cross-country to Steamboat.
The winding mountain pass is notoriously dangerous in winter and there is pretty much always a bottleneck around the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel. But the GPS informed us that everything was clear on the route ahead so we kept our fingers crossed that we’d get through before it started snowing.
We barreled along with oodles of time before we had to check into the apartment in Steamboat and oodles of time to unpack, take a leisurely shower and warm up before heading to our favorite restaurant in Steamboat. Laundry (a repurposed laundry) is so popular that reservations must be booked months in advance otherwise you don’t have a prayer of enjoying their fine fare and libations in high season.
The Eisenhower Tunnel carries the I70 under the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains and is located about 12 miles before the turn off at Silverthorne. It was foggy but not a single flake had fallen and we were a mere hop, skip and jump away from the tunnel. We could almost smell freedom! At precisely 13 miles before our exit, the traffic screeched to a halt and we sat completely stationary for a good 20 minutes before either of us dared utter a word. The problem is that there are no alternative routes in these parts – it wasn’t as if we could have slipped up a handy cut-through or taken a side road – when you’re stuck on I70 in a mountain pass, then you’re stuck on I70.
As the temperature continued to fall, snowflakes began to fall along with it and soon we were sitting in a snow drift. To make matters worse, the GPS was still convinced that we were moving and yet we hadn’t progressed an inch. On the basis that our onboard technology was unequivocally failing us and we had no idea as to what was amiss up ahead, we google’d local road conditions and were directed to what is undoubtedly the most uninformative website ever devised: http://www.cotrip.org
Honestly, I don’t know why the Colorado road traffic authorities even bother to maintain a website which contains such utterly unhelpful information. Apparently, our stretch of the I70 was closed. Not just briefly – but “closed indefinitely” – with “no anticipated opening time”.
Did that mean that we would simply die there, forgotten on the roadside – either of hunger … or dehydration … or hypothermia? What could we possibly glean from this paucity of information? There were no emergency vehicles in sight … no police … nothing other than a long line of similarly parked cars ahead, behind and to the side of us. There was no explanation whatsoever either on Google maps GPS nor online for the sudden, absolute and apparently permanent closure of the Interstate.
Should we all be reversing in convoy back up the long, winding mountain pass to the nearest exit … or should we expect to be dug out of a truck-sized snowdrift and airlifted to safety in a day or two?
Will we have to drink our own urine or chew on car tires for nutrition?
Worse still – what on earth should we do about our precious reservation at Laundry?!
These questions plagued our imaginations … along with the thorny and more pressing issue of where we might find a toilet stuck out here in the wilderness amongst all of these parked cars. There was, of course, an easy solution for Geoff – and a couple of the other male drivers either side of our stationary section of the road. I understand there was a chill breeze whipping around the drivers side front tyre but I had little sympathy 😉 Things are not, however, quite so easy for ladies caught up in a queue of stationary traffic in the middle of an afternoon blizzard. To alleviate the tension in the car, I decided to share our story of woe with a friend via text who helpfully advised me that she never never leaves the house without an empty thermos flask for just such emergencies! Whilst, I was beginning to see the appeal, I sincerely hope I’ll never have to suffer the indignity of hovering over a thermos flask in the passenger seat footwell of a car until I’m at least too senile to know any better 😉
An hour and a half passed and we were still parked on the interstate. The snow was swirling and drifting around us and I was wondering where I might find a receptacle which could function as an improvised thermos flask.
Still no update on the website – still “indefinitely closed” – and the GPS was confused as to why we still hadn’t moved at all on a road which was apparently clear. Just as I was considering negotiating with Geoff over the re-purposing of one of his snowboard boots the car ahead drifted forward … very slowly … how exciting! At an inch an hour we might actually get to Steamboat just in time to turn around and head back to Denver Airport for our flight home in 10 days!
Very slowly the cars around us began to crawl forward and eventually we could see the Eisenhower Tunnel ahead. Unbelievably, it was clear – traffic was entering at a reasonable pace. We were baffled.
http://www.cotrip.org STILL proclaimed that the I70 was closed – very possibly until the end of time – but we were without a doubt perambulating forwards upon it. Emerging from the depths of the tunnel we were now only 10 miles or so from freedom and our right turn north at Silverthorne!
Little did we know that it would be 10 miles of probably the most treacherous road conditions we have ever driven.
To put all this into some kind of perspective, the I70 is the main interstate thoroughfare linking Denver (the State Capital of Colorado) with just about every major ski resort in the state. As such, for a state which is hardly a stranger to deluges of snow for months on end every year, to an out-of-towner it appears to be woefully maintained to deal with just such an eventuality.
Where were the snow blowers? Where were the gritting machines? Were they not expecting it to snow … in the middle of winter?
The snow was now so thick and the ice so slick on the road that cars were sliding and skidding about full-circle all around us. It was like playing a slow motion game of deadly dodgems on ice with cars careering across the lanes ahead of us, sliding sideways towards us and others approaching far too fast behind us. We joined them a couple of times gliding across neighboring lanes – holding our breath as time stood still – and willing the other drivers to drift in an alternative direction. I’m glad Geoff has taken advanced driving and off-roading courses because it may not have fared as well had I been behind the wheel.
Eight miles of car skating and gliding further on and we finally spotted the cause of the threatened unending closure of the I70 … two enormous articulated trucks had skidded off the road and a concertinaed SUV was stuck in between them … which put our potentially doomed dinner reservation into some perspective.
We finally escaped from the (still apparently closed) I70 and headed north with trepidation on Route 9 fully expecting the country route to be equally littered with the debris of vehicles at the side of the road – but no – the tarmac was absolutely clear – barely a snowflake on it. Fingers crossed – there was still a slight chance we might make it to Laundry!
That of course, didn’t take into account that I managed to lock us out of our apartment at the ski resort no less than 2 minutes after arriving at it. We had picked up the entry code and various papers from the agent 30 minutes or so earlier back in town. As Geoff was huffing and puffing and wheezing in the freezing, oxygen depleted air up and down 2 flights of stairs carrying our skis, boots and boards, bags stuffed to the gunwales, our suitcases and other innumerable items of paraphernalia required of a vacation in the snow, I thought it would be helpful if I started dragging it all into the apartment from the windy stairwell. I didn’t take into account, however, that the door might unexpectedly slam behind me as I was hefting the snowboard bag out of the stairwell. I heard it click behind me and stood staring at it for a full 30 seconds hoping that it would miraculously open again in front of my eyes before Geoff returned with his next load 😉
Naturally, I had left my cellphone, the agent’s papers with the door entry code (which I had, of course, immediately forgotten) and all of the contact details of the agent sitting neatly on the sofa in the warm living room in front of the crackling log fire. For a moment, I wondered if it might be prudent just to wander off into the blizzard à la Captain Oates in the Antarctic but I was caught red-handed deliberating my options whilst still frantically punching in a variety of numbers which I thought might have borne some resemblance to the 4 digit code.
Luckily, Geoff hadn’t left his cellphone in the apartment and within another half an hour or so and an emergency phone call later, disaster had been averted although we both now had frostbite.
Thankfully, we squeaked in to Laundry with literally 30 seconds to spare before our allotted reservation time … no shower … no change of clothes … no relaxing with our feet up in front of the log fire with a glass of mulled wine – but we had at least made it to dinner! Never was a cocktail more valiantly earned than Geoff’s first Fiery Margarita courtesy of the bartender at Laundry 😉
The upshot of all of the relentless snow, of course, was that conditions on the slopes were perfect. We had sun … snow and more sun. It was exactly as it should have been 🙂
And all of that perfection could only be topped by the traditional “Après ski” trip to Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs in the snowy boonies 20 minutes or so outside of town where we warmed our mangled muscles. Frequently, we meet interesting people there chatting in the steamy pools. This year it was to be an imposing tattooed gentleman with a bikers beard large enough to provide small mammals shelter from the cold. He was not nearly as terrifying as he might have been in other circumstances (for instance on a dark night astride a large, shiny Harley Davidson with a raucous gang of other such gentlemen). As it was, we had seen him arrive in the car park and the rougher edges of the image he conjured were softened significantly by the fact that he had emerged from his pick-up truck dressed in knee-high socks, flip-flops and a full-length fluffy white bathrobe stretched to capacity over his expansive gut. He also offered to take a photo of us which was surprisingly good given my expectations 😉
The following day we were up bright and early again courtesy of the two hour time difference and were out on the open road passing Medicine-Bow National Forest and through the settlement of Clark before turning off the main road onto a 5-mile track to nowhere. At the end of the track to nowhere was a small rustic wooden shack owned by High Mountain Snowmobile Tours. A small group of snowmobilers waiting for us were impatiently revving their engines and utterly destroying the tranquility of the wilderness. We couldn’t wait to join them 🙂 Booted, helmeted and wrapped up to the eyeballs we zipped off in convoy all but freezing to death and – as usual – had the time of our lives.
The snow in Routt National Forest had a base of 10 feet deep and was much deeper in drifts. The meadows were pristine (at least right up until our arrival 😉 ). The sun was shining over the spectacular mountain ranges of the Continental Divide and the snow was gleaming. It was so cold we had to all but chip the ice from our picnic lunches whilst the freezing winds howled around us but, from our lofty vantage point overlooking the Sawtooth Mountain, it was without doubt the most glorious location for a barely edible rock-solid sandwich and a frozen chocolate cookie 🙂
So, as always, our few days in Steamboat ended on a high and we headed south to higher ground and, by default, even thinner air. Steamboat lies at an altitude of 6,900 feet and the mountain rises to more than 10,000 feet. Living at ground zero in Florida, we are out of oxygen walking up 1 flight of stairs in Steamboat. Breckenridge lies at 9,600 feet and the mountain rises in excess of 13,000 feet. It is not for the fainthearted. We are out of breath, quite literally, lying flat in bed.
Not to be deterred, however, by our lungs operating at 25% of their normal capacity, when the conditions are as perfect as they were for our week of frolicking in the powdery snow, we were up bright and early on the slopes skiing the glades and the rolling hills of Peak 7 (our favorite of the 5 Peaks in Breck). When we were too exhausted to ski, we went hiking which is barely less tiring when you can’t breathe without an oxygen tank 😉
It wouldn’t be a vacation in Breck without driving Boreas Pass with its fabulous morning views over the enormous expanse of the ski resort and the pretty Victorian town in the distance. Neither would it be the same without hiking the 5 mile round trip on Bakers Tank Trail. Starting at 10,000 feet (with the added joy of a further elevation of 1000 plus feet) it is certainly a proper workout for the lungs of a Floridian never mind the thighs of one. The views are truly gorgeous – a veritable winter wonderland. In between ski days we also managed to squeeze in the marginally less taxing Sallie Barber Trail which is mercifully only a 3 mile round trip with a positively sedate elevation of a mere 393 feet – starting at 10,297 feet and ending at 10,690 feet.
In celebration of surviving another skiing vacation without notable injury or fundamental damage to possessions we played at making snow angels on the trail. I am usually far too ladylike to hurl myself into a snow drift with my legs akimbo and arms flailing like a 6-year old and it didn’t take more than a second to realize why I don’t usually engage in such activities. The snowdrift into which I had hurled myself was probably 10 feet deep and didn’t provide a massive amount of support for a big bulky 52 year old body unceremoniously dumped into it. With a combination of 2 sinking ski poles, crawling on hands and knees and all of Geoff’s muscle power we managed to heave me out of the body-shaped crevice I had created before I froze to death under a super soft, billowy white blanket. Not to be outdone, Geoff thought it would be hilarious to jump straight into a neighboring drift. It wasn’t quite as hilarious hefting his even bigger, bulkier 53 year old body out of the 4 feet of snow in which he was standing bolt upright. Boys will be boys 😉
And just as the vacation had started with the joys of traversing the mountain pass on I70 in bad weather – it seemed that 9 days later it might all be repeated as we headed back in the opposite direction. The local weather station was reporting that a substantially crippling snowstorm was expected to arrive in the area on our penultimate vacation day. Not that we could really trust the dismally uninformative Colorado road traffic conditions website (www.cotrip.org) it was becoming abundantly clear that the storm would be significant and road conditions reported on all news channels were predicted to be “treacherous to impossible”.
Hmm… whilst I’m sure it would have been delightfully romantic to be indefinitely snowed into our lovely, comfortable apartment with its roaring log fire, with a plethora of excellent cafes and restaurants at our disposal within a few minutes walking distance, and a mere 1 minute shuttle ride to the mountain for what would have been awesome skiing conditions – it wouldn’t have been terribly practical as a long-term life plan.
So, with heavy hearts – leaving the gigantic, gently falling virgin snowflakes on the peaks behind us – we reluctantly checked out of our apartment 24 hours early first thing on Saturday morning to give us enough time to make the apparently already “treacherous to impossible” journey to Denver airport for our Sunday morning flight. Ordinarily it is a road journey of 1 hour and 50 minutes from Breckenridge to Denver airport. 24 hours should surely be enough … even with snowfall of between 18-24 inches threatened. We were cautiously concerned …
Precisely, 1 hour and 52 minutes later we were at the airport. So much for “treacherous and impossible”. Little did we realize it at the time, but we had missed an avalanche careering across the I70 only a matter of hours later.
Rather than hole up in a bland and unappealing airport hotel for the evening waiting for the worst of the snow to hit overnight – with predictions of doom and gloom ahead with cancelled flights during all of Sunday – we squeezed onto the Saturday afternoon flight.
By Sunday morning, while Colorado strained under the weight of the snow of the superstorm, we were reclining on our sun beds by the pool basking in temperatures upwards of 83F higher than we had left behind only 24 hours earlier… so it wasn’t all bad news 😉
See ya same time next year Colorado 🙂