The mountain is unforgiving.
We're throwing across the grassy ski slopes at New Mexico's Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort, between holes nine and 10, when my buddy hucks what would be a real beauty were it actually headed in the right direction. Rather than spinning toward the basket at the edge of the tree line before us, his disc begins curving hard left, down the mountain, looking as if it might glide all the way to the ski lift terminal.
Time seems to freeze everything but the disc, which goes ... and goes ... and goes. A prolonged F-bomb rings out above sympathetic aahing and unsympathetic laughter. Somewhere near the creek below, a picnicking mother probably abandons her Doritos and soda to plug her child's ears.
This is disc golf, when played mostly vertically rather than horizontally.
Six holes later, I stand to make par — three tosses — when my disc falls victim to the mountain's slope. Rather than falling to a stop directly under the basket, my second toss stands up on end and begins wobbling into a roll, down the mountain, gaining speed and distance. My steady screams of "No! No! No! ..." follow it into a tree about 20 yards away. The same picnicking mother probably grabs her child's hand, scanning her surroundings for danger.
We might be loud-mouthed riffraff, but, hey, we're having fun — when the mountain doesn't screw us.
Throw your moneymaker
"We call that the Sipa-roll," says Sipapu Resort general manager John Paul Bradley, when I later describe by phone my par-snatching blunder. He says it happens to plenty of professionals who come to annual events such as July's Rio Pueblo Open, a tournament played at Sipapu and the nearby Two Gray Hares (a farm course) and Picuris Pueblo (a high desert course), all of which are bisected at some point by the shallow, frigid Rio Pueblo stream.
Sipapu, about 20 miles southeast of Taos, isn't the closest mountain course to the Pikes Peak area; others are built into ski slopes in places like Beaver Creek and Aspen. But playing each of those requires lift tickets, $18 and $27 respectively, whereas Sipapu is free.
Bradley, who handles maintenance for the course between early May and late October, says owner Bruce Bolander was talked into installing it 12 years ago by an employee. Bruce's parents, Lloyd and Olive Bolander, had founded the ski area in 1952, and according to Bradley, the family was willing to try something new.
They invested thousands of dollars to install the course, and didn't really expect to make money. But within a few years, Bradley says, disc golfers' incidental spending began to recoup the cost. Players tend to eat at Sipapu's café, buy disc equipment and food staples from its general store, and spend money on one of its 10 lodging offerings. Prices vary, sometimes day-to-day, but in the summer can run from $9 for a campsite to around $50 for a basic lodge room to well over $200 for a duplex with a private kitchen.
Activities like hiking and mountain biking have long helped ski towns fill reduced-rate lodging and boutiques during the summertime. Bradley agrees that disc golf, being a blue-collar activity and one of the country's fastest growing recreational sports (according to many unfounded Web reports) makes sense for ski mountains. Currently, the Professional Disc Golf Association (pdga.com) lists 2,988 courses nationwide, 85 of those located in Colorado and 25 in New Mexico.
The weekend night I lodged in one of Sipapu's clean, modest motel rooms, the resort was packed with fishermen, campers, vacationers and a good number of disc golfers.
Tossing the void
What really separates Sipapu from the vast majority of those other 2,987 courses, remember, is our good friend the mountain. It's the reason we drove four hours to play, and the feature that truly changes the game. The hikes between holes burn some calories, and give you a chance to see wildflowers and the occasional deer.
What course designer Chris Meyer, a professional player, has done rather nicely is use everything in the natural landscape that could possibly be a hazard and work those features into the elevation challenge. Sometimes a row of pine trees or a whole hill will block your view of the basket, leaving you to trust your map ($2 in the general store) before launching. On some holes, you toss almost directly up the steep slopes, and others almost straight down.
My party of five opted to throw from the advanced tees, essentially the medium-difficulty strips; the mountain also offers recreation tees (often half the distance from the baskets as the advanced level) and professional tees (up to another 100 feet longer than the advanced).
For those who have not yet gleaned a mental image from the words "disc," "golf" and "mountain," teeing off equates to throwing a disc (smaller and more dense than a Frisbee) from a rectangular rubber pad toward a chest-high basket as far as 300 feet away or more. (Sipapu's longest professional hole is 568 feet.) As in the ball version of golf, you play your disc from where it falls.
Because of our group size and relative inexperience, it took a few hours to complete the 20-hole course. I finished 11 over par — good enough to beat my nearest co-player by seven tosses, but laughable compared to the 4-under par another friend made in his visit.
That friend, a more seasoned player, left with fondness and respect for the course, saying he'd recommend it to friends. And passionate disc golfers are known to travel. Olive Bolander herself, now 81, set the outdoor distance world record for women 80 and older (36.72 meters) at a July meet in Kansas City, Mo., according to the World Flying Disc Federation (wfdf.org).
My friends and I, of course, have a long way to throw to become anywhere near competitive or civilized. For now, we're just happy cussing our way back down the mountain to retrieve our discs — at least the ones the tree limbs didn't steal.