I never thought of backcountry skiing as a political act, but maybe it's time I did.
A friend and I recently got caught in the traffic jam that seems to take place every Saturday morning on I-70 during the ski season. We were on our way to ski the backcountry on the western slope. After cracking a few jokes about it, the traffic didn't seem funny anymore, so we changed our plans and exited at Georgetown. My friend said he knew of a ski area close by where there were no lift lines and the skiing was free. It was a place, he said, where we could expect to have the whole mountain to ourselves.
We drove through Georgetown and followed the road over Guenella Pass to Geneva Basin, a small ski area 10 miles north of Grant off Highway 285, built in the early 1960s. There were two other cars parked close by. Not to worry, my friend said, we probably won't see them anyway. And we didn't. In fact, it all happened just like he said. The skiing was free and we didn't spend a minute in a lift line either, mainly because there weren't any. Lifts, that is. You see, Geneva Basin has been closed since 1984. All of the chair lifts and most of the buildings have been removed. With the exception of a few small structures, all that remains of the area are the old slopes carved into the woods of Pike National Forest.
We strapped on our telemark skis and took a minute to study the mountain. We wanted to pick a route that didn't look too rocky or overgrown. We decided we'd climb to an upper run that looked fairly clear of trees. From there, we could traverse the mountain to the head of a lower trail that also looked pretty clean.
We started straight up the mountain along a steep slope of snow. Thinking better of it, we decided to follow the cat walk the rest of the way to the top. The higher we went, the more the snow conditions improved until we reached timberline and two feet of untouched powder. Sunlight streamed across the open slopes where the snow glittered in tiny starbursts of lilac, sapphire and tangerine. After 40 minutes of climbing, we reached a point in the upper bowls where we could begin the ski down. Stripping the skins from our skis, we got ourselves ready for the long run to the bottom.
I've been skiing the Colorado backcountry for many years now. I prefer the backcountry to commercial areas for a number of reasons. I like it for the solitude and unspoiled scenery it affords. It's a heckuva lot cheaper than resorts and there's usually plenty of untracked powder to go around. I also like it because it appeals to my sense of independent adventure. A big part of the fun in backcountry skiing is getting away from the crowds and discovering new places to ski. Sometimes that adventurous spirit can lead to the most unlikely places. Take abandoned ski areas, for example.
Colorado Ski Country has identified at least 144 abandoned ski areas in Colorado. In fact, they have recently marketed a "Lost Resorts" poster that describes the location and history of each area. Many old resorts are located on private land and public access may be restricted. Pikes Peak and Ski Broadmoor are two private local areas that have closed in recent years. Other old resorts, like Howelsen in Steamboat Springs, exist in downtown areas as "town hills."
Of the abandoned areas located on public land, many have been overgrown to the point that the slopes are no longer recognizable. And then there are a few places, like Geneva Basin and Hidden Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the mountain can still be skied. Hidden Valley closed in 1991 after 57 years of operation. Known for its competitive jumping facility, Hidden Valley once hosted the Alpine National Championship. Berthoud Pass was another gem, before it recently reopened.
There's a strange feeling about skiing an abandoned area. It's almost as if the slopes are haunted. Cutting turns through the deep powder, I imagined Geneva years ago when Roy Romer was an owner and the mountain was crowded with skiers. I could picture its double chair-lifts and tow ropes, the old fiberglass skis and bamboo poles, the leather boots and wool pants. It was a different era then, a time of innocence for the ski industry.
We found good skiing on the upper half of the mountain. The snow was consistent and the run was mostly clear of trees. The particular trail we skied must have been in pretty much the same condition as when the area was operational. The conditions of the lower mountain were not as good. There was less snow and the slopes were cluttered with small evergreens. This made the base highly unstable. Still, it was good enough to warrant another run.
At the bottom, we put the skins on and started back up the mountain. My friend remembered a back bowl from his earlier visit and we decided to look for it. He'd also heard of a ski patrol shack somewhere near the top where skiers can spend the night.
Hiking along the cat walk, I was reminded of what a lovely time of year it was. There's something about the quality of sunlight in spring that makes the Colorado high country seem that much closer to heaven. While many people start thinking about their gardens and golf games, backcountry skiers know that spring can be the best season of all, with its long warm days and plentiful snow.
Given the recent controversy surrounding expansions in existing ski areas, there is poetic justice in visiting a place like Geneva Basin. The pressure on public lands is as great as it's ever been and there seems to be no letting up. Expansions have recently been approved at Aspen Highlands, Telluride, Breckenridge and Steamboat. In addition, the Forest Service is currently evaluating expansion proposals by at least three other areas.
The recent arson at Vail regarding its Category III expansion (now called Blue Sky Basin) reminds us that this has become a significant political issue in Colorado. Vail's expansion may have occurred in what was the last lynx habitat of Colorado. Opponents of expansion worry that, as more and more ski areas encroach upon the backcountry, we all end up footing the bill in the way of air and water pollution, lost wildlife habitat, and -- oh, yes -- traffic jams.
James McVey teaches English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His stories and outside essays have appeared in a number of journals around the country.
For information on abandoned ski areas in National Forest lands, contact the appropriate Forest Service office. For more information on abandoned areas around the state, contact Colorado Ski Country at 303/837-0793 or on the web at www.coloradoski.com