Making tracks: Riding an antique mountain
January 16, 2007
Aspen, CO Colorado
GRAND JUNCTION ” I’d like to expose our desert hamlet to my favorite outdoor activity, backcountry skiing.
I use the word skiing loosely. Snowboarding, downhill skiing, free-heel skiing, and cross-country skiing all have their own thrills and cultural hang-ups, but I love anything that lets you fly down snow covered-trails without too much falling.
Backcountry skiing means not stopping on a chairlift every 10 minutes. You keep moving, mostly upward, and at your own pace. It is extremely good for you, and you get a sweet ride down, often with just a friend or two.
Mesa Creek is my favorite local spot for powdery turns. I get a strong nostalgic buzz from schussing down these rustic runs. From 1942 to 1966, many hearty locals dragged themselves up the steepest part of the mountain on a rope tow. The trails were groomed by Hoppy, a peg-legged man who chopped the mogul tops with a shovel.
Today, the only way up is an aesthetic and rewarding climb on modern ski-skins or snowshoes. The snow is dried by Utah air and kept cold and fresh by the sheltered tree lined slopes.
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The base area is now a popular snow sledding parking lot with a revamped restroom and usually has heavy traffic but not above the sled hill. To get your own buzz on these runs, take a right into the trees just below the steeps of the sled hill and cross Mesa Creek on a rickety bridge. Climb up the eroding and overgrowing ski area Cat Track. Follow the Cat Track all the way or switchback steeply up trees right of the widest ski run above.
At the top of the area’s catwalk is a comfortable resting place with thrilling trails at your ski tips. The straight shot of the challenging Rope Tow runs directly below. It squeezes through abrupt stair-steps of pine while trying to buck into impenetrably dark pines.
Traverse skiers right down the narrow catwalk to more runs. The first trail to the left leads through a tight tree hallway to the Mesa’s edge and a bright yellow road sign reading “Hill.” The “Hill” run drops through wry braids of willow gullies, then detangles into mellow aspen slopes. This is my favorite with good snow.
More adventure down the cat track reveals “Pruess,” the classic shot of the mountain. The “Pruess” run has room for friends with smooth rollovers and confidence building angles.
Just down and right from Pruess is the “Force Family Run,” the last main thoroughfare and is a short wide run dropping onto the original catwalk. Steeper runs hide above the Force for those willing to take a bit more effort. Force stays high above Mesa Creek back down to the junction with the bottom of Pruess and Hill. A final slope of willows or wild boulder drop lands on the catwalk for a squirrelly ride back to the bridge.
Mesa Creek’s classic ski runs are accessed just a few short miles past the turnoff to Powderhorn Resort on Highway 65 from Grand Junction. The runs can also be approached from above via Jumbo Lake, one mile out the West Bench Trail. Take one of several north-trending meadows on the right just past the rejoining of the trail. Look for the tracks. Early morning runs that start out before 7 a.m. can be had before the 9 a.m. school bell in town.
For these trails, I recommend sturdy alpine touring or telemark gear. I have tried these runs on light cross-country gear and scared the wits out of myself. Avalanche equipment is not likely to be needed on these runs, but slides can occur on the Mesa, so be prepared and alert for suspect conditions.