January snows provided the ‘where-were-you-when’ moments in Colorado mountains
Who knows what’s going to happen over the rest of the winter, but thus far I think the big “where-were-you-when” moments of this season came during the first three weeks of January, when the snowfall was relentless.
As good as the skiing was on the slopes of the Aspen and Snowmass ski areas, I’ll always remember this winter from a trip with family and friends up to Grand Mesa Lodge, where I shared a cabin with my wife and daughter while another local couple stayed in their own cabin an easy walk away.
We had been to the Mesa before during winters, so we knew to expect copious amounts of snow. But we weren’t quite expecting what we encountered this time around. Grand Mesa is a vast, flat-topped piece of ground southeast of Grand Junction. It juts more than 5,000 feet in elevation above the red rock country bordering it.
The anticipation built as we snaked up Highway 65 past the entrance of Powderhorn ski area and later an immensely popular sledding hill that attracts people from Grand Junction, Clifton, Palisade and surrounding areas.
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Next we passed below about 1 mile of cliffs where the road signs warn “No stopping or standing” due to avalanche danger. No one in his or her right mind needs to be warned. My wife, daughter and I took a deep breath as the wind swirled and consistently sloughed off the jagged rock band.
We checked into our cabin at about noon, then I headed to the County Line Cross Country Ski Area at about 2 p.m. with friends Janet and Cindy. It was immaculately groomed, as always. The trails crossed wide parks where the wind blew the snow in huge drifts that looked like whipped marshmallow cream. Then the trail would plunge into the tall firs for an extended time. The white of the snow ran with the gray of the sky, all blending into one.
It started snowing and blowing about an hour into our ski, dropping the temperatures several degrees. The flakes were small and, with time, came at a stinging rate. We knew there was a winter storm warning. Mother Nature was delivering.
Before long, we were snug back in our cabins. We could hear the storm blowing outside. Even before the latest round, the snow was piled higher than our first-story windows, halfway up to the second-story windows. The roads were deep furrows in snow banks that created a maze to the cabins.
When we emerged from our respective cabins the next morning, 13 inches of blower powder coated everything. I shoveled out my car and waited until the proprietor came by with his industrial snow blower on a Bobcat to clear the roads.
When I went to the office to collect more firewood, I learned that an avalanche on the spooky cliff part had closed the highway at 5:30 the prior afternoon. Dual slides had hemmed in a pickup, but the occupants weren’t hurt. The transportation department dug them out, then shut the road until they could perform avalanche control the following day.
The closing of the road was our good fortune. We traveled 4.5 miles south on the Mesa to the Ward network of trails, which I had never visited. After the big dump, the grooming was marginal but that gave it a more backcountry feel. A snowmobile made tracks on a major artery. We took delight in winding between reservoir and lakes, all buried in an incredible blanket of white. The clouds parted long enough to provide a glorious view of the San Juan Mountains in all their majesty. Another storm blew in, leaving 6 more inches of incredibly light powder.
When we checked out on Monday, the innkeeper told us they had already received 100 inches for the month by Jan. 23. Given the chores they had to perform to stay unburied, I decided I wouldn’t whine anymore about shoveling my driveway back in the Roaring Fork Valley. And up on Grande Mesa, they said, the skiing and snowmobiling typically stays good into May.
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