Wolf Creek’s raw ski appeal endures
December 5, 2009
WOLF CREEK PASS, Colo. – Skiers and snowboarders anxiously scanning the skies and ski reports for signs of snow in the early season invariably wind up looking to one place: Wolf Creek Ski Area.
In a tradition that celebrates its 70th season this winter, a couple of notable items emanate from both sources, each reliable in its own way.
From the skies above the southwestern ski hill straddling the namesake pass sandwiched between Pagosa Springs and the smaller town of South Fork, the emanation arrives in the only way skiers truly trust. That is to say, snow. Heaps of the stuff, falling from the heavens early and often, stacking up to an annual average of 465 inches on the ground.
From the ski report, the number most likely to leap off the page and into a skier’s psyche is 100, as in the percentage of skiable terrain currently open at the 1,600-acre ski area (the only ski area in Colorado able to boast that claim). That number also is accurate, depending upon your definition of skiable.
“It’s nice to have a few groomers around for people, but natural terrain is kind of fun. And early season is kind of fun if you just let people go where they want to go. They kind of figure it out,” said Davey Pitcher, whose family has owned and operated the ski area since his father, Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher, bought it out of bankruptcy in 1976. “We don’t put up any ropes. We had some places where we put up signs that said, ‘Walking is necessary’ for a little while.”
Walking has always been necessary in order to access much of the quality ski terrain at Wolf Creek, topping out just below 12,000 feet. The high point at Alberta Peak has never seen lift service and demands a moderate hike from lift terminals on either flank, as do some other less-enticing slopes.
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But for many, that’s part of the appeal, particularly as they try to get more fit early in the ski season.
“It’s great for the early season, to get warmed up. This is my second round up here,” said Doug Winter of Albuquerque, who spent Sunday afternoon hiking laps on Alberta. “I get up here every weekend I can. This is my go-to mountain for the beginning of the season, definitely.”
Like many of the Wolf Creek faithful, Winter scheduled his most recent trip across the border after seeing a storm front moving toward southern Colorado last weekend. Even novice storm trackers have come to recognize the reliability of snowfall along the mountain pass as storms are funneled through the tall peaks of the surrounding San Juan Mountain Range en route to the broad San Luis Valley to the east.
It takes a long time for 38 feet of snow to fall, meaning winter typically begins early at Wolf Creek.
This time, the prediction of up to a foot of fresh snow failed to come true as the storm veered farther south. In fairness, the 3 inches of fluff that did fall Saturday night were 3 inches more than reported at any other ski area in the state. And while a little less than usual for Dec. 1, the 33-inch base and 81-inch year-to-date total at Wolf Creek currently top the snow charts in Colorado.
“Usually it’s hammer time right now. I’ve been up here in such brutal weather before,” said Winter, a Wolf Creek skier since 1981. “Unfortunately, it didn’t come through today. But it’s still great out here.”
Kelly Gifford, another visitor from Albuquerque, agreed.
“These are the best conditions,” said Gifford, an eight- year regular taking advantage of the $31 lift tickets offered on one of the area’s many Local Appreciation Days. Wednesday is another.
“Right now it’s all fake snow everywhere else,” Gifford said.
The likelihood of riding “fake,” or machine-made, snow at Wolf Creek is pretty slim, given that the area goes through only about half a million gallons of water a year for snowmaking. To put it in perspective, that’s about a quarter of what some major Colorado resorts will go through in a single night early in the ski season. Big ski areas reliant on snowmaking to establish their bases and build terrain parks and halfpipes can use as much as 200,000 million gallons of water throughout the season.
But the “terrain park” at Wolf Creek is as natural as the snow. Sure, there’s the odd steel banister set up for riders to jib off, but most of the jumps and slides come in the form of natural undulations or fallen trees that dot the landscape between the half-dozen lifts. Gifford characterizes the decidedly noncommercial ski area as “pure,” but it might just as easily be described as “raw.”
“The terrain is more apparent at this time of year, so it’s kind of exciting. If you clip a stump or something sticks up and grabs you, it wakes you up and makes you realize that there’s a reason to be cautious at the beginning of the year,” Pitcher said. “Skiing is a real sport. I’m not sure the industry has helped itself by portraying an almost unachievable perception of what skiing is.
“You have to be out in the mountains for other reasons than the perfect turn. And the reality is that there’s terrain variations, different snow conditions, stumps, rocks – and letting people ski around all that stuff is good for them, really.
“Grooming to some standard before you let people ski may work at other ski areas, but it doesn’t work down here.”