Destination is ‘off-piste’
Hanging around the base at Highlands, one occasionally hears the cry, usually from fresh-faced newbies, that the destination is “off-piste.” Most of these misdirected claims usually refer to the Highland Bowl, which can hardly be called off the area, but I guess it’s easier to say than “headed to the Bowl.”Anyway, this got me to thinking about some of the off-piste terrain we used to ski, out in Woody Creek and other places around the valley. Through high school, I kept a slalom course set up in the apple orchard on the ranch, and although it really wasn’t long enough, it could be extremely challenging, depending on who set the course. Also, the team of horses that pulled the cattle feeding sled could be counted on to haul me up the steep road to our southwest mesa, and the return trip was a speed skier’s delight, especially when locked into sled-runner tracks, going about 50 mph and trying to dodge the horse and cow dung, most of it frozen.One year on the ranch, I cut a narrow run down through a jack-oak-covered slope, going for steep rather than northern exposure (my dad tried to tell me!) and found it was skiable only a few days each winter. As a matter of fact, I think after all those weeks of intermittent work, I only skied it once and headed to Larkspur mountain, the home of deep snow, instead.In the ’70s, skijoring was a big thing around here, and we pursued that with fervor. There’s a certain rush one gets from being pulled behind a horse galloping 40 to 50 mph, with big clods of snow knocked loose by thundering hooves, flying hard into your face, blurring your vision of course markers and the big jumps looming ahead. My cousin Ivy Vagneur, a superb rider, could get the best out of a very fast gelding named Bridey, and I think we won most every event there was one winter. We got second place at Ski Spree in Glenwood, only because Bridey took exception to the roar of the crowd and bucked and snorted for most of our second run, giving Ivy the unexpected chance to show off her enviable bronc riding skills.For a number of years, I did sleigh rides up at the T-Lazy 7 ranch in Maroon Creek and quickly gravitated to the thought that one could do his own skijoring, without the aid of a rider. Which, generally speaking, worked rather well, but as we soon learned, the big draft horses were not particularly well suited to the sport, having a tendency to gallop off the trail unexpectedly, particularly at times when we most desperately needed to hang on rather than steer. The usual consequence was we got rope, driving lines and skiers hopelessly entangled in the pine saplings and big aspens along the way. We never got hurt too badly.And then, we’ve done the usual stuff you’d call off-piste. One day I took off from our Owl Creek cabin on a pair of cross-country skis my cousin Don had left on the porch, my eyes on an open slope across the valley. Miles later, and with great anticipation in my breast, I pushed off from the top, expecting great powder turns, but exasperation soon replaced expectation when I realized the slope was just not steep enough. A good outing, though, all things considered.Ski patrolman and extreme skier, Ed Pfab and I have skied the Crystal Chute of Mount Sopris and acknowledge on a certain level that we won’t stop our adventures until he guides me down most of the area peaks, such as Hayden and Garrett. I’d have probably done ’em all by now, but I generally couldn’t separate the ranch and the horses from the rest of it, off-piste.Tony Vagneur believes horses have a certain charm that ski lifts will never be able to muster. Read him here every Saturday and send comments to email@example.com.
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Commentary: “My granddaughter Charli, dressed in an ankle-length sun dress, sporting a fresh manicure and wearing light lipstick (her mother helped reorganize that), quietly welcomed me to the affair, maintaining an air of sophistication that surprised. She knew it was a big deal.”