Summit County backcountry trio recaps magical 200-plus day ski season
FRISCO — When Summit County local Blake Elrod reflects on his 140 days of skiing since last fall, June 24 is one that stands out.
“The coldest day of my season,” Elrod said with a smile. “It was frickin cold, man.”
The face shots in summer powder he and Gary Fondl, of Frisco, enjoyed off the 14,265-foot summit of Quandary Peak three days after the summer solstice crystallized just how special the 2018-19 season was.
“It did not feel like the third day of summer,” Fondl said. “It was full-on midwinter conditions.”
From October to June, it was the closest to nonstop powder skiing Elrod, Fondl and their friend Braden Litke have experienced in Summit County. Then, through late September, there was ample, quality skiing on many more lines in Summit County than in years past.
Come the start of this October, Fondl had skied 201 days and 652,252 feet of human-powered vertical, including at least one day on snow 52 weeks in a row. Litke reached 231 days Sept. 27, when he rode the almost glacial remnants of a long cornice in the southern Mosquito Range near Weston Pass.
Elrod also got out into the backcountry in late June. Unable to join Elrod and Fondl on Quandary, Litke rode familiar terrain under the illumination of a headlamp on the slopes of 14,178-foot Mount Bross north of Alma.
“I was watching it on social media,” Fondl said, “and I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ Night skiing, it’s magical.”
“It’ll change your life,” Elrod added.
There were a lot of life-changing powder days for the trio and other Summit County backcountry skiers and snowboarders like them in 2018-19.
With about 6 inches of fresh powder forecast for Summit County’s mountains Thursday, skiers like Elrod will mark the beginning of a new ski year. And when you ring in the new year, you celebrate the best of the prior year.
Elrod, Fondl and Litke did just that in a conversation Oct. 3. For Fondl — known in the Summit backcountry community as “The Mayor of Pow Town” — his ski season resets each year with the autumnal equinox, this year on Sept. 23. From last October’s first powder days through Sept. 23, Fondl blew past his previous record of 150 days. Perhaps more impressive, Fondl tacked on more than 100,000 more feet of human-powered skiing this year than in his previous high year. On average, Fondl skied 3,300 feet of human-powered skiing per day on snow.
Quantity is one thing for backcountry skiers like Elrod, Fondl, Litke and others. Quality is another. For all that can be said about the quantity of skiing the trio did, the quality, they say, was even more impressive.
It all began back in October 2018, when lines at the heart of Summit County, like in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range, filled in early and often.
“I think my first powder day was Oct. 10,” Elrod said. “And it was pretty deep in the southern Tenmile and the northern Mosquito (ranges). That’s what stands out for me.”
When skiing at the start of the new year, Elrod and company stick to familiar, favorite grassy slopes. In most years, you can’t avoid skiing on grass, but 2018-19 wasn’t most years. Powder skiing was a thing in October 2018.
And it just didn’t stop.
Fondl recalls Nov. 5 as an all-time special day of bottomless powder skiing. The powder stayed ideal through midwinter before March’s historic avalanche cycle presented the trio and their backcountry friends with another chapter to the story.
Chatting with Colorado Avalanche Information Center personnel on a presentation March 6 at Wilderness Sports in Dillon, Fondl had an idea the avalanche danger would go to extreme March 7. To Fondl and friends, that day will go down as “Black Thursday,” a day when they executed utmost care in the backcountry.
Elrod and Fondl said Black Thursday will be a great memory because it was an example of a day when all of their years of backcountry experience and avalanche knowledge paid off. With deadly danger in many spots, they stuck to familiar, safe, below-tree-line spots.
Once the avalanche danger died down, the trio skied the new Peak One slide. The avalanche path — described by the trio as an almost perfect blue run outside of “debris daggers” — provided backcountry skiers with an ideal, wide route down after skiing off the summit.
For the snowboarder Litke, it also provided natural features to boardslide.
“This season only, you could use all of the debris like terrain park features,” Litke said. “Like little jibs, little logs poking out of the snow you could play on.”
June’s final epic summer storm set the trio up for better-than-ever summer skiing. Deep into September, copious lines remained skiable, suncups delayed in forming, keeping the snow fun. In July, Fondl and Elrod hop, skipped and jumped fallen transmission lines in Peru Creek to ski five lines in one day.
The skiing was great for Fondl until a precarious day on Peak 9 a couple of weeks ago. The late-summer nights were too long to thaw the snow enough, and Fondl called it a season.
As for the 2019-20 season, it’s underway. What does the Mayor of Pow Town expect?
“Nobody knows,” Fondl said with a smile.
The International Ski and Snowboard Federation announced that for the first time in 19 years, a ski jumping World Cup event will take place on American soil from Feb. 10-12.
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