Colorado Escapist: Spring backcountry skiing in powder magnet Montezuma
Introducing the Colorado Escapist
Come spring, Montezuma is home to some of the best and freshest backcountry lines — if you know where to go.
The video embedded in this story is a pilot for a potential series called the Colorado Escapist. The concept is that host Shawna Henderson would travel around the state seeking new adventures each month. Watch the video and tell us what you think. Should we do more? Where should we go next?
Springtime is here and what does that mean? Backcountry skiing! Who says it’s time to put away your skis just yet? Colorado mountain weather is unpredictable, and snow in May is always a possibility, so why not get some last-minute runs before it all melts off?
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Birth of backcountry
The birth of backcountry began with a few old-time explorers wandering out into the snowy unknown on quests to deliver news and religion to remote mountain communities.
Today in the High Country, the “quest” for great snow is a popular topic of conversation, as everyone is looking for hidden gems just minutes from home. God must have been on his side when he braved the elements while traveling on the Mill Run, the backcountry route from Montezuma to Breckenridge.
Alas, fellow explorers, you, too, can explore the lines and chutes in the woodlands surrounding Montezuma, a small town nestled at 10,200 feet in the heart of the mountains. All around the small town are glorious slices of backcountry that make up some of the best snowmobile and off-piste ski destinations in Colorado.
Silver mines to Hammertime
Montezuma began (as did so many Colorado towns) as a mining camp. During the boom days, the town had around 1,000 rowdy and adventurous residents. Throughout its colorful history, it had many interesting phases, including some elastic social mores, fancy balls and more moneymaking schemes than a late-night TV infomercial. Stories about residents through the decades can be found online in a Colorado historic newspaper called The Mill Run. During the mining heyday, the nearby Saints John mine was a hotspot for silver production and the town became populated with men in search of riches. But, as the price of silver declined in the early 1900s, the town, like so many in the Rocky Mountains, was nearly transformed into a ghost town.
Today, Montezuma is still filled with an eclectic mix of people who proudly enjoy the solitude at the end of the road. The main street is still unpaved, and a community of dogs enjoys resting in the middle, welcoming newcomers. Decrepit buildings defying the ravages of time sit nestled inside of new homesteads, and most residents consider locking their doors to be purely optional. Multiple sets of skis routinely stand on the porches — backcountry skiing is a passion for most residents.
The town has no shortage of unique attributes, like the iconic stop sign near Main Street that reads, “STOP HAMMERTIME” on one side, and then, “STOP stealing our stop sign” on the other. Of course, outhouses are still scattered around town, and, if you don’t mind the open air, the view out the door is amazing.
Life on the Divide
In my quest for a local backcountry adventure, I met up with 30-year Montezuma local Jack Bussy. He first fell in love with the area when he met a man named Rob Ives, who ran one of the first Colorado helicopter skiing operation in that area. After that venture ended, Bussy started an adventure company that takes guests into the backcountry with a snowcat.
“I’m 100-percent a powder addict,” Bussy said as I watched him making homemade skis in his garage. At first, making skis was a hobby, but today, he operates a small manufacturing company, Continental Divide Skis (named for the Divide looming over Montezuma), which combines his passion for backcountry ski touring with the art of making the perfect powder ski. He presses every ski specifically to match the client’s skiing style.
Local life, as Jack explains, is about doing what you love — and doing it everyday.
“I love to make turns in the terrain of Montezuma,” he said. “The area is 9 square miles, and it makes Vail look tiny.”
The Montezuma area is a gold mine for snow. Due to its location and altitude, snow blows in from Breckenridge along the Swan River drainage. When combined with elevation above 9,000 feet, the area gets filled with piles upon piles of the white, fluffy stuff from January to May, like a snow magnet.
Known throughout the state as one of the best (and most accessible) backcountry ski and snowmobile destinations, the terrain around Montezuma truly is a powder addict’s perfect Colorado playground. However, keep in mind that avalanches occur in this area, and safety precautions should always be exercised, no matter what time of the season. If you are new to the sport of backcountry skiing, the avalancheawareness resources provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center are a good place to begin learning essential backcountry skills. That’s just the beginning of your education — formal avalanche and backcountry safety classes are the next step.
So, to be clear, reading this does not automatically give you the pass to get into the backcountry. Make sure you have the proper gear, including the absolute basics: a locator beacon, snow probe and shovel. Even though I felt safe on my trip, the snow and weather conditions change constantly, and being prepared is your best defense. If you have never taken an avalanche course, make sure you sign up now and practice often with your gear so you are ready to use it in a state of emergency.
The snow magnet
Normally, I relish in the reward of working for my turns, but, luckily, Bussy gave me a ride on his snowmobile. When we first got to the top of the bowl, I did not know exactly what to expect. It was difficult to tell if the snow was going to be good or just mediocre by looking at it.
Once I took that first turn, I was in snow heaven. Turn after turn, it felt like I was floating on top of a velvet dress — smooth, soft, creamy and oh-so-desirable. After a seven-minute snowmobile ride to the top of heaven, I was making heavenly turns with no lines … just me, fully complete in my powder addiction.
Montezuma is not a completely undiscovered secret. People come from all over to experience the rush and thrill of the endless ski lines that never seem to get tracked out. However, days after a powder day — and days after snow at the resorts is already demolished — you can still find a plethora of trails to get your adrenaline pumping and find the special thrill of face shots.
As for the Montezuma locals and myself, I’m sure they would prefer keeping this paradise a hidden secret, but we all understand the joy of sharing epic outdoor adventures. If you suffer from a rare (but curable) condition known as “powderitis” — one who cannot get enough powder snow — the cure might be out in Montezuma’s backcountry.
In my experience, I just touched the surface. There are still so many more areas to explore.
Shawna Henderson is a multi-sport adventure athlete and founder of AdrenalinEscapes.com, a web-based booking platform to connect active travelers with guides and adventure sports in Colorado. Through her website and writing, Shawna offers insights on new outdoor gear, activities and destinations to fuel your passion.