Hybrid skiing on Vail Pass gains popularity

Ian CroppVail correspondent
Vail Daily reporter Ian Cropp leans into the fresh untracked snow on the Queen Bee run during a day of hybrid skiing with snowmobiles on Vail Pass. (Dominique Taylor/Vail Daily)

VAIL PASS – There are no ski lifts on the Vail Pass Recreation Area.But there is a quick and easy way to access acres of untracked snow.

But there is a quick and easy way to access acres of untracked snow.Welcome to the world of hybrid skiing.At the White River National Forest Area, the ski lifts come in the form of snowmobiles towing skiers.Among the 55,000 acres of land at Vail Pass (which stretches from Copper Mountain to Vail, across Interstate 70 to Highway 24), 3,300 acres are motorized-assisted ski terrain.And with some fresh figure eight tracks as proof last Thursday, the hybrid zone is getting plenty of use.”That’s the area we’ve seen the most growth over the past 10 years,” said Don Dressler, a Snow Ranger with the Forest Service.About 60 percent of the Vail Pass users opt for non-motorized activities, and the rest get around with the help of snowmobiles or snowcats. Only about 10 percent of the motorized use is hybrid, according to Dressler.There is something a bit more appealing, however, about being dragged behind a snowmobile up a pitch, and then carving your way down.

Fresh tracksAbout five miles off the Vail Pass exit on I-70 is the nexus of the hybrid zone. There are several trails from which to choose, all varying in pitch, vertical drop and the direction they face.”It can be great snow days after a storm,” Dressler said.With the temperatures in the Vail Valley in the 50s, the thermometer at Vail Pass hovered around freezing Thursday. And as the elevation in the area is almost all above 10,000 feet, the snowfall is greater and more frequent. And without a true ski lift, Vail Pass doesn’t get quite the traffic of a normal ski area.In hybrid skiing, the ride up is half the fun. Skiers are pulled behind a snowmobile on a rope, much like waterskiing. The top of the motorized-assisted trails are above treeline, and skiers can expect up to a 1,000 vertical drop to the bottom.Although most areas have plenty of unblemished white snow, users should abide by the backcountry code and not make 100-foot turns across the face.

Ministry of funWith skis and snowmobiles as transportation and a snow-filled office, the Snow Rangers are proof that government jobs can be tons of fun.The Snow Rangers that patrol the Vail Pass area can thank a bunch of concerned citizens for their positions.”In the early ’90s, recreation use started exploding in the high country,” Dressler said. “The Forest Service didn’t have an active role, didn’t have the resources or the staffing. It was kind of a free-for-all.”

The group of citizens that would become the Vail Pass Task Force came to the Forest Service and offered to work with them.With a board of eight directors, ranging from outfitters to snowcat operators to non-motorized advocacy groups, the task force works with the Forest Service on its budget and other issues when they meet three times a year.”We’re really just the stewards of the land and rely on feedback from public to tell us what we need to do,” Dressler said. When Congress passed the 1996 Fee Demonstration Act, areas of high recreation use, like Vail Pass, were able to collect fees the manage the land.Once the Forest Service had a budget that no longer just relied on small appropriated fees, it could provide an array of services, including grooming, ranger patrols and maps.The Task Force currently grooms 48 miles of multiple-use trails, where snowmobiles and cross-country skiers can get around the backcountry. Users can expect paths to be groomed a few times per week.Day-use fees for Vail Pass are $6 per person, and a season pass is $40, with 85 percent of the fees staying in the program.

As of last week, the Forest Service issued 405 season passes. During a weekend, when usage is much greater than weekdays, about 200 users visit Vail Pass.Thanks to increased use, the Forest Service has been able to staff Vail Pass seven days most weeks.On your ownThe northern part of Vail Pass is completely non-motorized (although still part of the fee area) and offers the quickest access to ski terrain.Although some of the pitches at Vail Pass may not be steep, Dressler recommends exercising safe backcountry habits, such as using avalanche beacons and even digging avalanche pits before skiing.Avalanche reports are posted at the trailheads.