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#43. Cross country skiing in Colorado: 24-28 March 2024

The first annual extraordinary outdoors adventure of 2024 was scheduled to be the yearly cross country ski trip to Maine Huts and Trails, which would have marked the 12th year of this tradition.

 

However, as the first week of January approached, I became increasingly apprehensive about the trip. The injury I had sustained to my right knee in mid- October 2023 – simply by standing up from my desk chair – had failed to heal completely despite PT 2 to 3 times a week. Whereas I’d noticed some improvement, I was fearful of reinjuring it by cross country skiing. If the trip was on, my pride probably would not have allowed me to pass on it. As I watched the weather forecast in the weeks leading up to the planned trip, there had been no snow nor was there any snow forecast by the time of our trip. To confirm, I went online to check the trail conditions at Maine Huts and Trails. A photo of their trails confirmed what the forecast had said: there was not a flake of snow on the ground. A huge sense of relief swept over me.



Given that I was in my last semester of teaching at Tulane, the next time I could get away was spring break. Julie was already scheming to find a destination that would include mountains and some type of outdoor sports. We checked in with our friends, Dave and Beckie Covill (Dave is President of the Highpointers foundation), who live in Evergreen CO, about the cross country skiing in Colorado in March. They not only encouraged us to come but invited us to use their home as a base of operation for several Nordic ski resorts in their region of the state. They were heading out for a two-night excursion of their own during our timeframe but gave us the run of their house while they were gone. We arrived early enough on a Saturday to have dinner together – delicious chicken soup Beckie had made – before they headed out on Sunday.

 

We had been warned by the Covills and several other Denver-based friends that the highways between Denver and the ski resorts were to be avoided at all cost on weekends (horrific traffic). Instead, we used our first Sunday to get some practice on the skis in a nearby park. Julie, an expert downhill skier and snowboarder, had never been on cross country skis but was game to try. (More precisely, our shared orthopedic specialist had told her he would refuse to continue to treat her if she insisted on snowboarding, so she had to dial down the Index for Bodily Risk).



After saying goodbye to Covills, we drove to the nearby Elk Meadow Park, which offered a large slightly sloping field mostly covered in snow. Given Julie‘s athleticism, I had predicted that for the first 12 minutes, I would probably be better on cross country skis than she was, but after that, I would expect her to surpass me and be way out in front. In retrospect, Elk Meadows Park was not the perfect location for getting the hang of cross-country skis. (Flat and groomed would have been better). So, to my amazement, my 12 minute prophecy did not hold. Nonetheless, we were both glad to have had a chance to get used to the bindings on the skis and the general feel for them. Afterwards. we found our way to a local eatery, the Bread Lodge which we had visited on our previous trip to Evergreen. It did not disappoint.

We had heard from several sources that there would be a big snowstorm that first night that we were on our own at the Covills. Depending on the source, 3 to 12 inches were forecast. By late afternoon, the snow was coming down hard but mercifully stopped early. We awoke to 6 inches of powder snow in the Covills’ very long and winding driveway. The first task of the day was an hour of shoveling snow (something I hadn’t done for at least 50 years), after which Julie cautiously drove our rental Jeep Wrangler to the bottom of the hill.



From there we took off to our first day of cross country skiing at the Frisco Nordic Ski Area some 90 minutes away. What a treat! They had a very solid base of snow and had already groomed the additional powder from the overnight snowstorm by the time we arrived, creating perfect ski conditions. Even better, they had multiple trails marked as easy, intermediate, and difficult. We headed straight to the easy ones. We glided along the trails and service roads that ran through a campground in the summer, thoroughly enjoying the relative lack of crowds on a Monday.



Almost an hour into the day, I was surprised that we were still within the “12 minutes“ where I was keeping up with Julie on the trails. Apparently, the bindings on alpine skis are such that every instinct needed for downhill skiing was exactly wrong for cross-country. However, we both managed to stay on our feet and move easily over these perfectly groomed trails.

 


Given the hour we’d spent shoveling the driveway and another hour on the trails, I indicated to Julie that I’d be very happy to head back to the lodge and wait for however long she wanted to continue the ski. On the homestretch of the lodge, everything clicked, and Julie was all of a sudden way out in front. Excited that she had finally gotten the knack of it, she headed out for another hour on the trails, while I enjoyed the heated lodge, comfortable couch, and a cup of hot chocolate. If we hadn’t spent another hour on skis, I would’ve felt the trip was a tremendous success. It was such a relief to me that my knee was holding up and I didn’t see any reason to push my luck. I’d let Julie have the extra fun out there on the trails.




On Tuesday, we opted to try another ski resort – Eldora – that offered both downhill and cross-country. Julie and I got the lay of the land on the easy trails, then we went our separate ways so she could take on the intermediate and difficult trails. I continued to be content with the easy trails, euphoric that my knee was doing well, and Julie returned a happy camper for finally feeling comfortable on her skis. She bore the brunt of all the driving, without complaint.

 




By Tuesday evening Dave and Beckie returned home, physically and mentally drained. During their gathering with friends at a remote wilderness lodge, one of the older women in the group became violently ill. They had spent the day evacuating her and her gear on sleds from their remote location to a local hospital, staying with her for several hours, driving two hours out of their way to get her car back to her residence, and finally driving themselves home.




 

Dave had promised Julie a hiking trip the following day to Bergen Peak, a local 9708’ mountain, and after a good night’s sleep, he rallied. (This is what diehard outdoors folks do.) Not only was I happy to stay home for a day of rest, but work gave me no choice.  Julie – who is seriously thwarted by the lack of mountains in Louisiana – was thrilled to spend another day in Colorado’s spectacular out-of-doors.


We had one final day for skiing and headed back to Eldora. By now, the snow conditions had deteriorated significantly, but we weren’t to be deterred. As I explored alternative easy trails, Julie took off on snowshoes to find the cabin at the top of the Tennessee Mountain (part of the Eldora ski resort area). Although the map in the lodge showed a trail and the staff encouraged her to try it, that area had not benefited from the grooming or foot traffic of other trails. It provided exactly what she came looking for: another physically challenging adventure on a different type of equipment. She broke trail up the mountainside until a cabin (hut) came into view. Stumbling upon fresh large bear tracks next to fresh baby bear tracks – not a reassuring sight when alone in the wilderness sans bear spray – she made a beeline back to the lodge. Upon her return, it was a bit disconcerting that the staff grilled her on the conditions up there, suggesting that perhaps she’d been the only one to venture up there for a while.



I had been disappointed that the annual January cross-country ski trip to Maine had been cancelled. But truth be told, it was probably for the better, giving my knee two extra months of PT before testing it on cross-country skis. Not only had we spent several memorable days enjoying the beauty of Colorado in the company of great friends, but I came home with a sense of relief and triumph that I could still enjoy cross-country skiing.









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