March 23, 2022

Final Hurrah of the Skison: Steamboat, Bluebird Backcountry, and Avalanche Preparedness

This weekend, I headed out to the mountains – but not to the Vail Valley. Instead, my boyfriend and I headed out to the Steamboat Springs area, where we spent Friday skiing Steamboat resort, and Saturday and Sunday trying out backcountry skinning / skiing… and taking an avalanche preparedness course (AIARE1).

Friday at Steamboat was awesome. By the time we dropped Sadie off at “doggie camp” (her amazing boarding facility) and made the beautiful drive out to Steamboat, we didn’t get on the mountain until about 10:30am. I was a little bummed we were so late, since we were having to pay for lift tickets. Steamboat is on the Ikon pass, where we have the Epic pass, so that meant each ticket was a hefty $200 even after a discount from a friend. But then I realized there was something awesome at Steamboat that I hadn’t seen in more than two years: a demo tent!!

I have been wanting to get new skis all season, but was reluctant to buy something without trying it. While rental shops have demo options, you then have to schlep back and forth between the lift and the shop, and I don’t think it’s worth it. In comparison, I love when manufacturers host demo days on the mountain, with skis and tools right at the base of the lift so you can swap skis between runs. This weekend, Stockli had set up a demo tent right at the base of the gondola – and it was totally free for Chase Sapphire cardholders (which hooray, I am)! We immediately grabbed some new skis and headed up.

While we didn’t really know where we were going on the mountain, we picked some black trails that looked fun, and the two-run route we did ended up being perfect for demos: Concentration (powdery bumps) to Lower Concentration (groomer), up a chair, then Valley View (steep racing) to Lower Valley view (icy bumps) back to the base to swap skis. That pretty much covered every type of terrain except trees, so it was a great way to see how the skis performed in all conditions.

And the verdict? I fell in love with the Stockli Nela 80s – they executed well everywhere, and they were so light and fun! I had a huge smile on my face the whole time I was wearing them… and it probably didn’t hurt that they allowed me to finally beat my boyfriend down several runs 😄 I ended up skiing them all day long, not returning them until the lifts closed, and exchanging contact info with the demo guy to buy a pair. I’m in love with these skis, and so excited to take my skiing to the next level with them!

And, I know I can’t choose skis based on looks, but they are BEAUTIFUL! Shiny and and glittery and pink and purple – my inner five year old loves them so much!

After a fun afternoon bombing down the mountain with the Nelas, it was quite a contrast on Saturday morning to head to Bluebird Backcountry and put on a pair of rental skis to go touring. Alpine touring skis have different bindings than downhill skis, and the boots felt super weird to me. There is a setting on the back of the boot that allows you to shift into walk mode, where your ankle can flex to make walking “easier”. However, I’m so used to walking in alpine ski boots, and find my regular ski boots so comfortable, that I actually felt less comfortable in the flexible walk mode – I had quite a bit of waddle to my walk! 😂

But that certainly wasn’t all there was to get used to. I eventually got decent at quickly putting on and taking off my “skins” (pieces of fur that attach to the bottom of your skis so they stick to the snow), but I struggled with actually skinning uphill, which surprised me. I thought being athletic and good at both hiking and skiing would mean I’d have no trouble, but on Saturday, I found myself the absolute slowest in the class. It was not fun, and I got pretty down on myself, especially when the rest of the group was way up ahead and waiting for me. By the time I caught up, the instructor would immediately the group start going again, and it was so demoralizing. It was a clear example of how mindset is so important to performance: when I lose confidence, I perform poorly, which of course just makes me feel even worse, and then perform even more poorly. A vicious cycle!

This panorama, a view of the Far Side bowl from the top of Elkhide Skin Track, cheered me up! Sunny bluebird days always make me smile.

However, the primary purpose of Saturday and Sunday wasn’t to learn how to skin and go backcountry (though that was a side benefit, and I got much better on Sunday). It was to learn how to evaluate terrain, safely choose routes, and navigate avalanche terrain while minimizing risks. I took the course because I want to feel confident going down the Minturn Mile, a sidecountry trail that runs from Vail’s Back Bowls to the Minturn Saloon just down the street from my house. How cool would that be to ski home from Vail rather than having to drive?!

While we didn’t get quite as much practice with rescuing as I expected (I learned there is a separate course for that, which I may take at some point in the future), I left feeling really confident in navigating the CAIC website to gather intel and assess the risks before going into the backcountry, as well as identifying warning signs to make me rethink a plan when I’m out there. I still need more practice identifying aspects (which directions different pitches are facing, which dramatically affects the conditions / risk), but I know how to use that information – and I learned that the OnX Backcountry app has a layer feature that helps with that, which is pretty cool.

We also learned to dig snow pits and evaluate the layers, which I felt reasonably adept at doing by the end. It is a lot of work digging out all that snow though!

I left Bluebird feeling like I had learned a lot… but also realizing that backcountry touring is not really for me. By the end of the weekend, I was better at and genuinely liked skinning up the hills, but I didn’t think the terrain we hiked to was any better than what we’d get at a resort. My favorite terrain is the steep stuff, but the current avalanche danger in Colorado means you have to avoid slopes over 30°. I also love big bumps, but moguls are generally created by lots of people skiing them – not as plentiful in the backcountry. And on tree runs, even in the resorts I’m always a little worry about light coverage and hitting a downed log; that risk seems heightened in the backcountry where there’s no ski patrol clearing terrain. All in all, for me, the risk benefit isn’t there. Sign me up for the chairlifts!

Bluebird is unique in that it’s a backcountry “resort” – no chairlifts but all the terrain is assessed and mitigated so there’s less risk. This chair at the base was funny for a photo, but I think I am going back to resorts with actual working chairlifts 😉

I was especially glad I was able to get out this weekend and put some hard work in since I’m about to go into a bit of a lockdown. Next week, I’m starting stimulation meds in order to freeze my eggs. And during the procedure, for about three weeks, I’m not really allowed to do any exercise 😱

Exercise has always been a great way for me to relieve stress. While I listened with avid interest to Ali on the Run’s podcast with psychotherapist Stephanie Roth Goldberg, who cautioned against developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise by making it the only tool in your kit for stress relief, I think I usually do okay on that front. But not being able to exercise for three weeks is pretty disheartening – especially since I’ll likely feel pretty bloated and icky during that time, something I would normally exercise to combat.

The other factor in the procedure is that if I test positive for COVID, everything stops and they won’t do the egg retrieval surgery. On the bright side, I’m not on any kind of rush timeline to get this done – I’m freezing my eggs to give myself options, and evidently my fertility is currently that of a 25 year old (yay!). But it would really suck to put myself through all the hormones, plus the massive financial cost of it all, only to have to do it all again if I get COVID!

So, as of Monday, I went on lockdown and am not going out or seeing friends, to limit my potential exposure up until the retrieval. I’m trying not to be nervous about the next few weeks, reminding myself that I totally thrived in March / April 2020 when I didn’t see anyone for weeks. This is much less time than that, but I’m bummed that this time I won’t have exercise as an outlet, especially when I anticipate the hormones are going to be driving me batty. Instead, I’m hoping to get a lot of reading done, and perhaps some spring cleaning if I’m feeling up to it on the meds. Fingers crossed it goes well 🤞


2 thoughts on “Final Hurrah of the Skison: Steamboat, Bluebird Backcountry, and Avalanche Preparedness”

  1. Not too shabby all that you accomplish even when you must switch to low gear. I’m sure without your multiple coveted exercise routines, you will fill your days with productivity and new discoveries as your penchant for “making it count” will persist. Love, Mom

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