SKI BUM 2000 IN THE OUTBACK AT KEYSTONE
by David G. Steputis
The definition of "Ski Bum" may have evolved with the advent of the Third Millennium. In the ski areas of Colorado at least you don't find itinerant people living in vans in parking lots, forging tickets and scrounging meals. I mean, there are some of us who "live to ski" who haven't quit our day jobs. We work in the industry, we write and shoot, we sell stock from cell phones on the ride up. We can afford constant equipment upgrades, gas, lunch and alcohol. Seems, these days, it takes money to be a ski bum. Either that or get "comped" in. Which is exactly what Stan, my photographer/ski buddy and I did at Keystone, Colorado. Stan works in the ski industry. Everyone knows him at the areas and a pass for the day is the least they can do for this dedicated pro. Stan has instructed for years and he is a master ski technician. He works out the finer details of carving technique and approaches to the new shaped skis.
I, on the other hand, had been stopped on the gondola alone with a beautiful woman for half an hour a couple years back. They gave us half-price discount cards for a future day to compensate for that traumatic time (joke) and this was my chance to redeem it. I'd gladly suffer that cruel fate again for a twenty-five dollar ticket when the going rate is $53.00 (though it's worth every penny).
Thursday the 13th of January seemed a good enough day to go skiing, as it had stormed but serious in the mountains the prior week. Some snow and a lot of wind had laid in some wind packed powder to slopes still starved for cover at this late date. Dry winters suck.
Anyway, the rocks were better covered with dense snow and we'd be able to ski some runs that had just been opened. We headed for the Outback, which is beyond North Peak, which is beyond Keystone Mountain. These three mountains offer a tremendous variety of terrain and are linked together by a highly efficient lift system. The overall ski experience is Grade A. 1,861 skiable acres, 5,700 vertical feet; a base elevation of 9,300 feet and the Outback summit is 12,200 feet above sea level. Mostly fast Quad lifts, the aforementioned Gondola, a killer terrain park, the Outpost gondola and major night skiing acreage. A great among the cream of Colorado ski areas.
And the Outback is "way" out there. By the time you get to the top of Outback you feel very remote. You glance gratefully at the ski patrol shack for reassurance rather than hide from them. Major fourteeners in some very picturesque backcountry surround you. This is one of the most removed, challenging, ski environments in the Rockies. Imagine medium steep, no easy way down, mostly diamonds. Imagine skiing under the lift, excellent, well-spaced bumps in glades of trees. Imagine a helmet. There is a main, blue run down called Star Fire but even it has a unique aspect. The run is split bumps on one side, groomed on the other. Gappers get a chance to watch bumpers and can try the edge of the field. Groups with both can ski together.
Mirkwood is a trail that characterizes the Outback at Keystone. The bumps were in early season formation and weren't risen to their eventual heights. Still the spacing was reasonable and navigable by medium radius turns. I have always loved taking a bit of a ramp off a mogul, jumping the trough and dropping in on the downside of the next bump. Smoothes out the ride - if you dare - and allows wider radius turns to work in the bumps. The medium-soft moguls on this day also encouraged taking your turns on the tops and staying altogether out of the troughs as they still held some "way too late in the season" rocks.
But the wild thing is doing this all in well-treed glades, not on some challenging, but sterile bump run. Correct me if I am wrong, but you don't ski this everyday. Where else? I'd like to know. Here if you blow out, loose a ski, fall back or whatever, you're looking at wood. Again, helmets required. And other than the perma hat-hair you get from them, a great idea. Don't loose your mind; wear a helmet!
Stan and I got the shots you see here, but nothing does justice to the experience except to be there. Outback is a unique, "beyond Expert" area. You want your bump technique down. And you want to stick together. Last chair into the place is 3:00. Last chair out is 4:00 and there are thousands of trees to hide a downed skier and a blanket of snow to dampen their cries. This is buddy-system country, big time. Sure, your faithful men in red sweep it, butà
After a few runs though other Outback territory we headed back to the Outpost and took a quick lunch. True to original ski bum form Stan and I pack sandwiches. I find tortillas a good substitute for bread, which is going to get squished anyway. Mostly the "take your sandwich idea" is about speed. If I'm going to do much sitting, it'll be on the lift. Keystone though offers world-class food service. At the Outpost lodge at the top of North Peak you have North America's highest gourmet restaurant, the Alpenglow Stube. Lesser options exist too. It's one of those astonishing, huge lodges, all wood, rock and a stupendous fireplace. Coffee, apple and a beer: ten bucks. Sandwich: priceless. Okay, I am a ski bum.
Descending Keystone Mountain to the River Run gondola is a smooth, well-covered blast, no rocks or ice. With 150 acres under advanced snowmaking systems, dry winter or not, Keystone has base. Blue/black cruisers galore for the bump-weary knees. And there before us, the Jackwhacker Terrain Park. Now the sign says, "Recommended: Expert snowboarders" and the entry gates sets the experience off even further. But compulsive airman me, skis and all, I'm in.
New Colorado laws have laid the responsibility for skiers and boarders clearly upon themselves. I'm not sure of the legal wording, but the area can't be held liable for accidents common to ski activities. So now the guys working for the area go nuts and build perfect, big-air jumps, one after the other down this little valley. This is stuff I hadn't seen since the 70's before personal injury suits shut down the fun for a generation. The jumps have, I'd say, fifteen-foot ramps. They table out for ten to fifteen feet then drop away into perfect outruns.
Coming into these monster ramps at about twenty knots, this weekend hero flys the tabletop and glides through a mindless flight, coming down with nary a slap. I pull it over, bend down and try not to throw-up for all the adrenaline torquing my forty-year-old bod. I'd done an easy thirty feet in the air, maybe fifteen feet up. The tabletop minimizes your height off the snow, but I was just holding it together in a slightly tucked tip-drop. I'll wait 'til next week to throw something. And despite one hard-pack slapper on a bad line though jump number three, two and four were just as sweet, seductive and screaming as number one. Whew!
Now here's fun. End of day. Outback lifts closing, last ride out on Wayback lift. Sun going down. You are beat. Exit lift at top of North Peak. Pull in to the Outpost lodge. Contemplate a five star dinner in the Stube. Pass. Settle for a beer and fondue. Hang. Pull it together for one more, major ride. Catch the Outpost gondola back to the top of Keystone Mountain. It's dark, it's cold, the stars are out and the lights are on. Have yellow or other light color lenses. Have your helmet. Hit it down the hill for a non-stop, follow-the-leader joyride. Go fast. Be careful. Watch out for ice, newbies and patrol. So what if they pull your ticket, itÆs the last run, but I think there might even be fines now. Do some major GS jams down the well-lit, surreal landscape. Remember to breathe, this is a 2340-foot run starting at 11,660 feet. Thighs burning. Series of tight carves. Finally finding the rails on your skis in the minimalist dark. Come winging in with your buddies at the base and congratulate each other on a day well seized. Keystone, North Peak, the Outback, way too much fun.