Monday, 9 February 2015

Colorado calling

"I'm leaving on a jet plane,
Don't know when I'll be back again.
Oh babe, I hate to go."

With my bags packed and these words from John Denver ringing in my ears, today I'm saying farewell to the slopes of Colorado.

It's been my second visit to the US state and another chance to explore more of the many ski fields it has to offer.

Featuring large international resorts like Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, along with smaller "local mountains" like Copper Mountain and Keystone, you can barely move here without tripping over a ski hill.

Surprisingly, skiing in Colorado is different compared to other snowy destinations.

Sure, it's got the snow, but it's the type of skiing, environment and surrounding towns that make Colorado stand out.

Here's a few ways Colorado skiing is different:

1.  You get high
With Southern Rocky Mountain elevations of more than 3,000 metres above sea level, you're considerably higher than ski resorts in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

For some this means a healthy dose of altitude sickness when they first arrive.  For me, it means a constant shortage of breath, whether it's walking up short flight of stairs or through the supermarket.

Breckenridge - proudly home to the highest ski lift in North America

Heading down from that lift
2.  You get high (part two)
Since my last visit, Colorado has legalised marijuana so a few cannabis cafes have sprung up.  Sure, there's always been an acrid whiff of pot around ski lifts, but now that seems to have grown into a cloud of smoke hanging over the state.  You smell it corridors, walking along the street, on the bus and on people's clothes.

3.  Sunshine on my shoulders
The local guide tells me Colorado gets almost 300 days of sunshine a year, yet it also manages to be one of the snowiest places in the US with annual snowfalls of up to nine metres.  On this visit, there were a few sunny days when the temperature crept up above zero (never a good thing for snow), but on the plus side I do enjoy seeing where I'm going when skiing.

4.  Tree-lined runs
Many places have tree-lined ski runs, with the resorts in the US and Canada known for their network of trails among the pine forests.  In Colorado, they not only have the usual pine trees, but they also have forests of aspen trees, which have a luminous bark in the snow.   Very pretty.


5.  Rocky Mountains
True to name, there are plenty of jagged peaks, canyons and cliffs in this part of the world.  A dusting of snow makes these all the more dramatic.   On some of the more advanced ski runs, there's also a few rocks peeking through ready to scrape against your rental skis ("That gash was there when I picked the skis up," I claim).

6.  Hoedown throw down
Long before the invasion of skiers and boarders in flash 4WDs ready to pay through the nose for something basic like a soft drink, this was cattle and mining country.  Many of the buildings look like they're remnant sets from a western movie, while it's not unusual to see a few locals skiing in cowboy hats and flannel shirts.

The town of Steamboat Springs with the ski runs as the backdrop
7.  It's dry
The altitude and low humidity means you quickly become a walking ball of static electricity, ready to zap anyone or anything at a moment's notice.  It also means you wake up desperate for a glass of water a few times a night, and have to contend with the occasional nose bleed.

8.  The views
While you're smack bang in the middle of the US, sometimes it feels like are in the middle of nowhere.  You can be standing on top of a mountain and see nothing but rugged peaks and valleys for as far as the eye can see.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Shrines in the snow

"I'm looking for John Denver," I asked one of the Aspen Mountain Ambassadors.

Anywhere else in the world and this request would have justifiably been met with a puzzled look.  After all, John sadly died almost two decades ago.

But without missing a beat, Ambassador Kyle jumped on his skis and led me towards a blue run called "Bellissimo".
The view from Aspen Mountain across to Aspen Highlands

Tucked in the trees alongside this run is a peaceful shrine dedicated to the late Colorado singer.

The shrine consists of photos, album covers and other John Denver paraphernalia that fans have left on the trees over the years in remembrance and celebration of the former Aspen local.

The John Denver shrine

It's a quiet little spot among a slightly steep clump of trees that ensures I awkwardly slip and slide my way in for a closer look.

But the John Denver shrine is just one of many hidden among the slopes of Aspen's four ski hills, though most seem to be on Aspen Mountain which towers over the town.

There's shrines to lots of famous people and things, from the Beatles through to Snoopy.

Nobody knows for sure, but the shrines were started years ago by anonymous individuals and evolve over time as people contribute and take items.

They add a surprisingly spiritual and reflective atmosphere to the mountains, and as far as I'm aware are unique to Aspen and its four ski hills.

Aspen Mountain overlooking the town of Aspen

One local, David Wood, has categorised as many as he can find on a website.

But no matter how good a description you may discover for these shrines, asking one of the friendly Aspen Ambassadors to show you is the sure fire way you will actually find them.  After all, there are a lot of trees here.

Kyle then leads me down a black run filled with icy moguls - a run I would not have bothered with by myself.

Here, in a little clearing offering a panoramic outlook over the valley, is the shrine dedicated to Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead.

The Jerry Garcia Shrine
I have to confess that I'm not really familiar with that band, but I can appreciate that this is one of the most substantial shrines on the mountain.

There's photos, lyrics and a even a guitar hanging from a tree.

Guitar hanging at the Jerry Garcia Shrine
To complete the picture, when we arrive two old stoners are sitting on a log smoking a joint and taking a swig from the whiskey bottle they brought.   I quietly hope I don't encounter their boozed and high skiing later on.

They read some Grateful Dead lyrics to me as if they were the words of Shakespeare and I fake enthusiasm about how profound they are.

My next shrine stop is not dedicated to a person or group, but to an event; the 9/11 attacks in New York.

This shrine is visible from the nearby ski runs, particularly a large engraved wooden sign.

The 9/11 Shrine on Aspen Mountain
Tributes to the firemen involved in 9/11
Apparently there are almost 75 shrines in the trees on Aspen's four ski hills.

The people who started them did not intend for them to be tourist attractions and there are no maps pointing out their locations.

Instead, inspired by the beautiful natural landscape, they simply created spots to pause and remember someone or something that was dear to them.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ice cube art

So apparently ice isn't just for your drink and snow isn't just for skiing.

This is what I've learnt this evening inspecting the results of this year's International Snow Sculpture Championships, here in Breckenridge.

The Championships featured 16 teams from as far afield as Mongolia and Ukraine.  Each four-person team started started with a giant cube of compacted snow and had four days to transform it into a work of art.

Unable to use power tools, the teams took hold of saws, picks, cheese graters and a host of other utensils - all while working day and night when temperatures were sinking as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Sadly this entry didn't stand the test of time, and also serves a reminder of how all these beautiful snow sculptures will end up.

Team Germany with "Earth, Life and Sun"
While the winners have been announced, which one is your pick?

Team China with "Winter Fishing"
Team Catalunya with "El Vol de l'Home Ocell"
Team USA - Virginia with "The Bear and the Fish"
Team Argentina with "Don Quijote"

Team Breckenridge with "The Sculptor"
Team France with "Always in Love"

Team Ukraine with "Doves of Peace"

Team Mongolia with "On the Way to the Dream"

Team USA - Vermont with "Explosion"

Team Mongolia - Munkh-Erdene with Nomadic Culture

People's Choice Winner

Team Alaska with "Alaskan Fish Camp"

Bronze Medal Winner
Team USA - Minnesota with "The Tempest"

Silver Medal Winner
Team Germany with Yantra

Gold Medal Winner
Team Lithuania with "The Wind of Eternal Change"