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.

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