In the past few seasons, Mother Nature and the Rocky Mountains have ditched their unpredictable ways to bring us holiday powder with frightening consistency. Sometimes the storms come early, sometimes they fall right on Christmas Day itself, but there’s an undeniable cheer in the air when visitors and locals and everyone in between receives the gift of fresh. Right now, all the major weather seers — NOAA, The Weather Channel, Open Snow — are predicting snow from today through Christmas Day. Hopefully saying so didn’t just doom us all to mediocre snowfall, but hey, if Joel Gratz and everyone else say snow is on the way, I’ll hold onto hope.
If Mother Nature is listening, you haven’t let us down in December for a while. Please don’t start now. Last season, one of my best days of riding came on Dec. 23 after a massive snowstorm dumped more than a foot across the High Country, including my former stomping grounds of Vail. That was enough to fill in the Minturn Mile, a fun little trek from the far west end of Vail Mountain to the far east end of Minturn, the tiny former railroad town nestled between Dowd Junction and Battle Mountain on the way to Leadville.
I usually refer to the Mile as the “green run of the backcountry,” a mellow (and lift-accessed) excursion that takes all of 45 minutes from start to finish. But man, for 45 minutes last Dec. 23 it was sublime. That wasn’t the first legitimate snowstorm of the season, but it was the first time I had the chance to sneak away from work long enough for midweek powder turns. Talk about opening your gifts early.
And man, the gifts were good. I won’t tell you what route we took — sorry, giving that up would get me tarred and feathered — but my group of about five was able to find untracked powder through the entire first half, only to be greeted with a whip-fast luge track in the bottom half. There wasn’t another soul in sight — not at the Beaver Ponds, not anywhere.
By the time we reached Magustos on Main Street for $2 beers, no one spoke much. Instead we all wore stupid-huge grins, the kind I usually see on doe-eyed couples just a month into a relationship — the “honeymoon phase,” a friend calls it. The euphoria wore off after a while and we came back to reality, beers and all, but the feeling of floating through untouched meadows and tree-filled gulleys hung in the air. It was some kind of Christmas spirit, minus the tinsel and lights. Well, unless the bar’s pinball machine counts.
Like most mountain-town residents, I rarely celebrate Christmas (or any other December holiday) on the same schedule as the rest of the world, or at least the world according to Clark Griswold’s fairytale Christmas. Right now is easily the busiest time of year for local employees, from lifties and ski instructors to servers and bartenders and the folks who run dogsledding operations. That means tradition takes on a whole new meaning: Christmas dinner gets bumped to your day off (whenever that is), gift exchanges get spread across two or three weeks, work calls for help on your one day off after a 10-day stint, but it’s all good, they’re paying time and a half and rent is coming up in a week.
Living and working in a winter resort town forces people to find new traditions, but I’ve never thought that’s cause for mourning the old ones. Call me a sap, but Christmas is a fantastic excuse to reconnect with whatever makes you tick, whether that’s family or friends, or all the luscious powder outside. I grew up in Denver, so unlike a lot of transplanted residents from every corner of everywhere, I usually have the good fortune to see my immediate family for Christmas. It’s a tradition I enjoy — “Presence, not presents,” my mom always said — and it’s one I still try to make, like watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” at some point.
It’s definitely easier to keep the film tradition going. Two seasons ago, Christmas Eve brought another round of two-foot snowstorms to the Central Rockies. I had already committed to seeing my family for Christmas, but I didn’t need to be in town until 6 p.m. and Game Creek Bowl in Vail was calling my name. I went out by myself for a few runs through Lost Boy trees, just to see if the snow was worth it.
It absolutely was. I soon let myself get lost finding new, untracked lines, and suddenly it was 1 p.m. No worries, I thought. I can still beat the rush home.
But two jack-knifed semis had other plans. I spent about five hours in traffic with the rest of the holiday faithful, alternately cursing my luck and reminding myself it was my own damn fault. I could have left early before the storm reached a fever pitch. Or, on the other hand, I could’ve called my mom to say I’d miss Christmas Eve with everyone. I came close to complaining about my dedication to the old tradition.
But that wouldn’t be fair to anyone. Why let my powder day and family Christmas be soiled by a few hours in a warm car with good tunes? That’s like Griswold giving up after Uncle Lewis sets his tree on fire. (Better believe I’ll watch that film tonight.) Snow is unpredictable and obnoxious at the same time, just like the best traditions. Here’s hoping Mother Nature makes good on her recent tradition of Christmas snow, but if not, there’s no shame in taking a year off. It’ll make my drive easier.