During the day, the mountain slopes belong to the skiers and snowboarders, both local and out-of-town, riding the lifts up and cruising down. But once the lifts slow and stop and the sky goes dark, a new shift takes over. Snowmakers, groomers and snowcat drivers take to the slopes to get things done before a new day begins.
Lizzy Schofield is in her fifth year of snowmaking for Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, and the Michigan native says she loves the job. It’s a demanding schedule, with shifts stretching 2 p.m. to midnight, midnight to 10 a.m. or sometimes 12-hour stretches throughout the night.
Schofield and her fellow snowmakers are especially busy in the early part of the year, when resorts are looking to open before nature has decided to fully commit to winter.
“It’s pretty fun on Opening Day, when you know you wouldn’t be open normally. You did all this work, everyone is out there having a great time,” she said. “It’s because you were there in the middle of the night.”
In addition to positioning and running the snow guns, Schofield and her colleagues have to be on hand in case of mechanical failure, and to keep an eye on things throughout the night. Depending on the time of year and conditions, they access the guns by truck, snowmobile or snowcat.
At night, resort employees might also clear snow out of the parking lot, or drive the snowcat up the mountain to deliver food to the restaurants on the peaks. Lindsay Smith, who also works at A-Basin, has done all of these things. The snowcats are actually pretty warm and cozy inside, she shared, and it’s true that coffee is a nighttime worker’s best friend.
“It’s really cool up there; there’s no lights, it’s not real lit up, so if it’s a clear night, it’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s so peaceful, it’s really breathtaking. It really can change your experience of a mountain just working a night shift and seeing what happens when no one’s around.”
Schofield agreed that the nighttime view is one of the best parts of the job.
“You see the most amazing moonlit nights and starlit nights and sunrises that a lot of other people don’t get to see or enjoy, and that’s pretty awesome. Those are the best nights,” she said. “It’s definitely a hard job, but most of us like it. I think we feel real lucky to be out on the mountain when no one else is.”
WHAT TO DO
If skiing and riding all day hasn’t worn you out, there are plenty of ways to get your activity fix under moonlight and starlight, ranging from relaxing and enjoying fireworks to working up a sweat skinning back up the mountain in the pre-dawn chill to claim first tracks.
MOONLIGHT SNOWSHOE TOUR
When snow covers the hiking trails, snowshoes come to the rescue, offering a way into the quiet, beautiful spaces found across Summit County. While daytime use can be fun, taking the snowshoes out at night offers a unique experience, especially this far away from city lights.
Scott Nixon has been a volunteer ambassador at Copper Mountain Resort since 2006. He conducts snowshoe tours on the mountain, as well as monthly moonlight snowshoe tours once a month during the full moon, when conditions are right.
While Nixon enjoys giving the tours during the daytime, he said that the full moon treks are something special.
“The night sky is really one of the reasons to go, because you don’t hear any traffic up there. There’s no ambient light from Copper or anywhere else,” he said. “It’s really impressive.”
The trek, which requires no prior experience, leaves from West Village and heads up toward Vail Pass in a 3-mile loop. At the farthest point of the loop is a large meadow, where the group stops to watch the full moon rise over the Tenmile mountain range.
Moonlight reflecting off the snow illuminates the night well enough that headlamps and other flashlights aren’t necessary, Nixon said, though he and other tour leaders do have them just in case.
The trip, which usually takes around three hours, could be a family activity for those with older children, or add a romantic element for any couples.
Copper offers snowshoe rentals for those who don’t have them. Layers of clothing are the best to dress in, according to Nixon, and sturdy boots are preferable to tennis shoes. Nixon added that the full moon tours nearly always reach capacity and recommended that people reserve their spots ahead of time. Dates for the moonlight tours can be found at the Copper Mountain website(www.CopperColorado.com).
Other similar moonlight tours around the county can be found at the Keystone Nordic Center and the Gold Run Nordic Center in Breckenridge.
Sometimes, even a full day on the mountain still isn’t enough to scratch that skiing or riding itch. Fortunately, Keystone Resort has snow junkies covered with its night-skiing operations. During the peak of the season, Keystone keeps its lifts running until 8 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday. Large lights illuminate the runs, but there aren’t enough to dim the starry views that accompany cloudless nights.
Zach Griffin, a Summit local for more than 10 years and a former pro snowboarder, said he loves the opportunity to take his board out at night.
“Before I moved here to (Colorado) I had never been riding at night. … There is nothing quite like the feeling. The runs seem totally different,” Griffin, who also goes by the nickname Z Griff, wrote in an email. “It’s less about going here or there and more about what is directly under foot and in front of you. … If you are lucky enough to get snow it can be the most fun you’ve ever had.”
These nighttime hours aren’t restricted to skiers and snowboarders either. Those whose muscles are a bit sore can tackle the Keystone tubing hill at night as well, and still get the feel of the cool night wind whipping across their face.
But sometimes, taking it easy is just not an option. For anyone of the more adventurous persuasion, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area offers uphill access during non-operating hours. That means on full moon nights, or in the pre-sunset hours, people are welcome to break out their splitboards, pull the skins over their skis or strap on their snowshoes and make their way up the mountain under their own power, “earning their turns,” as the locals say. The resort also allows well-behaved dogs that remain under voice control to accompany their adventurous owners during off-hours recreating. All else that’s required is an uphill access pass. Those are free and available at the season pass office during operating hours. Uphill access passes attained in previous years are also valid.
Those who are tired of ski or snowboard boots can feel free to strap on a pair of ice skates and pirouette the night away at the Keystone Lake or the Dercum Square Ice Rink at River Run Village. On “Glowbug Mondays” there’s even the option for glow sticks.
If you think the mountains are majestic in daylight, wait until you see the snowy slopes lit up by fiery explosions in the sky. Fireworks are a routine part of resort life during the winter. Copper Mountain sets them off for Christmas, New Years and the WinterBike race in January.
Keystone Resort is arguably the king of fireworks, with fiery displays occurring over River Run Village every Saturday throughout the winter season.
Torch parades are a long-standing tradition in ski towns. To pull them off, a crew of brave and enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders light flares at the top of the mountain and hold them aloft as they make their way back down the slopes. The result is a river of fire that amazes from afar. They can be witnessed at Copper Mountain at Christmas and New Years, and also at Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort on New Years.