Cresting Red Mountain Pass predawn on opening day, a light skim of new snow reminded me that it would soon be time to replace the summer tires. But not quite yet, surely. It was only October.
Down to Silverton, then west, up and over Molas Pass, the peaks all pale silhouettes. Then south down into the Animas River Valley (the River of Lost Souls) past Purgatory and Hermosa and the sagebrush country surrounding Durango. East, and the hay bales still dotted the fields outside Bayfield. Then we were winding, climbing again through sweet-smelling ponderosa pines. Pagosa Springs for coffee, then up alongside the sun-bronzed San Juan River toward its source near Wolf Creek Pass.
Opening day at Wolf Creek traditionally comes at the end of the month around Halloween. Other Colorado areas duke it out for earliest opening date in the state. Typically Keystone and Loveland Basin race one another for bragging rights, if nighttime snowmaking temperatures cooperate, and open a single stripe of white under the lifts by the second or third week in October. Wolf Creek doesn't have any snowmaking. It doesn't have any quad chairs, either. Or any lodging. And the nearest freeway is about 3 hours away. But its perch on the Continental Divide in the eastern San Juans usually means good early-season sliding. Storms funnel up from the southwest and pour through a low spot in the ridge. Most years, the area's 12,000-foot-high summit gets generously pummeled even when the rest of the state is reduced to blowing flakes.
So when friends rang last fall in the days before All Hallows ("Fifty-one inches outta this last storm. They're opening Friday!"), we agreed to meet for Wolf Creek's debut. Which was, in every practical sense, crazy. These friends were coming from northern New Mexico, and my buddy and I would be driving 3 1/2 hours each way from Ridgway on the other side of the San Juans, a rough jumble of interconnected ranges approximately the size of Switzerland. But the call felt very nearly instinctive, like the force driving the flights of geese we'd seen recently winging south. And to skiers who have been off snow for a few months the definition of crazy may warp toward the perfectly sensible.
On the drive, I recalled the wonderful introductory chapter to the 1972 New York Times Guide to Ski Areas U.S.A. Long-time Times ski writer Michael Strauss described a scene in a prewar Vermont general store in which a clutch of woolly natives sit around the potbelly stove and speculate that weekenders from New York and Connecticut, "crazy outsiders," might not be ski enthusiasts at all but rather Nazi spies.
"Would you drive 250 miles each way over icy roads just to put a pair of skis on your feet so you could go out and freeze?" the shoemaker asks rhetorically. "Course not! Doesn't seem natural. Them fellows must be up to something else."
For most of the drive to Wolf Creek, the evidence outside didn't indicate a ski day. Except for the highest peaks, there was no snow in sight. The temperature hovered at an Indian-summerish 48 degrees. Kayakers still paddled the slalom course through downtown Durango. But up at the ski area, on the lee side of that favored high saddle, spruce trees looked like snowcones and the cafeteria roof supported a 4-foot-thick mushroom cap. A front-end loader snorted to clear snow from the dirt parking lot. And kids in baggy jeans and high tops shoveled paths around the groaning picnic tables on the deck. The place pulsed with license plates from Durango, Telluride, Alamosa, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We found our friends from Taos up to their hips in heavy powder underneath the Treasure chair. Taos doesn't generally crank up until after Thanksgiving, so they have made the one-day pilgrimage to Wolf Creek a near-religious ritual for 15 years now.
Familiar faces and outfits and ski bases popped in and out of a lingering fog. Happy voices bubbled in the liftlines, cheered the occasional deep-snow ejectto, double-release flying face plant. Suspended in a chair above, Davy Pitcher, scion of Wolf Creek's owner Kingsbury Pitcher, waggled his telemark skis and smiled his approval.
We were all family, the clan of the fast sliding boards. Each of us what Michael Strauss would call an "enthusiast. The problems he may have left behind cannot catch up with him."
Everything but the remote Waterfall area and the Glory Hole cornice was open and quickly tracked out, though there remained pockets of undisturbed powder, like meat on a pre-Thanksgiving bone, long into the afternoon. Lunch happened out of fanny packs on the lifts, or out of brown paper bags, if it happened at all. Following a last, slow ramble through the cake-dense trees of Tranquility, we called it a day: sated, spent, glowing.
On the road again, autumn quickly returned: meadows still more green than gold, rain on the windshield and swatches of cottonwood color electric against a charcoal sky. It made us feel like spies from the land of winter. "Crazy outsiders" who had stolen a glimpse of the deep white that will only later grip the larger landscape. In the pits of our stomachs (and in certain thigh muscles and butt muscles underused for a while) we carried the wordless secrets of the season to come.