Destinations: Alternate Universe

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There's an itty-bitty knoll

atop the Outback Express quad that divides the two worlds of Keystone. Below the knoll lies the relaxing, groomed green and blue runs for which Keystone is famous. Above it hides the untouched, largely ignored bowls and trees of the Outback. The hike to the top of the knoll takes only a minute, about as long as the climb from the bathrooms back up to the bar in the base lodge, but few skiers make it.

Crest that knoll and a panorama opens. There's almost as much terrain here as in the rest of Keystone. The vast expanse of South Bowl spreads around to the right, the equally vast expanse of North Bowl spreads off to the left. Straight ahead, a broad ridge separates the two bowls, descending first to a shallow saddle, then making a long, curving climb to the right. The Outback presents several options: Peel left immediately and enter the trees of North Bowl, where soft powder lasts for days. Veer right and slip off South Bowl's wind lip into a small, vest-pocket bowl of steep bumps. Or schuss straight ahead, through the gate that leads to the top of the Outback, and begin the climb that leads to the tops of the bowls themselves, where vast fields of snow lie typically untracked, perfectly pitched for powder.

Sara Schmitz was hiking this brave new world and thinking how foolish this was. The windpacked powder around her was frozen into wavy lines and had the crunchy consistency of cardboard. The ridge itself was nearly deserted; only a few skiers and snowboarders were making the trek ahead of her.

But she was determined to ski here. Her desire was fueled by the stranger she'd just met on the lift¿me. I had raved about the huge expanse of mountainside just out of sight from the lift. I had marveled about how it was almost untouched by skier or rider. Soft powder in the trees! First tracks up in the bowls! Sara wanted some of that, too. She wanted to feel the rush of skiing she once knew at Mammoth and Lake Tahoe. So she climbed on.

After 15 minutes we stopped just below the highest point in the Outback, on the ridge between the vast North and South Bowls. Gray clouds raced across the sun, and the wind blew steadily, pelting us with icy crystals. We looked around and saw that we were the only two skiers above tree line. The patrol had closed the Outback gate behind us; the snowboarders had dived into South Bowl and sped out of sight. Just like that, at one of the busiest resorts in North America, we were completely alone.

Fear gripped Sara as her skis knifed roughly through the windpack in North Bowl, each ski cutting its own deep trench. She struggled to force her skis to turn; the windpack locked each one into its own trajectory. By the time she arrived at tree line, though, where soft powder made the skiing easier, Sara had managed to lay down two roughly parallel curving lines. Her run wasn't exactly pretty, but she had managed the descent. Mission accomplished. Sara basked in the moment before we dropped through the pines and fir in the soft, knee-deep snow, then hurtled along the gully that returns to the quad. By the time we reunited with her family, Sara was ecstatic.

She was still bubbling two months later when we talked on the phone. "It was fun to step outside my comfort zone," she said. "I wanted to go back and do it again with a little more grace and style and a little less fear."

"I'll be honest with you," she said, "skiing the Outback was my story. It gave me a story to tell for a long time."

I know, it's hard to believe that this kind of experience exists at Keystone, the land of baby-bottom-smooth cruisers. That reputation fits the broad and relatively flat peak of Keystone the mountain perfectly. But Keystone the ski area encompasses three ski mountains, one behind the next. Long bump runs bolt straight down the fall line on North Peak, next in line to Keystone mountain. A slew of intermediate glades and expert tree runs complement the vast bos in the Outback, which is last in line. Somehow, the additions of North Peak and the Outback, occurring about 10 and five years ago respectively, have remained off most skiers' radar.

I first skied the Outback two years ago with Stewart Booker, then the manager of the Surefoot shop in Keystone's River Run village and the ace boot fitter at Skiing's annual boot test.Despite having a full-time job, Stewart had spent plenty of time scouting the Outback.

Six inches of snow had fallen overnight, and we began the morning by hiking to South Bowl. We dropped off the wind lip and found the snow soft and deep. Each of us split open large patches of untouched powder. Twenty or so high-speed turns sent us powering into the widely spaced Tele Trees, where the steady pitch eased into a series of rolls.

As we descended, the snow became heavier. It remained soft enough in the shadows, but where the sun shone through, the snow had turned to mush. We'd float one turn, muscle the next. Sometimes the light and texture changed midturn, demanding immediate adjustments. I found myself focusing intently on the snow, barely noticing the trees at all. The combination of heavy snow and flat terrain eventually forced us into the narrow, banked exit line, and we bobsledded back to the lift.

Seeking better snow, on our next run we bushwhacked our way through the very tight spaces of Timberwolf, The Black Forest, and Bushwacker, all in the north-facing forest right off the quad. This slab of mountain is even less skied than the terrain above the knoll. The snow here was soft, with bumps underneath; we'd pick a line, make 10 or 12 bounding turns with our hearts in our throats, and regroup. The trees gave no room for error or hesitation. We were almost out of the woods when I found four or five turns so steep that my hip brushed the slope. The snow in this line felt bottomless; I don't think anyone had skied here in months. Stewart's hooting, and the sound of branches snapping, told me he had found a similar line.

I found myself yelping and feeling exhilarated as I never had at Keystone. It made me wonder why this terrain remains so unknown and unskied. Perhaps because it's hidden away on the mountains farthest from the base, out of sight from the lifts. Perhaps because there's no single, spectacular feature¿no massively long or steep signature run. At most, the Outback's useful vertical tops out at about 1,500 feet, less if you don't climb.

Perhaps, too, because the ease and kicks of ripping high-speed groomed runs make it easy to find excuses for avoiding even the short hike to the Outback. The wind might be a little too strong, the air a bit nippy, or the snow not quite stellar. At 12,000 feet, it doesn't take much to turn skiers away. I know. I used all those excuses for years.

River Run, Keystone's new slopeside village, is an alternate universe of another kind. A half-dozen large buildings form the core. Ski and snowboard shops, coffee bars, and restaurants occupy the ground floors along the main streets, with condos stacked on the upper floors. The architecture draws on two icons of the West: mining towns and the grand stone-and-log lodges of the national parks. The effect is as much amusement park as anything else, and the buildings are a bit oversized for a mountain village. But as a place to stay or to hang after skiing, it sure beats the parking lot that used to be here.

And when River Run begins to feel a bit too cute, there's always the Goat. The Goat is located in a nondescript white frame building right in the middle of Keystone, half a mile from River Run on Highway 6, but it feels a lot farther away than that.

A handwritten flier on the door announced that local band Big Shark Jackson would be in town in two days, between gigs in Steamboat and Crested Butte. Inside, dim lights revealed rough plaster walls painted a dull burgundy. Cheap chrome barstools with blue plastic seats lined the bar; matching chairs surrounded the tables. A pool table hunkered in a corner, a few steps down from the bar, off to one side of the dance pit. In contrast, a splendidly art deco jukebox sat like a proud centerpiece against one wall. It was stuffed with CDs ranging from Johnny Cash to the Beastie Boys. All in all, the Goat felt an awful lot like a fraternity basement.

The place would be rocking a few nights later when Big Shark Jackson was there, but on this early April night, there were only three or four regulars at the bar¿like finals week at the frat. The young guy slouching on the barstool next to me was wearing a grimy down vest, shabby flannel shirt, and faded old jeans ripped open from midthigh to below the knees. Showing through these gaping holes were old-fashioned white-cotton waffle-weave long johns.

This was clearly a locals' bar, and Christina, the attractive, sturdily built bartender, sized me up as she served my beer and a bread bowl of French onion soup. I smiled at her jokes and eavesdropped as she dished advice to a lovelorn friend over the phone. Christina's homemade soup was tasty, but the bread was a bit stale. No big deal¿I was there for the atmosphere.

Kickapoo's in River Run is great for an after-ski beer, and the venerable Snake River Saloon remains my favorite spot for dinner and drinks. But The Goat is the place to party. And incidentally, this is the place to meet someone who knows the best stashes in the Outback.

My best run in the Outback came late one afternoon¿the very same run that introduced Sara to the bowls. I had let Sara go first, because I wanted to be polite for a change and because I felt a little guilty for getting her in over her head. I was skiing on my Chubbs, which transform all manner of nasty snow intoeasily managed powder; Sara was on a pair of narrow-waisted shaped skis. I watched until she made it to the relative safety of the trees and then pushed off. At first I skimmed the surface, barely scratching the windpack. But as the slope drained toward the heart of the bowl, the snow became progressively softer until I was swinging easy arcs in light pow, alone on the slope. It was exciting and also calming; I was flowing easily through an immense space that seemed to roll on forever. I savored what seemed like several minutes, an afternoon perhaps, suspended in the powder, weaving my way down. Eventually, I arrived at tree line and became aware of Sara, standing a few feet away in her blue suit. Slowly, I came back to my senses.

I have thought of this day often since then, in part because I've never duplicated it. But that's okay. I now know what's possible in Keystone's alternate universe, and I know I'll find my way back again.


Go to Destination: Keystone.chairs surrounded the tables. A pool table hunkered in a corner, a few steps down from the bar, off to one side of the dance pit. In contrast, a splendidly art deco jukebox sat like a proud centerpiece against one wall. It was stuffed with CDs ranging from Johnny Cash to the Beastie Boys. All in all, the Goat felt an awful lot like a fraternity basement.

The place would be rocking a few nights later when Big Shark Jackson was there, but on this early April night, there were only three or four regulars at the bar¿like finals week at the frat. The young guy slouching on the barstool next to me was wearing a grimy down vest, shabby flannel shirt, and faded old jeans ripped open from midthigh to below the knees. Showing through these gaping holes were old-fashioned white-cotton waffle-weave long johns.

This was clearly a locals' bar, and Christina, the attractive, sturdily built bartender, sized me up as she served my beer and a bread bowl of French onion soup. I smiled at her jokes and eavesdropped as she dished advice to a lovelorn friend over the phone. Christina's homemade soup was tasty, but the bread was a bit stale. No big deal¿I was there for the atmosphere.

Kickapoo's in River Run is great for an after-ski beer, and the venerable Snake River Saloon remains my favorite spot for dinner and drinks. But The Goat is the place to party. And incidentally, this is the place to meet someone who knows the best stashes in the Outback.

My best run in the Outback came late one afternoon¿the very same run that introduced Sara to the bowls. I had let Sara go first, because I wanted to be polite for a change and because I felt a little guilty for getting her in over her head. I was skiing on my Chubbs, which transform all manner of nasty snow intoeasily managed powder; Sara was on a pair of narrow-waisted shaped skis. I watched until she made it to the relative safety of the trees and then pushed off. At first I skimmed the surface, barely scratching the windpack. But as the slope drained toward the heart of the bowl, the snow became progressively softer until I was swinging easy arcs in light pow, alone on the slope. It was exciting and also calming; I was flowing easily through an immense space that seemed to roll on forever. I savored what seemed like several minutes, an afternoon perhaps, suspended in the powder, weaving my way down. Eventually, I arrived at tree line and became aware of Sara, standing a few feet away in her blue suit. Slowly, I came back to my senses.

I have thought of this day often since then, in part because I've never duplicated it. But that's okay. I now know what's possible in Keystone's alternate universe, and I know I'll find my way back again.


Go to Destination: Keystone.

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