When you look them in the eye
from nearly 13,000 feet, the Colorado Rockies don't tower upward. Instead, they splay before you, a meringue of mountains. Pat Chant stands with his feet nearly straddling the Continental Divide and gives the meringue names: That's the backside of Copper Mountain. Yonder ridge is the rear of Breckenridge. And over there is the Gore Range, where Vail's hiding. Civilization's taming gondolas-and their passengers who jockey for scraps of powder-aren't far away. But here, high on a mountain with Chant's Chicago Ridge Snowcat Tours, the only things racing are the pulses of the nine of us, waiting for the green light to drop into an untouched snowfield. The run-of-the-mill ski day couldn't feel more distant.
Skiers steering toward the usual Summit County suspects brush off little Leadville as a crumb on the roadmap-a former boomtown whose silver veins ran dry long ago. But those who venture off I-70 find that there's yet a little gold in the hills above town, in the form of Chant's sunburst-yellow snowcat and the above-it-all powder turns it accesses.
Each morning the cat pulls away from the lodge at Ski Cooper, a community-owned ski area near Leadville that was founded in 1941 as a training ground for 10th Mountain Division troops. On a cloudless February day we rumble skyward toward Chicago Ridge, to a 12,600-foot col named Snowcat Pass. Chant yanks the hand brake. Honks twice. We pile out onto Colorado's rooftop.
Two national forests and the Continental Divide share three-and-a-half-mile Chicago Ridge. A snowball tossed in one direction eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. One dropped at our feet will dribble into the Pacific, first down the bald bowls below us and then through the pleasantly spaced glades to which we're headed.
Our first run is on Ralph's Rip. "Named after one of our guides, who tore his Achilles' tendon here," says our lead guide, Rich Conway. It's a sobering note. But otherwise, the air is spearmint, and the frost-bangled snow parts in bow-waves before our fat skis, claiming no victims today. So we do it again. And again-yo-yoing up to ridge crests and beating the snowcat down on open slopes. The powder brings smiles, but it's the views that grab the breath straight from our throats. To the west are Colorado's two highest peaks, Elbert (14,433 feet) and Massive (14,421). The tips of Aspen's Maroon Bells peek over a ridge. Jetliners fleeing Denver lance the blue sky, almost close enough to touch.
If you're an expert out to tempt fate on insane steeps, keep driving. Most of the runs in Chicago Ridge's 2,500-acre permit area have a maximum pitch of 28 degrees-not enough to give you "chicken skin," as they say, but ideal for upper intermediates and first-time snowcat skiers. "Our terrain isn't extreme. It's very similar to the Back Bowls at Vail," says Chant, our driver today. Many customers are daytrippers from Copper Mountain, Keystone and the like who want to taste the powder of the unpeopled backcountry without buying climbing skins and laboring uphill. The math here obliges: Nearly 300 inches of snow annually plus a cat that seats just 12 equals zero frenzy to lay down fresh tracks.
Chicago Ridge's Bombardier is a Bentley among snowcats. After each run we sprawl into the bucket seats of its heated and carpeted passenger compartment, gaze out the skylights and regret that we didn't bring more CDs for the stereo. Lunch is another surprise: a sit-down meal of steak just off the grill, baked potatoes and salad. Other days it might be seared tuna or grilled salmon.
Well-fed, we climb back into the cab and cross the Divide for another run. Elk Meadows is nicely pitched, the snow a bit faster than the morning's, and we spoon our turns until the open face yields to a stump yard of trees harvested when Leadville was growing and hungry for timbers. The ghost branches pull a few of us down, but we remain injury-free and enjoy the top enough to rissk them again.
The sun slumps toward Mt. Elbert. We head to Ski Cooper's day lodge, where pitchers of local Boomtown Ale await. Out the window I can see our tracks on the peaks above, which are about to be rouged by alpenglow. But first, I notice, they've turned gold.