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Powder Karma at Monarch | UNITED STATES, COLORADO | 02/14/2008, by Roop
With the huge dump cycles we have been in, a lot of us in the sliding community must have been doing our part to make the world a cooler place to live. Weather it be waiting for a significant other, helping a buddy find a ski in the pow, or letting someone else have the first go at your favorite line, it's all good stuff!!
As a ski instructor I guess I have earned a lot of good powder karma by being patient, picking students up, teaching beginners on big snow days, and all those other things that go along with the job. In the back of my head I was always hoping that all these efforts would come to life in the form of a huge mega dump. In early January of this season I hit the powder karma jackpot on a snow cat trip to Monarch. If you don't want to hear how good it was, then just stop reading here, but if you want to hear how killer Monarch can be on big powder days, then read on.
So with plenty of powder karma saved up between us, my partner in crime, Elna and I loaded up Larry our truck and headed down to Monarch. It was early January and we had heard reports that the continental divide, on which the ski area sits, had been the epicenter of frozen precipitation over the past few weeks. As we headed up the pass from the Arkansas Valley floor, which had only a speckle of snow adorned on it, the walls of snow on the side of the road just got higher and higher. I almost missed the entrance to the parking lot, if for not noticing the Monarch sign hiding behind two big piles of snow.
After finding a space for Larry and getting our gear on, we headed up for a day of checking out what the lift service confines of Monarch had to offer. What we found was plenty of steeps, pow, trees, and no people. With the lack of people, comes the lack of moguls. Now I'm a big fan of bumps, but it was sure nice to hit big clumps of snow that didn't put up a fight, or send you launching into the air.
We started out our tour of the area with a short hike to untouched Gunbarrel. The fresh tracks were well worth the hike, but I recommend this run for last instead of your first because it dumps you right back in the parking lot. Don't worry there will still be freshies to be had in the afternoon.
After a few cool tree runs off the Garfield lift, we headed up the Breeze Way Chair to hit some of Monarchs inbounds hiking terrain. The short jaunt up the Mirkwood Road only takes 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your fitness level. Upon reaching the crest of Mirkwood Bowl we were rewarded with turn after turn of untouched fluff. By the way, as I have failed to mention, it had not stopped puking snow since we were half way up to the ski area, so on our next lap into the bowl, our tracks were completely filled in. With a day of Cat Skiing ahead of us, we reluctantly left the hikeable terrain in hopes of saving our legs for the following day. So off we went to explore the runs off the Panorama Chair.
Elna and I promised ourselves, in an attempt to spare of legs of lactic acid build up, only to do a couple of more runs. This plan went out the door as we took in lap after lap of knee-deep goodness accessed off the Panorama Lift. Each turn through the cathedral of snow drenched trees was like gallivanting from room to room full of your own private stash of pow. Every limb you brushed up against sent a heap of snow cascading down your neck, not a bad thing to have to put up with on a day like today. So after saying "another run" a few more times- by the way my friends tell me it is bad luck to say "one more run,"- we decided to call it good and head down to Salida for the evening.
After taking in some local shops and fare, we negotiated a $39 a night motel room in Salida. With a dumpfest chasing us into our motel room, we were like little kids on Christmas that were too excited to get to sleep, but with visions of deep powder in our heads we finally dreamt into a slumber. I was expecting to wake to milk bottle conditions, but to my surprise we woke up in the early AM to a sky full of stars. Could a blue bird day full of fresh accessed by a cat be in our future?
With a 7-11 caffeine and chocolate buzz we headed up the hill from Salida, as the stars gave way to clear skies and views of the fourteeners of the Collegiate Range. Arriving early, we got prime time free parking right in front of the day skier lodge. In the lodge we meet our guides and the other lucky souls in the Snow Cat Lounge on the third level. We were briefed on safety, snow conditions, and what was in store for the day. One thing that made a big impression on the group was the comment by the guides that "we have received a significant amount of snow and it will sluff and be moving around you." Peeps, shovels, and probes were provided to all that did not own them. So, with anxious smiles on our faces, and anticipation in our legs we headed up to lift to the cat.
It was just a short chug up to Merkwood Bowl in the plush Monarch Snow Cat, which is equipped with comfy seats, a frige full of Gatorade and a tight sound system. To my delight, but not the delight of others, it happened to be pumping out some heavy tunes. Our guides gave us our last safety talk, and we headed into the Staircase Trees for the ski and ride test. These guys really knew where to find the goods, because these chutes were still inbounds and we were hitting knee-deep fresh that was safely sluffing all around us. With everyone passing the so-called test we jumped in the big yellow cat and headed back up for a couple of more inbounds runs. All the while there were bombs going off in the near distant area, only accessed by the cat. The group knew it would soon be on.
So, with only an appetizer of powder floatation in our legs we headed out of Monarch proper. When the cat came to a stop there were no tracks to be seen. Because of the big dump, lack of visibility and avy danger, this bowl had been left untouched the day before. Our guides, who were not only quite knowledgeable of the area, but top gun skiers, assured us the bowl we would be tearing up today was controlled and safe. With a ski cut in the slope and parameters set of our first run, we dropped into 4 feet of fresh one by one. At the bottom we yelled each other on, and greeted our comrades with sinister giggles of guilty pleasure. But, should we feel remorse for what we were taking in? No, I thought to myself, this was just my powder karma train coming in. Back up the hill for another!!
Beginning with skiers right to left we commenced to lay down tracks. The terrain varied from wide-open shots to tight chutes with a few trees thrown in the mix. Each time we ventured higher and higher on the ridgeline in the cat, the slope became steeper and steeper. With the bowl halfway tracked up, it was decided that we were ready for a lunch break, but had time for one more treat. This pre-lunch dessert came in the form of a run on Elation Ridge. This area, which can be accessed by a short hike and is considered inbounds, was totally untracked.
Lunch was served back at the main lodge in the snow cat lounge. With all you can eat Southwestern fixings of pork green chili, and spicy barb-b-que chicken with sides. The feast was on. For dessert we were treated with big dark fudge brownies encrusted in nuts. To top it all off, the southern delicacy of Mt. Dew was served on tap, to keep the crew jacked up for the afternoon.
Back up in our private bowl, we continued to take in more fresh lines. As we entered the twilight of our epic day, the runs just kept on getting better and better, with tighter, steeper chutes and plenty of opportunities for airtime. It was just one of those days you did not want to end. Great company, bluebird conditions, 4 feet of low moisture fluff, no wind, no lost or failed equipment, and most importantly no injuries. What more could you ask for?
As the cat pulled up to the top of Elation Ridge for our final run, we noticed that the only tracks into the glade were the ones that we had put down on the way to lunch. We headed skier's left, and dropped into the trees. "Face shots for everyone." With the shadows of our silhouettes growing longer and our legs screaming, our gaggle of sliders headed back to the lodge. We laid down 15 runs averaging between 800 and 1000 in vert. This was the most sorties I had ever done on a cat or heli trip in a day. I have heard wieners complain about the length of the runs at Monarch, but in my opinion the steepness, and variety of terrain makes up for the lack of vert quite nicely.
Back at the lodge we met at the bar to recount the day we just experienced, which for the majority of the group was their best day ever. We were all asking each other if we should tell our friends "How good it really was," or just keep it to ourselves. Would we sound like braggers? Would we jinx ourselves for big powder days for the rest of our lives? Should we feel guilty about it, like a guy who cheats on his best girl? I guess each one of us had to justify the ecstasy we had just been adorned with in our own way. Nah, I thought to myself, I should feel not guilt, but only be inspired to spread the word of powder karma. So remember the next time you show a friend a new line, pull a buddy out of a tree well, or be the tail gunner on back country trip, don't be surprised if you eventually end up on with a big fat, captain insano powder day.