The Untracked Line: Chicago Ridge, Ski Cooper, CO
Chicago Ridge downsides: The guides wear grubby, mango-colored one-piece-suits they call ball-biters; the avalanche beacons resemble museum pieces (some don’t actually search); and the only snack in the cat will be the food you stuffed in your pocket.
Chicago Ridge upsides:The avalanche danger is low for Colorado; the cat is a new Bombardier topped with a custom-built cabin featuring skylights, carpeting, and piped-in music; and the Ridge gets the same fluffy Colorado powder as nearby Copper-but nobody knows it.
Chicago Ridge sits at 12,600 feet, above the mellow cruisers of tiny Ski Cooper. And while the ski area might not be on your life list, the Ridge should be. It has 2,500 acres of bowls, trees, and chutes spanning the Continental Divide. Many of the runs are fields of stumps, a legacy of railroad crews that logged the area a century ago. Which means that while the masses are jackhammering bumps at I-70 resorts you’ll be threading through an army of white mushrooms formed by the truncated trees.
Though the clientele can include lipstick-wearing day-trippers from Vail, you’re more likely to share the cat with Front Range skiers who crack cans of Coors at day’s end. The skiing is equally low-key. As the cat trundles out of the ski area and into the backcountry, guides lecture about conserving powder. It’s really a free-for-all. With only 12 skiers a day on such a big chunk of real estate, spooning turns seems stingy.
The lack of skier compaction, coupled with Colorado’s pronounced temperature gradient, means the Ridge can be prone to pockets of trap-door snow in low-snow years. Wait till later in the season, when the weight of the snowpack settles things. Avalanche danger isn’t a big threat, but the guides are careful anyway, tossing 1,000 pounds of bombs a year.
It’s neither sick nor scary, but seven bowls filled with 1,400-vertical-foot lines approaching 30 degrees makes for quality powder skiing. If you want more gravity, ask your guide to take you to 38-degree Leaning Tree Bowl, the steepest pitch on the ridge. Treeskiers, don’t miss Bash Alley, a 29-degree gladed shot flanked by creek beds.
The ridge gets 275 inches a year of seven percent-water-content snow (as reference, Alpine Meadows in California averages 14.5 percent), with the biggest precipitation falling February through April. Skies are often clear, but they don’t call it Chicago Ridge for nothing. Like the Windy City, it can blow but good.
In addition to EMTs, firefighters, and ski patrollers, the Ridge’s crew includes former Army explosives specialists. All of them get their avalanche training at nearby Colorado Mountain College, under the tutelage of Pat Chant, who runs the Chicago Ridge operation. The place hasn’t had an avy accident in 15 years.
There’s nothing at the base of Ski Cooper, but the Twin Lakes Nordic Inn is only 30 miles down the road. A one-time brothel, it’s now a B&B ($58-$88, twinlakesnordicinn.com).
Pull up a plastic chair in Ski Cooper’s base lodge for a basic cafeteria breakfast (that’s on you). But save room for lunch (included): Cornish game hens or seared tuna served in the woods.
Bang for the Buck
Don’t come looking for Bella Coola steeps-most of the terrain is moderately angled. But the Ridge is the second oldest cat-skiing outfit in the state; as such, they know how to manage their terrain. The guides will most likely find you powderr.
The day the reservation book is cracked, the cat is virtually booked for the season.If you want all 12 seats, call first thing on November 14.
Show up with a digital avy transceiver like the Tracker DTS from Backcountry Access, so you won’t be dead weight in a rescue. ($300, bcaccess.com)
Max Elevation: 12,600 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 1,400 feet
Average Vertical Logged Per Day: 12,100 feet (11 runs)
Prices: $234 per day; includes lunch. Fat-ski rental (Rossi Bandit XXX), $20.
Getting There: Drive 129 miles from Denver via I-70, Colorado Highway 91, and US Highway 24. Info: 719-486-2277; skicooper.com
This article appeared in Skiing Magazine in October 2003