This winter I’ve had the privilege of teaching avalanche courses through out the sate of Colorado for a multitude of different course providers. Course have included Level 1 and 2s. They have been both AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) as well as AAA (American Avalanche Association). Locations have been near to far and included Durango Mountain Resort and Silverton Mountain, as well as Red Mountain, Coal Bank, Molas, Vail, and Berthoud Passes.
The most recent was an AIARE Level 1 this past weekend I was Course Leading on Vail pass. I have to admit, I was a little hesitant at first about Vail pass. I had heard plenty of horror stories about excessive crowds, fees, and grumpy forest service personal. This was far from what I found!
Upon arriving at the pass John, a very friendly and far from grumpy, National Forest Service personal greeted me with a warm welcome. He was extremely polite! I told him it was my first time on the famed Vail Pass. He welcomed me and my friend and made sure we would let him know if we had any questions. Yes, the parking lot had lots of cars, but there were also lots of empty spaces. If you go to a popular movie, parking can be tricky too. It took me maybe two minutes to park. After parking, I began to gear up and get ready for the ski. While putting on my boots, two more official looking personal approached me. This time they were BLM folks. They explained to us they were doing an environmental impact study on wildlife in the area. To help in the study they had these cool mini GPS units. The deal was I toss the little unit in my pocket, ski with it all day, and it tracks where I go. Cool! Not only where they extremely friendly, they told me that after I turned in the GPS, they’d email me a map of everywhere I went! Ok, wow! Not only did I meet multiple NFS/BLM folks, they were all extremely friendly and even gave me a cool “toy” that would track my tour, for free! Myth 1, debunked!
Ok, so crowds. Yeah sure there were a bunch of cars and trucks. And yes many were pulling trailers with $10,000 + sleds on the back. Ok, I thought let’s do some more investigating. I saw two sledders with BCA Float 30 packs on and decided to go talk to them. I had heard that the sledders vs skiers on Vail pass can some times, shall we say, not get along. These two fellas were not only super friendly, they were super avy savy. Not the stereotypical sledd-necks that get polked fun of at all. They were each completely prepared with BCA beacons, shovels, and probes along with their float packs. So, I realize that having avy gear in no way what so ever makes up for having taken a good avy course. Just to play devils advocate on myself though, and support some sledders for a minute, I don’t see a lot of skiers or boarders wearing float packs…. Way to go Vail Pass sledders! I went up to some other sledders to see what their take was on the situation was. Again, super friendly and super prepared. They all had full sets of avy gear (beacons, shovels, and probes). When I asked them if they had friends that went out without avy gear they promptly said “NO WAY!, not OUR friends!” Ok, so now I’ve met friendly government officials and friendly sledders. So far this is not the Vail pass I had heard of.
So the entire reason we were there was not to chat it up in the parking lot, but to go do a Uneva peak tour. It was fresh powder conditions and I was getting a little “mad pow disease.” The parking lot crowds were for sure going to track up my slopes! We had to get going. We walked across the bridge and clicked into our skis. On the tour up we were in and out of a solid skin track. It must be from the hundreds of Vail based backcountry enthusiasts in front of us I thought. During the entire 1.5 hours of up, we passed two folks sitting in the sun and eating a snack. They did not through snowballs at us nor did they yell derogatory comments. The winds picked up after we got on the ridge, so we took a quick break, ripped the hides and skied fresh untracked powder the entire way down. Oh wait, we did run into the same two folks on the way down. Again, they waved as we skied by.
This was extremely different than an experience I had the weekend prior on a different pass. The weekend prior I had run into a fully permitted commercial guide service. My group stopped and said hello to the guide. A good friendly backcountry gesture, or so I thought….The guide informed us that since he was permitted there we were not allowed to ski there. We were going “track up his terrain.” he said. “I didn’t know permits worked like that” I said. Oh “yes he” said. Funny…..I was under the impression that it was public public land and that a permittee is granted use, but doesn’t own it. Very interesting in deed…….
In the end, of all the passes I have skied and all the course locations I’ve taught, Vail pass seemed pretty sweet to me. Maybe I was on the wrong “Vail Pass?”