Two words describe their week of snow and ice in Colorado. But amazing and awesome isn’t the half of it.
I have a bad habit of saying yes without thinking when an editor asks if I will take an adventure assignment. I love to write, I love finding the edge between comfort and calamity, and aside from occasional purple bruising (paragliding), sliced finger (bow and arrow), and cut nose (we’ll get to that soon), I usually come back in one piece. And so it was that I agreed to enter the Fat Bike World Championships in Crested Butte as part of a trip to Colorado that I called “A Weeklong Adventure in Snow and Ice.”
Why was this a bad idea? Let me count the ways. I had never ridden a fat-tire bike, the temperature that morning dipped to a windy negative 11, organizers called the loose snow on the course the worst conditions they had ever seen, and the last time I rode a bike in Colorado, I flew over the handlebars and landed on my face.
I arrived at the starting line with modest goals: Don’t get hurt and don’t come in last. I had concerns about both ... but they washed away when I looked at the fat-tire-bike fanatics gathered around me. This was not a super serious race. Or even a remotely serious one. One grown man was dressed like a rainbow unicorn, two women wore Care Bear pajamas, and a third woman who looked to be in her 60s raced in a red fox outfit, complete with tail.
The race started with a run to our bikes. Out of an abundance of caution, I lagged behind, not wanting to get in anybody’s way, in case that rainbow unicorn’s horn was real and he wasn’t afraid to use it. Two steps in, someone to my right fell ass over applecart. I gawked, which slowed me down even more. As I neared my bike, I realized I was overdressed, so I shed my winter coat and gave it to my friend and teammate Andy, which allowed even the person who had faceplanted to pass me.
All of which is a long way of explaining that I was in last place before I even climbed onto my bike.
Andy and I arrived in Colorado on an unseasonably warm Saturday night; it was the only time all week the temperature rose above freezing. We have been on many adventures together, and A Weeklong Adventure in Snow and Ice promised to be an all-timer.
We planned to snowboard (Copper Mountain), cross-country ski (Tennessee Pass Cookhouse), fat-tire bike ride (Crested Butte), and ice climb (Ouray), none of which I had done before. We also planned to ski (Winter Park and Monarch Mountain, my first time in 21 years) and ice fish (Dillon Reservoir, first in 35 years).
We wondered if our brains, which think we are 20, would overrule our bodies, which know we are in our 40s. We decided that a successful Weeklong Adventure in Snow and Ice would mean neither one of us had to call the other’s wife from the ER.
Early Sunday morning, we hustled into Denver’s Union Station to board the train to Winter Park. Clickety-clack, the city gave way to the suburbs. Clickety-clack, we entered the mountains. Clickety-clack, the mountains soared above us on every side.
We walked as if on a rope bridge from the last car to the lounge car, which offered food, drink, and a glass ceiling for stunning views. We squeezed into seats that faced north, but our bodies swiveled around. We gaped at the rocks and snow and trees. “Amazing,” Andy said. “Awesome.”
Skiers walked to and fro, dressed in long underwear and boots with goggles perched on their heads. The conductor said people who left Denver in their cars an hour before us would not get to Winter Park until an hour after us. The train — the only one in the country that goes directly to a ski resort with no stops — would have been worth it even if it were the other way around.
We arrived at Winter Park and wanted to sprint to the slopes, which are only a few steps from the station. I strapped on boots and skis and hit the bunny slopes with my instructor, the ever-patient Abbie. Andy, a more experienced skier, spent the day with a guide named Mark, who took him on all the best runs, like a local fixer who knows all the top restaurants. Winter Park is one of few resorts in the country with such a program.
Pro tip: Do not rent a sedan in Colorado in the winter.
Even the drives to get to the adventures were adventures in and of themselves. We put 550 miles on our rented SUV, many of them through blinding snow, atop icy roads, or both. The resorts we visited all average at least 300 inches of snow a year. Andy and I estimated that at least a foot fell on us that week. We drove through three separate blizzards — in one day.
On this Weeklong Adventure in Snow and Ice, I fell on my face snowboarding (many times), crashed a fat-tire bike (even more), wiped out skiing (comparatively few), and hung 50 feet in the air from the top of a frozen manmade waterfall (twice), but the only time I worried about my safety was driving to Copper Mountain after dinner at Tennessee Pass Cookhouse.
The snow fell so fast and in such big flakes that in order to be able to see where I was going, I could go no faster than 35 mph. The view out our windshield looked like the view from the Millennium Falcon when it hit light speed.
Fresh powder, the dream of every winter sports junkie, created a nightmare on the highway. I couldn’t see where my lane began and ended. I hit rumble strips and did not know if I had drifted left or right. I slowed down more. The 31-mile drive should have taken 36 minutes but instead lasted more than an hour.
The next day we drove the same road, in the opposite direction and with clear skies. Snow balanced on branches, the brilliant white contrasting with the black bark, green needles, and blue sky. “Amazing,” Andy said. “Awesome.”
I scanned vast unblemished fields, looking for footprints, from people or animals or both. I traced the tops of the mountains with my eyes, up and down, wondering how tall those rounded peaks were, what it would be like to climb them, how cold it would be up there, what the wind would feel like on my face — and drifted onto rumble strips again, not because I couldn’t see the lanes but because I wasn’t watching where I was going.
Back at the bike race, I climbed aboard and looked ahead at the course. Imagine a field, thick with snow. Now imagine someone blazed a 10-foot-wide trail that looks vaguely like an eight without the crisscross in the middle on that otherwise-pristine field. That’s what the “racetrack” looked like.
I rode downhill, turned right, and pedaled from last to next to last to — ah, who cares? The first third of the first lap was like riding through 10 inches of uncooked rice while my kids hit me with pillows and my brothers threw tennis balls at me. I went sideways more than I went forward and finally gave up and walked my bike for about 100 yards.
I climbed back on and figured out that the way to ride for more than 10 feet without crashing was to never turn off of the thin path created by the tires of the person in front of me. For a minute, two minutes, three minutes, I followed a guy in a blue shirt. “Hey,” I said to myself, as I panted and wheezed and tried to slow my thumping heart, “I think I’m starting to figure this —” and before I knew what was happening, my front tire turned perpendicular to the rest of the bike, I let go of the handlebars, my feet lifted off the pedals, and I flew off of the bike and landed in the soft, soft snow.
I could not feel the snow’s coldness or wetness. I merely floated in it, as if in a spider’s web. I shoved my right hand down, down, down, to try to push off the ground ... and my hand never reached it. I was still lying sideways, now almost completely submerged, like I had taken too literally the assignment to go on A Weeklong Adventure in Snow and Ice.
Completely miserable and full of joy at the same time, I laughed as other bikers pedaled, walked, and careened by. I tried to walk but couldn’t because the snow was too deep. I rolled sideways and shimmied back onto the path and continued the “race.”
Later, when I pedaled by the same spot, I cast a sideways glance and saw a me-shaped divot in the snow. Three laps later, there were two more holes, shaped like other people. I had only ridden a fat-tire bike for a few laps, and already I was a trendsetter.
The next day, Andy and I sat outside a coffeeshop called Mouse’s Chocolate and Coffee in downtown Ouray. The San Juan Mountains surrounded us on every side, still jagged and sharp, like an old hockey player’s broken-toothed smile. Halfway up the mountain in front of us, hikers traversed a razor’s-edge trail.
“Amazing,” Andy said. “Awesome.” Then he laughed at himself. “I’ve said those two words so many times I need to work on my vocabulary.”
I wanted to linger with my cappuccino because the view was beautiful — and also because for months I had half-dreaded our ice-climbing lesson at Ouray Ice Park scheduled for that day. Ouray Ice Park is a box canyon with water faucets at the top. Turn on the water, it pours down the rock face, freezes, and voila — an ice-climbing Mecca.
The ice park is unique in the world and draws climbers from all over the globe, never more so than during the Ouray Ice Festival, held every January. Our visit coincided with the festival, which is why there was no line at the coffeeshop and nobody on the streets. Everybody was at the park.
We were due to join them, and I was, I am not ashamed to admit, nervous. I have fought a fear of heights since first grade, when my parents drove us across the too-narrow bridges that connect the Florida Keys and I thought we were going to get sideswiped by a semi on the other side, fly over the rail, and plunge into the Gulf of Mexico.
I didn’t want to, if you’ll pardon the expression, freeze while ice climbing. But as we walked to the park, our guide, Zach, put me at ease. The way he explained the rope system made me believe in the rope system, which was no small feat. (Sometimes my fear of heights might more accurately be called a fear “that thing — bridge, rope, carabiner, whatever — is going to break.”) I’ve worked with guides in all manner of adventures, and none have made me think, Let’s do this! like Zach did.
He tied me in and pointed me to an ice wall. With crampons like talons on my feet and ice picks like claws in my hands, I marched forward with confidence I had not earned. Fake it till you make it, baby. I smashed the right claw into the ice. Chips broke off and flew everywhere, and the claw bounced out. I smashed it again, and it found purchase. I smashed the left one into the ice; it bounced out. I smashed it again, and it held. I kicked the spikes of the crampons into the wall, took a deep breath, and pulled myself up.
Pushing my body against the ice, I swung with my right arm and — smack! — ice scattered everywhere, again. I aimed for a divot, as Zach had taught me, found one, and soon I was a few feet higher. I didn’t look down — not because I was afraid but because I was concentrating on where I was putting my hands and feet. I was halfway to the top before I realized I’m climbing this freaking frozen waterfall. I could have kept going, but Zach called me down to give Andy his turn.
I shimmied all the way to the top the next time. By my final climb, I was disappointed that the top was only 50 feet. I wished it were higher. Back on the ground a few minutes later, my legs hurt from holding my body weight, my shoulders burned from pulling myself up, my fingers ached from squeezing the picks — and I had a big dopey grin on my face.
“Hey,” Andy said, jolting me from my reverie. “You’re bleeding.”
An ice shard had nicked my nose, leaving a bright red spot. I took a selfie for proof.
I smiled even bigger and dopier after that.
More from our adventure feature
Photography: Courtesy Colorado.com/Jesse Quand, Petar Dopchev
From our February/March 2020 issue.