Sled Zones Part III: Colorado

April 11th, 2012 by

AS SEEN IN THE 2012 FREESKIER BACKCOUNTRY EDITION

MORE IN THIS SERIES:

• SLED ZONES PART II: COOKE CITY, MT

• SLED ZONES PART II: UTAH

• SLED ZONES PART IV: WHISTLER, BC

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PHOTO: BLAKE JORGENSON — RIDER: DAN TREADWAY

The snowmobile. They don’t call it the poor man’s helicopter for nothing. In the endless search for untracked snow, no machine offers more accessibility for your money. The machines of today are bigger, wider and faster than ever, with the ability to get skiers almost anywhere the snow sticks. But sleds also offer a fast track to trouble. Aside from the inherent risks of backcountry travel, sleds lure riders into the middle of nowhere and routinely break down or get buried. And a sled is no Prius. The braap-braap of two-strokes isn’t a universally loved sound. In many circles, the fact you have skis in tow doesn’t separate you from the beer guzzling, high marking slednecks who established a culture long before sled skiing. But the rise in snowmobile accessed skiing proves that once you’ve experienced the two-stroke chairlift, odds are you’ll be sold. From Aspen to Whistler, here is a sampling of the West’s best sled zones.

 

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WORDS: IAN FOHRMAN

There isn’t a good reason Colorado isn’t known as a sled Mecca—it’s a state full of mountains, with more than 300 days of sun a year. Sure, it’s plagued with unstable snow conditions and has been referenced as a “catchers mitt” for western migration, but the Eastern masses aren’t generally hunting for pillow lines or booter spots. When you do find a good zone, you won’t have to fight other crews for terrain. Here are a few good starting points, but remember that they’re only that. Do your own research. Talk to locals, check out maps and Google earth, and make sure you’re prepared.

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PHOTOS: PATRICK ORTON — (L-R) RIDERS: MARK FILIPPINI, JOHN SPRIGGS

ZONES

The Million Dollar Highway stretches from Ouray to Silverton over Red Mountain Pass deep in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado. There are several access points along this road to park the trailers and fire up your machines. The west side of the pass is closed to snowmobiles, but the east side offers high alpine bowls and mini-golf lines. “Red Mountain Pass was Level 1’s very first sled trip,” says Josh Berman of Level 1 Productions (who rides a 2010 Ski Doo Rev 800 154 Track). “It’s a perfect spot to cut your teeth because it’s relatively safe and easy to find. You’d be hard pressed to go up there during the winter and not find a bunch of cheese wedges already built.”

Montezuma Basin in Summit County is a perfect sled zone for beginners. The trailhead is less than 20 minutes from Keystone resort, the access is easy, the ski laps are quick, and it’s a relatively safe zone. The terrain is a perfect combo of easy quick mini-golf, small chutes, cornices, and cliffs. Set up a BBQ in the basin and watch friends lap the mini golf or head up to one of the plateaus on either side and work on your trenching skills. Take Highway 6 East from Silverthorne and take a right after the Keystone Resort Parking lots. Head down Montezuma road and through town. There is an obvious parking lot at the gate at the end of the road. Head straight up the gulley for about two miles into the Basin.

Vail Pass, accessed from Redcliff, offers a variety of mellow glades, pillow lines, cliff drops, and even a road gap over Lime Creek Rd. “I love this sled spot for several reasons,” says John Spriggs, who rides a 2011 Polaris RMK Pro 155. “It’s a scenic drive to the zone past Gillman, a sled friendly town that has an awesome sled-accessed restaurant and it’s free of the crowds on top of Vail Pass.” To access, take the Minturn Exit off I-70, head past Gillman (a creepy ghost town that was evacuated in a hurry) and into Redcliff. Park in town and head up the trail for several miles, taking Lime Creek 4×4 trail on your left. This trail is about a sled length wide and winds up through timber, gaining elevation quickly to Lime Creek Road. Snowmobile Vail rents Polaris RMK 600 HO (8 hours for $350; 866-998-0696).

Most of Aspen’s good sled zones require a little human powered effort once you get there. Independence pass has an endless amount of good North facing ski terrain, but because of wilderness boundaries and terrain limitations you’re going to need your skins and AT gear to get to the top. Heading up the Castle Creek drainage to Ashcroft, you can access (depend- ing on trail conditions) the backside of Richmond Ridge, the backside of Aspen Mountain). A few miles up the Castle Creek Trail, the M&M chutes provide fun skiing and easy sled laps. Beware of several major avalanche path crossings along the way that require vigilance and side-hilling skills.

Less than three hours from Denver, the Snowy Range in Wyoming (Colorado’s northern neighbor) offers easier access than anything off 1-70 on a weekend. Stay at the Friendly Store in Centennial, Wyoming (population 100). This one-stop shop offers the cheapest beds in town, a hearty breakfast burrito and petrol for your sled. From the end of town, drive past the ski area (yep, it has one), and park as soon as you can. Getting to the above-treeline terrain is obvious, as are the possibilities of ski lines down the 20+ couloirs. Beware of the gigantic cornices that form on good snow years, as well as tourists on the outruns.

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PHOTO: PATRICK ORTON

THE CREW

The Vail crew of John Spriggs, Luke “Ocho” Allen, B Devine, Ben Moxham and Pat Orton own sleds and are always down for some braap. Since there is no real competition for terrain, there is a distinct lack of the localism in Colorado. If you know what you’re doing and start friendly conversation, chances are, you’ll be led in the right direction.

DREAM MACHINE

Anyone who’s ever used a throttle to access ski lines will tell you there is one ideal sled set-up to get you there. Choose your brand based on the closest and most reliable service spot (or what your friends say is the coolest), but the 800cc 155 track machine is the best combination of light weight power, maneuverability, and climbing you can get. The ultimate setup: Ski Doo Freeride 154 starting at $13,349; Cheetah Factory Racing rack for $150; Heine Snow Tools rack for $249.

SNOW SAFETY

It’s worth noting that Colorado’s snowpack is notoriously unstable. As there are often deep weak layers, there is an above-average level of danger in the backcountry throughout the season. This said, if you pay attention to conditions and make smart terrain choices, you can mitigate risk. Spring is always the safest time of year to be in the Colorado backcountry. Once the snowpack has entered a freeze/thaw cycle, your biggest concern is the heat creating wet slides. Get up early, get it done, and be off the hill before the sun has too much time to warm the snow.

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MORE IN THIS SERIES:

• SLED ZONES PART II: COOKE CITY, MT

• SLED ZONES PART II: UTAH

• SLED ZONES PART IV: WHISTLER, BC

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About the author:
Henrik Lampert loves hot dogs, the Boston Bruins and Norway. He's the Online Editor here at Freeskier.