The soul of Winter Park’s cherished territory isn’t changing anytime soon
WORDS • DONNY O’NEILL
It’s cold.The type of biting, cut to your bones cold skiers have come to expect from a ski area nestled up against Colorado’s Continental Divide. It’s 7:30 a.m. in the Utah parking lot of Winter Park’s Mary Jane Territory. A dozen other early morning skiers join me in braving the freeze for a premium parking spot and access to first tracks off the Challenger double chair. A late-December storm blew in the night prior, with savage winds and a torrent of falling flakes that’s commonplace in this corner of the Front Range. Also the norm here, the blizzard broke at dawn and the sun rose uninhibited across a deep blue sky, illuminating millions of levitating crystals in the air and a fresh tarp of snow preserved by the cold.
I’ve grown accustomed to these types of days at Winter Park. I’ve been coming here since the mid-‘90s on family vacations; it’s where I learned how to ski powder and navigate tight trees, but also to embrace the frozen crown of snot that formed around my nose on mid-winter days, the tickling, pleasurable sensation of snow creeping beneath my powder skirt, the comical banter that arises during long lift rides and the other minutiae that, for me, made skiing a blossoming obsession.
In those days, my cousin Drew and I would ditch the family unit—moms, dads, aunts, uncles and grandma—to ski fast and straight, duck into the trees and sneak our way into primitive ‘90s terrain parks to flail our Gumby-like bodies off jumps bigger than we were. Mostly, though, we’d test our mettle on Mary Jane, the often-powder-coated, leg-screamingly-steep tree and mogul-littered skiing oasis on the eastern boundary of the resort. We’d return to our guardians when the lifts closed with larger-than-life stories of the lines we cleaned, air we caught, grabs we held and tumbles we took, and our parents would reward our narratives with steamy cups of hot cocoa in the base lodge. From youthful memories, Mary Jane stuck in my head as a place of skiing lore; like Shangri-La for skiing’s diehards.
Annual trips to Grand County took a backseat to high school and college, unfortunately. But in 2014, after a decade-plus absence from the hallowed 3,081 acres of Arapaho National Forest, I was given the opportunity to return home to Winter Park as a 24-year-old Colorado resident. Retired, and missing the thrill of skiing every day, my parents purchased a small condo above town, and my ski journey was brought full circle. My first season back flooded me with all of the tingly feelings my eight-year-old self felt at Winter Park, but I possessed the skiing ability to truly experience the magnificent, vast terrain that had eluded me as a youngster.
There were aspects of the entire resort that brought back memories. The fresh snow on Vasquez Ridge that always seemed to linger long after the rest of the mountain was chewed up; the whipping wind and grand vistas that greeted me from the top of Parsenn Bowl at 12,060-feet; the pleasure of zero lift-line hot laps on Tweedle Dum off the creaky Looking Glass chair while poor, unaware souls lined up in the Olympia Express maze. And new experiences, like dodging trees in the backcountry-like trails of Eagle Wind, which debuted in 2006, or finally trekking out to the holy big-mountain lines of The Cirque, the mountain’s impressive headwall, which was designated as off limits by worrisome parental units way back when.
Yet, inevitably, I returned to the cold embrace of Mary Jane. The challenging skiing and overlooked secret stashes locked me into the territory, but it was the soul-enriching nostalgia that kept me exploring The Jane.
A particular moment in 2014, during a slow ride up the Pony Express—an ironic name, considering the elderly double chair chugs its way laboriously up 1,052 vertical feet—flickered memories in my head like an old black and white film. As I rode up through the storm, I scouted the mushroom-topped pillows that dotted the slope between Pony Express Trail and Rainbow Cut, and remembered a similar ride 15-plus years prior when my dad, a railroad fanatic, pointed out that the majority of the trails and lifts of the Jane reflected the area’s rich railroad history. He’d tell me stories of riding the passenger “Ski Train” from Denver to Winter Park on weekends during his childhood, and rifle off statistics about the historic railroad route over Rollins Pass east of the resort. I likely rolled my eyes back then, but on this day, I fondly pointed out this fact to my girlfriend at the time (now wife). Trestle. Golden Spike. Derailer. Riflesight Notch. Railbender. Pony Express, the name of the swinging loveseat gathering snowflakes we rode upon at that very moment. I smiled.
When the lifts closed, we strolled into the dim, dingy bar and pizza joint called Pepperoni’s. Local “mug club” members tossed back samplings of New Belgium’s Mary Jane Ale in their own personal steins that hung above the bar year-round. As we walked through Pepp’s, the amalgamated smell of cheese, tomato sauce and cooked dough wafted into our nostrils and I could almost see myself gobbling slices and goofing around with my cousins at the round tables in the back. This place hadn’t changed a bit; some of the crayon graffiti on the walls was probably our handiwork from 1998.
It is fitting that the people who ski and worship here, like Mary Jane herself, have remained the same throughout time, too. A dedicated bunch—whether weekend warriors from Denver or skiers from just down the road in Fraser or Tabernash—the Jane diehards care about one thing: skiing at Mary Jane—duh.
“They love everything about Mary Jane, they live and die for it, and don’t want it to change,” says Winter Park native and veteran ski patroller Natalie Newberry. “That’s all they want to ski, morning to night. They pack their own lunch; they bring their own beer. They don’t want to get caught up waiting at the bar or anything. They just go there to ski hard, they love it for its originality and, boy, do they love to talk about it.”
When the newly formed Alterra Mountain Company purchased Winter Park Resort in 2016, there was some worry that the mountain would change to reflect the big-resort goals of other destinations under the conglomerate’s umbrella. And there have been changes; a new gondola for Winter Park, and the replacement of the tired Sunnyside triple chair at Mary Jane in favor of a new, $6 million high-speed sixer. To be honest, Sunnyside was in serious need of the replacement, and the updated lift will alleviate a drawn-out ride and bottleneck from skiers escaping the Panoramic Express. Overall, though, Mary Jane’s soul remains intact.
“It seems like management really values the input of people who have been working there for a long time, and also of the local community. They’ve done a lot of outreach and really made sure they’re staying true to the spirit of Winter Park and Mary Jane,” says Ryndi Zastrow, a fifth generation Winter Park local. “The gondola was something we needed and replacing Sunnyside has needed to happen for years. But they’re keeping that backside very much ‘the local’s gem’ and being very respectful of what the roots of Mary Jane are, while still opening up Winter Park to a future of being a bigger and better ski resort.”
Gazing down at the Utah lot as I ascend the nine-and-a-half-minute ride up Challenger, it could be 2019 or 1998; folks are grilling outside of their trucks, walking their skis—new, old, it doesn’t matter—toward the lifts, blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival, cheersing beers and preparing their legs for another thousand feet of bumps down Trestle. Some things needn’t ever change.
I depart at the top of Challenger and high tail it east down Derailer to the entrance of my go-to powder day line—one that takes enough effort to discover that most people ignore it completely. It’s a hidden-in-plain sight, steep swath of perfectly-spaced trees dotted with a skier’s delight of rocks and natural log features. Wiping the snow from my bristled face as I exited the run onto Corona Way, I mused, “Now that was soul skiing.”