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Snorkeling the San Juans

Snorkeling the San Juans

Features
By Peter Shelton
posted: 09/15/2001

The first time I skied Wolf Creek, in Colorado's southermost San Juan Range, a 39-inch storm was just leaving. Temperatures fell, and the water content in the snowpack dipped to 2 percent. Drop a handful of it, and some of the sparkles never reached ground.

That day I made eight trips up the Treasure chair, which terminates at 11,750 feet on the Continental Divide, and eight trips down Glory Hole¿breathing whenever the opportunity presented itself and balancing by internal gyroscope as my bow wake broke over my head. I had to follow established tracks across the flats or else wallow. I didn't dare fall.

That storm landed in the "good but not overwhelming" category in General Manager Davey Pitcher's lexicon. Things get "really fun," says Pitcher, when a "force of nature" storm rolls through and delivers 7 to 10 feet over a string of days.

At 7 feet, "you're chunneling in the snowcats," he says. "You're Captain Nemo. You have to get up on top of the cab every now and then to look around and see where you are."

At 9-plus feet, Pitcher says, "priorities shift. You're just making sure you can get out the doors."

Wolf Creek claims an average of 465 inches a year, the most in Colorado (though you might get an argument from the folks up at Berthoud Pass). That number is confirmed by Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Mark Mueller. "Storms in the 5- to 8-foot range are not uncommon," says Mueller, who must decide when slide danger warrants closing Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass. He's seen 36 inches fall in 24 hours. And 200 inches in a month. "There's a hundred inches on the ground even in the worst years," he says.

The biggest year on record was 1978-79, when 850 inches buried the lodge. Skiers rode the poma upward through a man-made hallway.

The reason for the dumpage is location. The San Juans form a giant right-angle here. One arm¿let's call it the humerus¿extends west from Wolf Creek, while the other¿the forearm¿reaches south into New Mexico. These mountain walls¿some of which top 14,000 feet¿funnel southwesterly flows to a low spot on the Continental Divide¿the elbow¿right at Wolf Creek Pass, elevation 10,650 feet. Moisture pours through the gap and pounds the ski area in its lee. "I would add," says Mueller, "that the East Fork of the San Juan River further helps channel the storms up to Alberta Peak and the Knife Ridge. Snowfall seems to get further enhanced in that valley."

During the really good years, Pacific storms stall out in what is called a "Four Corners closed low," which can affect parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Moisture wrapped around a counterclockwise-spinning storm keeps pumping into the Pass for days. That's what happened in '79, and it happened again last winter, when Wolf Creek received 502 inches.

"After a while, you're just in awe," says Pitcher, who drives a cat and teles every day at the area. His father, Kingsbury, ran Ski Santa Fe for 21 years and bought Wolf Creek in 1976. His brother Peter owns Montana's Discovery Basin.I was in awe on a return visit last March. The only new snow was a frosting of wind-blown cream. But the cover was as sturdy as ever. Riding on a 131-inch base, we didn't come close to hitting ground all day. Nor did we see anything that much resembled a mogul.

Equally impressive was the new terrain: new summit, new quad and 1,000 new acres of ungroomed glades, bowls and hairball drops off aptly-named Knife Ridge. Wolf Creek isn't tall; the lift-served vertical amounts to just over 1,604 feet.

But it is high; the base is at 10,300 feet, and the hike-to summit of Alberta Peak soars to 11,904. It is also wide¿about two miles west-to-east along the divide, facing north, efficiently served by five chairs.

There is no lodging at Wolf Creek, although there is private land nearby and plans have been afoot for decades. Instead of an on-mountain village, visitors have a choicee of two towns, each about 20 miles distant. There's South Fork down on the Rio Grande (Atlantic Ocean) side of the pass, and Pagosa Springs on the San Juan (Pacific) side. Pagosa has one celebrity presence: Dan Fogelberg keeps a ranch nearby and skis regularly. Other than that, it's a couple of beers at the Ole Miner's Steakhouse, and off to bed with you.

Tomorrow might be a "force of nature" day, one where the new snow is so deep anybody can throw layouts off the Montezuma Bowl cornice. "Sometimes you land right-side up, and sometimes upside down," says Davey Pitcher, who has done both. "And it doesn't really matter which."

Wolf Creek, Colo.
Getting There From Denver: I-285 south to Monte Vista, then west on Route 160 (about 5 hours). From Albuquerque, N.M.: I-25 north to Santa Fe, then Route 84 north to Pagosa Springs, Colo., then East on 160 (about 4 hours).
Average Annual Snowfall 465 inches.
Record Season 850 inches, 1978-79.
Biggest Dump In Recent Memory 66 inches, late January 2001. (Biggest dump ever: 11 feet, sometime in the early Sixties.)
Length Of Season Early November to mid-April.
Best Time For Powder January.
Price Of A Lift Ticket $42.
Skiable Acres 1,800.
Information 970-264-5639; www.wolfcreekski.com.

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