Vail, Colorado: Finding Ptarmigan

Tired of snowboarding groomed runs, dodging tourists, skidding over Vail’s sparse terrain during a year of minimal snowfall, I had all but abandoned the sport entirely. In the beginning, the appeal was the exploration.  For someone with an immense amount of wanderlust, the giant mountain, with its infinite runs, hidden decks and breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains, was an adventure and an experience in solitude.  No matter that the mountain had long been discovered; to me, it was a new adventure.

It was my second winter season living in Vail. An intermediate snowboarder, I had only learned the year before, but living a mile from the base had given me enough days to surpass the skills of most seasonal travelers.   I was comfortable in the Back Bowls and dabbled, albeit cautiously, with tree runs (though my first foray into the forest left me with a fat lip, scraped goggles and a new sense of humility).   I liked how my body felt a sense of peace among nature while coursing with adrenaline as I made my way hastily through it, bound to a well-waxed slab of wood.  However, as the days passed, the mountain began to lose its mystery.  There were fewer paths left unturned and the weight of tourist season came crashing down around me.  Everywhere I turned there were dozens of skiers and snowboarders from all over the world, their varied languages merging together on the beaten runs into one shrill noise.  The traveled in large packs or as individuals, flying swiftly or traversing lethargically, each hungrily seeking an untouched track, a few yards of powder.  It was not the exploration I hungered for and, as it became quite clear, I was not alone.

“Try heli-skiing,” some said, which I had neither the money nor the talent for.  “Try the East Vail Chutes,” said others, referring to an out-of-bounds strip that was responsible for the deaths of three people two years before.  My roommates, all accomplished skier and snowboarders, rarely stayed in-bounds unless the conditions were particularly favorable, which, that year, they were not.  My skill-set did not allow me to roam out-of-bounds and, confined to the mountain that thousands traversed all day, my inner wanderlust began to feel oppressed.

Still, when living in a mountain town, one is almost expected to spend a decent portion of their free time on said mountain.  Considering the basis of most conversations is what transpired while snowboarding that day, I felt obligated to continue despite my growing resentment.  I no longer found it invigorating, but more as a way to underwrite a few beers during après-ski, and, to make matters worse, I often took my perfunctory runs alone.

One day, after a few inches of snow, “dust on shit”, considering the icy conditions, I was invited to snowboard with three others, two fellow snowboarders and a skier.   One of the snowboarders, Kevin, a long-time local and surprisingly tall expert, was privy to hidden jumps and tracks that the rest of us were not.  Intimidated by his skill-level, but buoyed by the fact that the other two closely resembled mine, I reluctantly agreed to join.  At least I would have some companionship that day.

Riding the Vista-Bahn chairlift up the mountain, the runs shone in the midday sun, the ice glimmering underneath the vestiges of powder.  Skiers and snowboarders glided below us, their edges making audible scratching noises on the slick terrain.  High above the ground, the wind whipped our faces and across the mountain peaks, clouds were moving in fast.  “Snow!” I thought joyously, but Kevin was able to discern by the color, speed, and lack of visible precipitation, that the clouds would bring little or no snow.

From the Vista-Bahn to Chair 3, we arrived on the top of the mountain.  To the left was Sun Down Bowl, which was typically filled with Black Diamond runs, but had since been roped off with “expert” signs due to the lack of snow.  To the right, Game Creek, Bowl, were a plethora of Blue and Green run , the former littered with moguls (a snowboarders nightmare!) and the latter littered with people (another nightmare!).  Instantly, I regretted my decision to ride that day.  What was the point?  My inner wanderlust reared its ugly head as if to remind me that I’d been here before many a time.  None of it was new and to top it off, none of it had snow.

Kevin, who easily and quickly claimed status as our leader and guide, suggested a run that might have a smidgeon of powder.  It was a 10-minute hike uphill so we unstrapped our boards and skis and began.  By then, the clouds had reached over the mountain, settling into a misty fog, the snow at the tips, but not quite falling.  Sweat broke through my skin and froze in the chilly air as my breath became labored.

There was nothing to mark our final destination except a thin sign that read “Ptarmigan” with a black diamond beside it.  The fog had settled, but threw the mist I could see it below: snow!  Tons and tons of snow.

The view from Ptarmigan was isolating, as if we were the only ones on the mountain.  It fed into Sun Down Bowl, but not a soul was in sight.  Trees glittered in the low clouds with speckles of snow, the run lay bare without a single carved turn.  It was, I realized, the wilderness I had hoped for and I was reminded why I loved Vail and the sense adventure that drew me to the town in the first place.

We set off with Kevin leading the way, carving beautifully through the thick white snow, among the wide-set pine trees, the low clouds obscuring the chairlifts from our view as if the run might go on for eternity.  For a moment, I felt like I was flying.

When we reached the bottom and spilled onto the catwalk among others from around the Bowl, I felt a supreme urge to tell them about what we’d found, but I held my tongue.  However many people populate the mountain every day, we’d found a spot that offered some solitude and adventure, and for me, a satiated wanderlust.

Annie Grossinger Written by:

Annie Grossinger currently lives in Chicago, IL and is an active traveler, writer and photographer. After graduating with a B.A. in Journalism and History from Lehigh University, she spent two years in Vail, CO, immersing herself in the mountain culture. She worked as a photographer’s assistant and freelance writer. Upon returning to Chicago, she worked in communications for various nonprofits and continued to freelance writing and photography.