About 100 years ago up Monarch Pass, hard-rock miners relaxed by strapping on seven-foot skis and tried to make it to the bottom of Gunbarrel Hill without falling. No one knew how to turn, but they recognized the thrill of downhill skiing – a thrill that would forever live on at Monarch Mountain.
I pulled into the parking lot on a bluebird Colorado day and glanced up at the slash that is Gunbarrel. There were tracks – were they relics from the past?
Monarch has always had a historic feel for me, ever since I first came in the late 1970s. Before climate change, you could count on new snow most winter days – and measured in feet. The lightest Colorado powder possible. No high-speed lifts, a cramped but congenial base lodge, the parking lot only a short walk to the lifts.
Old School To The Max
Day ticket is now $40 for anyone with a season pass from elsewhere. No one cares if you bring your own lunch – or where you eat it -- and the lifties are definitely locals. Busloads of local school kids swarm the beginner slopes.
After a warmup groomer off sunny Breezeway chair, I head to the meat of the mountain: the Garfield chair that traces the original T-bar route to the top of the Continental Divide. From there, the classic powder runs Ajax, Examiner and No Name roll off the ridge. Even a couple of days out from a storm, I find knee-deep powder stashes in the trees.
But the siren of Curecanti Bowl calls. A short herringbone off the top of Garfield unveils this backwoods wonder. A traverse to the far side, then a quick dive over the cornice for a dozen swishy turns in half-broken, light powder before disappearing into the trees for a dozen more.
No one around, the faint sound of a jake brake on U.S. 50, a single crow caws from a branch. Joy envelopes me on the gentle traverse back.
Again And Again
I hit Curecanti again, and again, and again … before reluctantly returning to the rest of the mountain.
The archetype Panorama double chair loads at mid-mountain and bounds up a corridor of Engelmann spruce, punctuated by Forest Service interpretive wildlife signs. To start, I turn left and hit the bumps of Mirage: Longer than you would think. At the top again, I peel off to the north along the Divide at 11,900 feet.
There’s something about the Great Divide traverse that gets me every time: Is it the 360-degree view? That you are skiing on the spine of the continent? Or perhaps the generous choice of runs down?
The farther you go on the ridge, the easier the trails. I choose to cut off into Zipper and Dire Straits, finding untracked powder in the trees and along the sides.
And ‘tis there I spend the rest of my day, soaking up the sun and the scenery, alternating steeps with groomers, embracing Monarch’s legacy. On each run, I look longingly at inbounds Milkwood Bowl and OB cat-skiing area beneath Bald Mountain. For another day, I say, another day.
By mid-afternoon, I’m cooked. My legs tingle but it’s not far to the car.
As I drive away, bits of history keep cropping up all the way down the valley: Dilapidated log cabins, the old railroad bed, small slag piles on the slopes.
In Salida, the modern, gentrified world returns with its brew pubs, immaculate Victorians and Subarus.
But with only a slight turn of the head, I can return from whence I came, to recapture the thrills of days gone by on the slopes hard by Monarch Pass.
Photos: Top -- Monarch's gun barrel was first skied by turn-of-the-century miners (Monarch/Facebook); Below -- Light, deep powder has always been Monarch's trademark (Monarch/Facebook)