SKIING THE WILD WEST
15th February 2017 | Jane Peel, Steamboat, Colorado
Last modified on February 5th, 2020
Welcome to Steamboat, USA, where the cowboys ski and the skiers wrangle. PlanetSKI rides into town for the skiing & some Wild West fun.
Meet Ray Heid, the skiing cowboy. The 79-year-old made that coat from six elk skins and a beaver pelt. And he skis almost every day.
Western heritage in this part of Colorado is alive and kicking.
Like Ray Heid who – just when you’re marvelling at what a remarkable character he is – offers up another surprise.
It turns out he’s a former Olympic ski jumper. He competed in the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California, and was a coach to the US team at Innsbruck in 1964.
The ranchman doesn’t launch himself down a ramp anymore. He spends most days leading horseback treks and elk hunting trips with his son, Perk.
But Ray still finds time to clip into his bindings. He says he will ski 100 days this season. And not just downhill. He’ll skin up the mountains on his private land and then ski down.
It seems the only lifts cowboys take are the ones with four legs.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a cowboy to ski in Steamboat.
It would be a shame for the rest of us if we were unable to enjoy the light fluffy snow that’s a trademark of the area.
Literally, a trademark. The Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation has trademarked the term “champagne powder”.
It makes perfect sense to me after a day skiing in the deep snow of Steamboat.
They’ve had almost half a metre dump here in the few days before my arrival. The snowfall is about 140 per cent of what’s normal for the time of year.
There are acres and acres of fresh tracks to be found, the best of it in Steamboat’s famous aspen glades, which seem to be everywhere you look.
The mountains here are covered in trees, which is very welcome in the cold, snowy conditions. The Sunshine area is not living up to its name today.
“We have this super-light snow – that champagne powder. Steamboat sees it more than most,” David Moon, a ski instructor in Steamboat for 28 years, tells me.
“There is this phenomenon of drier snow. Between California and here is the inter-continental plain. It’s a high alpine desert and when the weather front comes in, as it goes over the desert, it dries out the precipitation. The humidity is very low.”
In fact, according to climatologists, the snow that falls on Steamboat has the lowest water content of any snow in the USA.
It must be good. For 15 years Ellis Brigham, the UK snowsports retailer, has shot its annual ski and snowboard catalogues here.
Steamboat is the northernmost ski resort in Colorado and the third largest – after Vail and Aspen Snowmass – but is said to suffer less from weekend crowds since it’s off the beaten track, 160 miles northwest of Denver.
Its deep powder and gladed runs are perfect for advanced skiers, but there are also lots of easy trails, and Steamboat prides itself on its family-friendly deals.
For every adult buying a lift pass for 5 or more days, one child under 12 skis free. The same deal applies to equipment rental.
The youngsters have their own wild west town on the slopes and both children and big kids can ski for free with Billy the Kid.
Sorry, I mean Billy Kidd. He’s another of Steamboat’s former Winter Olympians. The town seems to breed them. There were 88 at the last count.
Off the mountain there’s a lot to do too. Which brings me back to Ray Heid.
He owns Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch in Clark, just outside Steamboat, which is popular with skiers keen to try something a little different.
The ranch is named after Ray’s late brother Delby, who set up the business in 1962, and it provides a free minibus shuttle from the ski resort for its horseback trail rides.
So on a bitterly cold, sunny morning I climb into the saddle, incongruously dressed not in chaps and spurs but ski gear, though with a Stetson in place of a helmet.
Don’t be fooled by the smile. This riding thing is against my better judgment. I am still mentally scarred by the experience of being thrown off a petulant mule as a child during a seaside donkey derby.
Perk shows us the basic signals to drive – my word, not his – our horses.
Fortunately, I have been given Annie, who is clearly an automatic rather than a manual drive, and the 1hr 40 minute gentle trek passes off without incident. It’s surprisingly relaxing.
If you want really relaxing, however, nothing beats a soak in the nearby Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs, particularly after a day in the saddle or pounding the powder.
Minus 15 degrees Celsius outside, 40 degrees in the water, it’s an experience not to be missed.
A trip to Steamboat resort would not be complete without dropping in on the original long-established town of Steamboat Springs, a couple of miles away.
It’s home to the genuine cowboy store, F. M. Light & Sons, which has been “outfittin’ the west for over 100 years”.
Everything for the discerning Colorado cowboy can be found here.
Unless, that is, you want to go hunting elks and make your own outfit…..
PlanetSKI’s trip to the USA was provided by the trade organisation Colorado Ski Country
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