A break from Alpine: Snowshoes and Nordic at Vail
VAIL, Colo. — As I registered for a snowshoe tour at the Vail Mountain Nordic School, Joe Schmitt was on the phone helping a woman plan an outing as a surprise for her daughter's 11th birthday. Family celebrations are a specialty at Vail Mountain, whether you are downhill skiing, snowshoeing or shopping Bridge Street.
As I finished the paperwork, Schmitt, the Nordic Program manager, explained that cross-country skiing and snowshoeing provide outdoor alternatives to a day away from the mountain's downhill ski trails.
Joe handed me a pair of boots to fit my size 8 foot, guesstimated my weight (did well), as weight determines size in a snowshoe — something about the webbing and floatation. Arctic has an inventory of footgear from children's feet through a man's size 14 shoe. Then he handed me a pair of poles, a bottle of water and my very own crunchy granola bar.
Tours do not start at the lodge, he said as we walked toward the parking lot to a van that would take us to Spraddle Creek, one of 30 trailheads in the White River National Forest that Arctic uses.
The size of a tour ranges from an individual to 35 people. Drive time is built in, so a 2.5-hour tour may include 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back. "It depends on where or how far the group wants to go into the White River National Forest," Schmitt said.
The White River National Forest measures 2.3 million acres and contains the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, which is reportedly the birthplace of the U.S. Wilderness Area system. It is also the habitat for many North American species, including black bear, elk, deer, Canadian lynx, bobcat and smaller creatures, such as rabbit and hopping mice. There are raptors, too, but they mostly overwinter near the river.
Joe said that the cross-country snowshoe guides are trained much like the ski patrol. Joe's group takes tours to many different places in the forest, and none is dangerous. That's where Joe's motto about outdoor recreation comes in: safety, fun and learn.
"It is always safety first," Joe explained. In the last two years, tours have taken an adventure focus. Guides carry telemark gear, a shovel, beacon and probe on pack. Everyone in the tour, like me, is issued a bottle of water and an energy bar.
Strapping on our snowshoes, I peek at the incline that leads to our tour's transition point. The transition point is the spot where you can still see the parking area before you curve deeper into the forest and experience the meaning of quiet.
On our way up the incline, I still could look back to see Vail mountain. Skiers appear as little dots on the expansive ribbons of snow that make up the runs. Snow machines disperse fountain-like bursts that resemble fireworks. But I couldn't hear any of it. The closer I neared the ridge, the vision of the mountain became more like a silent movie. With a sky growing overcast with snow clouds, you could argue the scene looked black and white, too.
Walking in snowshoes is much easier than I thought. And revelation followed revelation. You really do float on top of the snow. This trail had about 6 inches of snow, maybe deeper in parts. To my surprise, snowshoe floatation works; the cuffs of my pants remained dry. Unlike snowshoes, poles do sink into the snow. Awkward imbalance can be avoided by holding them at the top. Strands of Quaking Aspens lined the top of the ridge, and many grew close to the trail.
Joe talked about Aspens sharing a root system, which allows them to sprout at will and grow in great rows and scenic clusters. My takeaway equated them to groundcover in the Midwest that would spread from one root system. When it comes to aspens, some Coloradans might say "invasively."
Like most native trees, there is folklore and tales of medicinal uses with the aspen. The white chalk that is easily rubbed from the birch tree-like bark reportedly acts as a sunscreen. I gave it a try on the bridge of my nose and cheeks. And, another revelation. It worked.
"New skills are good for body and brain," Joe said as he turned into the forest followed by a fledging snowshoe enthusiast already mentally marking a time to return to experience more of the wonders of Vail.