Shrine Mountain Inn Backcountry Skiing

Post by blogger | December 7, 2005      

Rick Borkovic backcountry skiing on Vail Pass near Shrine Mountain Inn.
Rick Borkovic

Did a recon and research trip yesterday to the Shrine Mountain Inn on Vail Pass in central Colorado. This is a privately owned group of luxury cabins (indoor plumbing, etc.), with reservations managed by the 10th Mountain Hut System. I’ve always included Shrine in my hut guidebook, but I may be spending some time there soon and wanted to get more familiar with the Vail Pass parking/access situation and the layout of the cabins.

The coolest thing about the trip was being able to ski with Rick Borkovic, a prime figure in the revival of using the telemark turn for backcountry skiing. In the 1960s and 1970s Rick was a ski patrolman and guide in Crested Butte, Colorado. With his nordic as well as alpine skiing expertise, in 1971 Rick (along with a few other Crested Butte locals) began experimenting with using nordic ski gear to make turns on steep alpine terrain. Rick’s group, along with concurrent nordic downhill experimentation in the Northeastern U.S. and in California, led to the modern free-heel skiing industry. Rick is a great guy — always smiling and still so appreciative of being in the backcountry. At 56 years old he’s still strong and skis well (though he needs shorter poles, in my opinion (smile). Rick’s passion (now child rearing is over) is his Christian missionary work. It was fun hearing his stories of missions adventure, such as having coffee with a member of the Hezbollah (after fearing he was being kidnapped by the heinous terrorist group).

No skiers allowed
No Skiers sign on Shrine Pass public road

The Vail Pass access situation is interesting. It’s a “recreation area” and you pay a fee to enter. The fee is ostensibly used to try and segregate snowmobilers and skiers. This is a somewhat necessary endeavor, as the place gets crowded on the weekends, but during weekdays the skier vs. snowmobiler issue is somewhat nil since the crowds are gone. We paid our $6 each fee, which I thought was pretty stiff for being able to use my own land, then marched up to the huts using the “skiers only” trail up the valley. After doing some touring on Shrine Ridge above the cabins, we were getting tired of slogging flat terrain with skins and figured we could quickly skate back to the trailhead using the nicely groomed snowmobile route on a public road. It was then we saw the sign. No skiers allowed.

As I’ve always said, if skiers want snowmobiles restricted, we’ll end up being shut out of certain areas in return. And here was the proof. Because of this (and a number of other reasons), I happen to think that dividing up public land for various winter user groups is frequently a bad idea. It might be necessary on Vail Pass, but should be done with extreme caution rather than the ra ra approach that seems to be common these days among the anti snowmobile crowd. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that there are vastly more snowmobilers than skiers using the non-wilderness Vail Pass area. And more, that the majority of backcountry skiers using Vail Pass are probably traveling to and from the Shrine Mountain Inn, which is a privately owned commercial endeavor. Nonetheless, a large area of public land has been designated as snowmobile restricted so a relativly small number of backcountry skiers and Shrine Mountain’s customers can have the requisite human powered experience. We should feel privileged that our fairly small user group has so much political power, and that the Forest Service would do so much to support a commercial hut operation.

Rick Borkovic skiing at Vail Pass
Free-heel pioneer Rick Brokovic skiing near Vail Pass


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