Wyoming Powder and the High Plains Backcountry Skier

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | March 13, 2019      

Manasseh Franklin

This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry. They live in a place with snow capped peaks all around.

...isolated dots on the plains with scrubby trees for meager windbreaks.

…isolated dots on the plains with scrubby trees for meager windbreaks.

The road feels long and it feels flat and there’s nearly always a wind pulsing so incessantly it’ll make you think your tires stopped moving. It’s a lonely, loamy road, the only road that leads from the town of Laramie to the start of the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow Mountains.

On an early January morning with the temperature somewhere around five degrees, my truck is the only one on the road. I spot scrawny pronghorn nibbling windswept prairie grass. The few houses I pass are miles apart, isolated dots on the plains with scrubby trees for meager windbreaks. Locals around here call the wind “population control” and as I feel it push against the truck I think, well, there’s something to that.

I came to Laramie from Colorado’s central Rockies in a move fraught with compromise. Days after receiving my acceptance letter for a fully funded masters program at the University of Wyoming, I sat in a hot spring with two close friends after a day of euphoric powder skiing and confessed, “Guys, I can’t go to grad school. I don’t think I can leave the mountains.”

“You’ve got to go,” counseled my friend, Steve, who’d been through grad school himself. “The mountains will always be here.”

The first winter on the high plains was destitute. The closest “good” skiing to Laramie is an hour and a half drive to Cameron Pass, Colorado. Beyond that, two hours to Rabbit Ears Pass, two and a half to Steamboat, two and a half to the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, three hours to Silverthorne and the I-70 corridor, and the tallies go up from there. The Rockies this is not. No, the plains are very much the plains.

On subzero mornings during that first winter, I’d stand on the footbridge over the train yard downtown — one of the few spots in the flat valley where one can get a good view — and gaze to the distant summits of Cameron Pass, to the tip of Long’s Peak. I’d imagine myself sprouting wings and landing on skis on a snowy summit far from the Gem City’s austere expanses.

Eventually, though, I met some skiing folks, and then some more. The plains started giving away secrets, surprises. And by then, I was ready to see them.

* * *

Once I’ve passed the scrawny pronghorn antelope on that single digit morning, I drive through a breezy blink-and-miss-it town with four bars and maybe 200 year round residents. It’s rare enough to see a dog wandering the quarter-mile downtown drag in the morning, let alone a person. It’s about guaranteed to spot a few snow tornados though, spooling and unspooling across the asphalt.

The runs are nicknamed by shape...

The runs are nicknamed by shape…

Right smack on the western edge of town runs a north-south ridge and the first glimpse at something that looks like skiing: bald patches between the timber, some running the full 1,500 vertical feet from the treed ridgetop to the lodgepole and aspen aprons at the base of it. The runs are nicknamed by shape: Duck, Question Mark, Bear, Marge Simpson, Bart Simpson, Illinois, Yeti. The ridge is fickle though. With the ridgetop elevation just shy of 10,000 feet, it needs lots of snow and cold temps to cover the sagebrush. We haven’t had enough of that yet by mid-January, I keep driving.

After five winters on the plains, I’ve learned to see beyond them. To not focus on what’s missing in the vastness, but to focus on what is present. At a tight pull-off, I park the truck, stick skins on my skis, buckle my boots and head out to find it.

Three miles of cold skinning brings me into a drainage with old ski runs cut in the timber above. By the time I start climbing, my hair is frosted and my bindings squeak. The skin track winds through tidy lodgepoles and skinny aspen groves. Near the top I cross an old lift-line: a long snow ribbon wearing imprints of s-turns. It’s a favorite line for the few folks who ski out here. It’s steep, though, and I head to something more mellow: some sparse trees and a series of pillowy meadows I know to hold good snow.

The snow-filled spaces between the trees are untracked save for the lopsided prints of a snowshoe hare. I pull my skins and buckle my helmet. In the fifty years since this ski area was in operation, the forest has begun to reclaim it, dense branches and trunks crowd the run-outs. My helmet is a good thing.

Dry January snow whispers as my skis slide through it. It’s deep and airy. A smile cracks my cold cheeks. Six sweeping turns later, I bust through tangled branches and pop out at the top of a meadow. The opening in the slope gives view to the Laramie Valley, a mostly flat expanse with so few features I feel I know each one intimately: the rounded bulge of Sheep Mountain, the pancake surface of Table Mountain, the crater-like depression of Big Hollow. I take a minute, take a breath, take it in.

In the years I’ve lived on the plains (far more than anticipated), I’ve hated them and I loved them. But in moments like this — a quiet still morning, skis and good snow underfoot, 600 feet of vertical to lap again and again — it doesn’t matter where I am. Whether I had to drive across wind-basted plains or I woke with snow capped peaks all around, skiing is skiing. I’ll take it.

(WildSnow guest blogger Manasseh Franklin is a writer and all around mountain enthusiast. She spends her weekdays teaching professional writing at the University of Wyoming and weekends finding her own inspiration in nearby backcountry.)


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24 Responses to “Wyoming Powder and the High Plains Backcountry Skier”

  1. Scott March 13th, 2019 9:07 am

    Beautifully written and captured the truth about skiing…as long as there’s snow under your skis, you’re in business!

    Reminds me of my “yucca bashing” years in the low foothills of Colorado on tele skis…powder snow is where you find it.

  2. Quasimoto March 13th, 2019 9:17 am

    As a Bostonian, my response to this piece is: cry me a river. Plenty of people drive long distances and ski 1500′ runs (and 3 hours is not a long drive in my book). It is apparent you feel the contrast with your previous life acutely, and that is something with which I can sympathize. However, in my view, whining about it just makes you seem a little on the side of clueless or stuck up.

    (Or, maybe, I’m just still bitter myself and am engaging in the tried-and-true, self-indulgent “I’ve got it worse than you”. You get to decide about that. I still think the tone distracts from the exploration of what it means to experience the consequences of the life choices we make.)

  3. Lou Dawson 2 March 13th, 2019 9:27 am

    Jeez Quasi, did you read the whole thing? It’s about a journey to acceptance. And yes, I think you might be suffering the “got it worse than you” syndrome. (smile) Lou

  4. Matt Kinney March 13th, 2019 11:06 am

    Good story as I’m in a similar situation (Spokane) accepting life without mountains at my doorstep. Not easy, chin up and skin on..

    lou…really interested in your thoughts and observations on the historic avalanche circus in your arena.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 March 13th, 2019 11:44 am

    Matt, normal cycles of the planet, we’ve had other enormous avalanches “100 year recurrence”) over the years. What’s interesting is we have to have a sort of “perfect storm” of circumstances to bring down the really big ones. They don’t all come down, and some actually come down during fairly average snow years. I think the media got all hyped because we did get a lot of snow, as well as a few big avalanches, and the CAIC is of course in the middle of it all and as they should, they shout loud. The drive-by media folks are always looking for something to, yeah, drive by for a moment before they’re of to the next over-hyped event. I’m enjoying most of it, other than the tragedies. Interesting we’ve had a few roof avalanche accidents, I’m not sure why someone would stand under a loaded roof ready to slide, or shovel up there without a safety line, but such happens. I used to shovel roofs in Crested Butte for a living. Brutal work, and lots of ropes. If anyone wants to bring in global warming, keep in mind that warmer air holds more moisture and can thus produce big snowfalls. I doubt that can be proved to be a factor here, but no doubt some folks will say it is. I wouldn’t know.

    Now, having said all that, if it keeps snowing I’ll be paying more attention. Our mountain cabin is buried with about 11 feet on the ground, most I’ve ever seen up there is 12. So when it goes over 12 I’ll eat my snow and howl in amazement. By then the news folks will be on to the next story.


  6. Matt Kinney March 13th, 2019 2:39 pm

    I too made a living shoveling to ski! Seriously hard work but a seriously good way to get in shape fo skiing if you weren’t too exhausted. Nothing like riding a “shoveler triggered” slab off a roof. Always fascinated with snow records. Look like it’s not over for CO with lowest pressure ever possible in the Plains. Enjoy and again a nice essay about leaving one’s roots.

  7. Aaron Mattix March 13th, 2019 7:31 pm

    Well written ode to enjoying one’s local gems!

    As it it’s somewhat in the area – any beta on ski touring Laramie Peak? I worked in Glendo for awhile, took a few ventures up to the area before I was into skiing, and now it’s on my fantasy list.

  8. BM March 13th, 2019 7:40 pm

    Matt, I’m flabbergasted you feel neglected in Spokane. I moved here from the Midwest largely for the ski proximity. Try getting skin laps at Mt Spokane before work (boot deep yesterday with a closed resort). Not too mention the 7 resorts within a short drive, plus all of BC at your fingertips. Happy to buy you a beer and convince you to love Spokaniski!

  9. Larry March 13th, 2019 7:44 pm

    Very nicely written, Manasseh. Thanks for sharing your gift of prose with us.

  10. Nick March 13th, 2019 9:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Manasseh and Lou. Would love to see more reflection pieces like this. I live in a spot some consider the high plains (Billings, MT) and also have about an hour to drive before reaching anything skiable. But those moments of the local, unhyped skiing and solitude more than make up for the lack of “up front” terrain. Your piece resonates and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  11. Markian Feduschak March 13th, 2019 9:32 pm

    Nicely written, thanks for sharing! The piece captures the stark beauty and lonliness of this part of WY, and learning to embrace it.

  12. Brian March 14th, 2019 8:33 am

    Glad the author thinks CP sucks. Keep telling people that…..;)

  13. Wookie1974 March 14th, 2019 8:42 am

    a couple hundred meters to lap, by yourself, with decent snow beats just about any hill you have to share. Nice piece.

    Lou: the Anti-Spam Quiz is busted. It does not accept the word “Lackey”

  14. Matt Kinney March 14th, 2019 8:55 am

    BM..actually I’m quite happy with the ski and mt. biking opportunities here and nearby Interior BC Canada. It’s why we moved to this place. Unfortunately recovering from neck fusion surgery which killed my season but may be able to ski soon on some gentle greens with corn. It’s not Valdez….. been there, done that, doing this now.

  15. Reukk March 14th, 2019 9:02 am

    Nice. Thank you for this.

  16. Kristian March 14th, 2019 9:41 am

    Be careful what you wish for. From Boulder CO, access to RMNP and Indian Peaks is an hour plus of driving. To get to any of the I-70 corridor ski areas on the weekends, you literally have to get up at 4am to beat the West bound traffic jam and full parking lots. (Not complaining; I used to regularly drive many hours on weekends to get to places like North Conway, NH.)

    Colorado has gone from the Telluride city limits camping of the early 1980’s to many many miles of gated high tech fenced offed private access exclusive gated absurdness of now. Aspen gentrification has been spreading…

    You should contact and visit institutions like INSTAAR and CIRES to learn how you can build on your experience and expand your career possibilities.

  17. Kristian March 14th, 2019 10:07 am

    And it’s also why not just tree huggers, but red neck populists support protections like Bears Ears to keep billionaire globalists from using legal guile to obtain and fence off thousands of acres for vanity ranches.

  18. Brock March 14th, 2019 11:50 am

    Well said, nothing better than a smile to crack cold cheeks. Thanks for being circumspect on the beta sharing — notwithstanding our wind induced population control, the locals appreciate it 🙂

  19. Lou Dawson 2 March 14th, 2019 12:32 pm

    Brock, wait, I’m starting an 8 hour drive tonight to ski that stuff. I heard 300 other people are doing so as well. Sorry about the crowding. Lou

  20. gman March 14th, 2019 1:23 pm

    My takeaway from this article is that living in Laramie is sort of like living in sterling Colorado, that it is flat as a pancake, there are no mountains surrounding the valley, and that skiing can sometimes be found in 600 vertical foot shots of sage on a good day. This is all very true, and we should all make note of the reasons it would be much more enjoyable to live in a Colorado mountain town.

  21. Brock March 14th, 2019 2:38 pm

    Lou, you might just enjoy a trip up here for a reprieve from the hassle and hype. As for the caravan of 300, the lack of cell service in these parts should be an adequate deterrent

  22. Kevin Woolley March 14th, 2019 6:04 pm

    Beautiful writing, makes me feel like I’ve been there minus the wind chapped face. I’ve looked at lots of sagebrushy places to ski in the summer in Utah, but most of their way to hard to get to human powered in the winter.

  23. Gary S March 16th, 2019 10:26 am

    Thanks Manasseh, beautiful imagery and great perspective for us fortunately located ones!

  24. Huge Ackman March 18th, 2019 1:36 pm

    This can’t be Happy Jack Ski area so it must be Barrett Ridge? I went to school in Laradise. It’s a great little community.

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