Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Powder Day at Monarch Mountain

Before I moved to Colorado, I never knew much about Monarch Mountain.  It gets overshadowed by the big resorts.  Most of the skiers at Monarch are locals.  While it's not a huge resort, most people speak highly of it.  It also happens to be the closest ski area to where I live.

When I originally saw the stats for Monarch I wasn't too impressed.  There is less than 1200 lift served vertical feet and only 53 trails.  For Colorado standards, these aren't impressive figures.  All the locals seem to like Monarch though so I thought I'd give it a try.  There were some nice qualities about the mountain.  It sits along the Continental Divide with a summit elevation just shy of 12000 feet with ample natural snow.  It doesn't get too crowded like the big resorts.  The prices are downright cheap compared to the big resorts.  The mountain is only 40 minutes or so from my house.

On Monday I had my first opportunity to ski Monarch.  I just heard about a free day of skiing on Monday with the donation of two canned goods to support a local food bank.  I couldn't pass up that opportunity.

At the time I heard of the promotion, all of Monarch's lift served terrain was open.  Conditions improved greatly before I arrived.  A storm came through on the weekend.  By Monday morning, more than a foot of fresh dry powder arrived.  As I headed to the slopes Monday morning under bluebird skies, I expected a nice day of skiing.  Things got better.  As I approached Monarch and started climbing the pass it started snowing.  The snow would continue the rest of the day at the ski area and drop another 6 or so inches through the day.  A total of 20 inches of fresh snow the past two days.  It never got warmer than the mid teens, keeping the snow quite powdery.  This was my first time skiing in Colorado for many years and a great reintroduction to skiing in the state.

I was in line when the lifts started turning and continued skiing nonstop until about 2PM.  This was my first time on the slopes this year.  I started out on an easy run and went down a groomed trail.  Even the groomer had about a half foot of fresh snow on it.  My last time on the slopes, last March, at Owl's Head, Quebec, I skied on the hardest glaze ice where it was nearly impossible to grab an edge.  It took me a few runs to adapt to this dry powder.  To add a little more challenge to the powder, a fairly heavy snow was falling causing flat light and a little difficulty reading the terrain, even with my goggles.  The last time I skied this much real snow was a couple years ago at Jay Peak, Vermont where a storm dumped 14 inches over the course of the day.  That snow was somewhat heavy though, this was fluffy and dry.

Heavy snow on the trees on
an early ride up the lift
Low visibility as it snows
It took me a handful of runs to adapt to the powder using my fairly narrow East Coast skis.  After my first five or so runs I started to explore Monarch's trails.  I worked my way from lift to lift and hit nearly every open black run and majority of the blues.  Despite being small, Monarch has respectable terrain.  There was decent pitch to many of the black diamonds.   My favorite runs were High Anxiety, a fairly steep black diamond with tons of powder and Sheer-Rocko, a narrow and fairly steep black trail running under the Panorama Lift.  By afternoon I worked my way to the black terrain around the Pioneer Chair.  By this time of the day my thighs were burning on every run from playing in the deep powder.  This area had some nice terrain with plenty of deep snow covering it.  The trails were relatively short, but by this time in the day, I couldn't handle a prolonged steep powder run.  Even though the snow was skied through later in the day, it never got bumpy.  Even where the snow got pushed around you could ski right through it because it was so light and fluffy.

Looking up Sheer-Rocko from the lift, it's steeper
than it looks
Looking down High Anxiety
A look back up High Anxiety
A section of trees.  I'm not sure if this is Ajax or the bottom of Examiner
Upper Noname I believe
Even with the free skiing and fresh powder, the mountain never seemed crowded even though I  heard a few people comment about the amount of people skiing.  I never had to wait more than 2 minutes at the most to get on a lift.  I only shared a chair a few times the entire day and usually I could ski right onto a chair.

Despite improvements to the lodge recently, Monarch is a bare bones mountain for those looking to ski and not for luxury.  There are only four lifts serving the upper parts of the mountain.  3 of the 4 were doubles, without safety bars and the only quad wasn't high speed.  I didn't linger in the lodge but it seemed like basic cafeteria style food.
Riding up Pioneer Lift
Despite the low vertical, the terrain was enough to entertain me for the day, especially with the deep, fresh powder.  The powder was consistently knee-deep with powder hitting me above the waist on some trails as I turned.  I would have liked to explored more but the mountain had enough to tire me out.  The only area I truly can't suggest is the Gunbarrel  Trail.  This is the trail that descends to the parking lot.  It is fairly steep trail but there is an uphill traverse that requires hiking to reach it.  Save it for the last run only when you want to get to the parking lot.

Looking up Gunbarrel
One aspect of Monarch  that I would like to visit is the Mirkwood Basin.  This is an area of inbounds, hike-to sidecountry terrain with open bowls and trees.  There wasn't enough snow to open it however when I was there.  I'll be sure to check it out another time.

For an advanced skier, Monarch seems like a worthwhile trip.  I didn't explore the green terrain but what I saw seemed to have a few flat spots and for blues, there didn't seem to be a lot of cruiser trails.  The lack of cruiser trails may have been hidden by the powder however.  Although short, the black diamond terrain seemed to be fun and worth checking out.  For anyone that has skied in the east, the place had somewhat of a Mad River Glen vibe to it.  There's not a ton of grooming, it has an old school feel, and it's a no frills ski area focused on the skiing.

Trail Map Click this link for the trail map
Monarch Click on this link to find out more about Monarch

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