The place to go for early season snow: X-country teams drawn to Mesa | Western Colorado

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Until a few months ago, Nordic ski enthusiasts were faced with the prospect of seeing log trucks operating in the heart of their network of trails in November and December.

Instead, planned logging work was postponed, and machines of a different type traveled for miles on the trails of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council. Elite endurance athletes, including out-of-state varsity cross-country teams, flock to Grand Mesa to enjoy the early-season groomed trails that Grand Mesa is increasingly known for.

In the same year that the Grand Mesa Nordic Council feared they couldn’t offer much in the way of skiing until Christmas Day, it ended up being able to open groomed trails much earlier, which happened. proven to be beneficial for scrambling ski teams. find snow to practice.

A dry November prevented the opening of tracks in other places that teams often rely on for early season training.

“Usually we’re in West Yellowstone, MT this week,” said Miles Havlick, head coach of the University of Utah Nordic skiers.

He said West Yellowstone has canceled an annual ski festival due to lack of snow on its Nordic trails this year. Havlick went looking for other places to take his skiers this year, and Christie Aschwanden, executive director of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council and former Nordic racer of the Rossignol team, sent him information on the slopes of Grand Mesa and their condition.

“We decided to come here and check it out, and it’s been a great experience so far,” Havlick said earlier this week.

Utah’s Nordic skiers are part of an accomplished college program. The University of Utah ski team won this year’s NCAA National Championship, which is determined based on the results of male and female athletes in alpine and Nordic events. He had also won other recent championships and was leading the 2020 competition before it was cut short by the pandemic.

“We have a very strong team and we hope to maintain it this year as well,” said Havlick.

Part of the key to achieving this is the early season training time on the snow. Havlick, who grew up in Boulder, is worried about the challenges climate change could pose in the years to come.

“You see more and more alpine resorts becoming snow dependent, especially at this time of year, and there aren’t as many Nordic sites that have snowmaking capabilities, at least for the instant, “he said.

THREAT OF OPERATION AVOIDED

The Grand Mesa Nordic Council doesn’t rely on snow cover, but elevation – with runs over 10,000 feet – to be able to offer skiing earlier in the season than many other trail systems. The group’s trail maintenance work is helping prevent early snow from melting as the Nordic Council awaits the onset of deep winter with more snow and colder temperatures.

Much of the grooming is focused on Scales Lake Road, a main artery in the trail system that is also easier to clean and open as it is smoother than the other routes. It is a major link between the Skyway and County Line portions of the trail system.

But a US Forest Service logging project to be carried out by Montrose Forest Products was to use this road for logging trucks after the snow arrived this year, until December 23. The logging project was planned for the winter because the rock and soil conditions on mesa make operations difficult on bare ground.

But the Grand Mesa Nordic Council opposed the logging plans because of the impacts they would have had before Christmas on a system that excels at providing early-season skiing.

The Forest Service finally decided to postpone felling for more than a year. It is now scheduled for February and March 2023.

This eliminates early season impacts, and the Grand Mesa Nordic Council expects more snow later in the season to help prepare temporary alternate roads connecting the Skyway and County Line areas when construction works. logging will take place.

Ella DeWolf is the head coach of the men’s and women’s Nordic ski teams at Colorado Mesa University (with Aschwanden’s husband, Dave, assistant coach). DeWolf said she was concerned about the logging project before it was postponed. The Trail System on Grand Mesa is the home training course for the CMU program.

It’s a bit more demanding on the program than other teams may have to travel to their home courses, DeWolf said.

“But we have much better snow at the start of the season than the others,” she said.

The University of Wyoming men’s and women’s teams also trained on the mesa this week and are scheduled to depart on Sunday morning.

Runners from the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club also took advantage of the November conditions on the slopes.

DeWolf said it was great to have other teams training there, and she saw quite a few members of the general public enjoying the trails as well, including people of all ages, some from between them joined by their dogs.

She said that while the Forest Service may have been a little disappointed to postpone the logging, she is glad she was able to do so.

DeWolf added: “I think Christie Aschwanden has done a great job working for us to have snow early in the season.”

Aschwanden said: “I think it was huge for these teams from all over the region to be able to come here and train.”

She said not having had access to Scales Lake Road “would have been the end of the game” for early season skiing on the Grand Mesa trails this year.

Aschwanden said the elevation of the trail system is high enough that even when there isn’t a lot of snow conditions tend to be good. She said the system is already seeing a lot of recreational users this season and that she expects good numbers over this holiday weekend.

“While we are very happy to host these elite teams, we are preparing for everyone and we want everyone to come and enjoy these tracks,” she said.

Team visits generate economic benefits for the region.

“They fill the lodges and go to restaurants and stuff,” Aschwanden said.

Havlick said members of the Utah team, including seven athletes, two coaches and a track coach, had shopped locally and stayed at the Powderhorn Mountain Resort while in the area.

Christi Boggs, co-coach of the University of Wyoming team, said 20 people from that team came to the mesa this week, staying at the Grand Mesa Lodge near the trails.

“We’re having a Thanksgiving dinner,” she said Wednesday. “We’re going to go to town today and spend a lot of money on food. “

The Wyoming team chose to come here after evaluating options which included trying to train among crowds of skiers using only about 3 miles of groomed trail available on Rabbit Ears Pass outside of Steamboat Springs. .

Boggs said University of Wyoming graduate DeWolf told him about the good conditions at Grand Mesa.

Boggs believes the mesa is becoming well known to Nordic teams.

“This is by far one of the best places, and especially in a year with little snow,” she said.

She likes the number of miles of groomed, but not too hilly, slopes, which allows skiers to spend a lot of time on skis to get used to being on the snow for another season.

Grand Mesa offers “a lot of skiing, nice, moderate terrain and a lot of snow so it’s a win across the board,” she said.

Malaki Rhode, who manages the Grand Mesa Lodge, said that in addition to hosting the Wyoming team, the lodge hosted around 20 people from the Aspen Ski Club last weekend.

“Fortunately, they won this battle,” Rhode said of the Nordic Council’s success in changing logging plans. “… Lucky for us too.”

He said the lodge’s seasonal hunter clientele has left and it is still too early for snowmobilers and ice fishermen, so it’s good to have large groups of skiers at the lodge for a bit of shoulder season. .

“It is certain that it is beneficial for us. It’s nice to have different demographics here, ”he said.

Rhode was born and raised in Cedaredge and skied the Grand Mesa slopes while growing up. He said the trails weren’t as well-known back then, but now draw people every day of the week from all over the state.

“These are the best (Nordic trails) in the state, in my personal opinion. I think people are willing to travel for it, ”he said.

Said Havlick, the Utah coach, “It was a great experience and if the opportunity arises we will definitely be back.”

His only qualm on the Grand Mesa trails is the altitude. He said the Utah team runs at lower elevations so they usually don’t train that high because it’s harder to train at more intense paces that mimic race conditions. But what is important for him at this time of year is to have time on the snow before the racing season. As the weather gets more irregular, the team seems to be going higher and higher to find snow early in the season, and Grand Mesa is a great resource for the team, just a five hour drive from Salt Lake City, he said.

DeWolf said the CMU team is able to train in dry, low-elevation terrain in Grand Junction and climb high for cross-country and technical training on skis. While it would be nice to do more intense workouts on skis than the altitude of Grand Mesa allows, “the high altitude is kind of the reason we have snow so we can’t complaining too much, ”she said.

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