Pristine pistes await on Copper Mountain
Snow squeaks beneath my horse’s hooves as we plod slowly through a narrow rift in the powder. It’s heavy going for Lola, a dappled mare who exhales great clouds of steamy breath as she picks her way through hoof holes made by the pack ahead.
The snow comes up to my knees, even as I sit 16 hands in the air, but it’s nothing to a horse like Lola, used to carrying bundles of heavy ski equipment to the top of the mountain so that her cowboy owners can make fresh tracks through the abundant powder on their land.
Skiing and cowboys seem an unlikely combination, but ranch-owning families were working the land and skiing the slopes decades before the tourism boom of the 1960s.
‘‘There hasn’t been a day in the last 78 years that I haven’t either ridden a horse or skied the mountain,’’ says Ray Heid, an 84-year-old cowboy whose family have been here for six generations. ‘‘As soon as the kids are old enough to walk, we strap skis on their feet and push them down the drive, and then the mountain.’’
He’s dressed in a battered cowboy hat and incredible floor-length fur coat made from the skins of elk which he hunted himself and the assorted furs of road kill.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of the life the Heid family live. The countryside is unparalleled in its beauty, the skies above are almost obscenely blue and all around us the icy landscape twinkles in the morning sun.
The views of Copper Mountain from the slopes
We make our way through forests of bare, brutal aspen trees, their bark scarred top to bottom by bear claws. Ray points out a coyote and a bushy-coated fox which makes its British cousin look embarrassingly shabby.
It’s unforgiving terrain, covered for months each year by several feet of snow. But these cowboys are hardy folk – on the drive back to Steamboat, we pass a farmer feeding his herd of cows with a pack of hay-laden horses, his young kids bundled into a sledge pulled behind.
As you’d expect, so much snow on the ground translates to an exceptional skiing experience on the nearby Rocky Mountains. I’ve been skiing and snowboarding for 20 years in Europe, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. Colorado is a paradise for snow sports enthusiasts: hundreds of miles of wide, practically empty slopes and paths through trees so laden with snow it’s a wonder they’re still standing.
Cowboy trek through the snow
Steamboat is famous for its “Champagne powder”, a term coined by a local ranger in the 1950s who said that the snow tickled his nose like Champagne.
It’s so dry, light and feathery that it’s impossible to make a snowball with. Needless to say, Champagne powder slips smoothly and speedily beneath your skis, and makes for the softest, pillowy landings if you fall.
I spend the day with a guide called Gable (his mother was rather a fan of Clark), who has me spinning all over wonderfully-named slopes such as Biscuits, Heavenly Daze and Rolex. There are also absolute treats of pistes with names that correlate with the times of day that the sun hits them – High Noon, Two O’Clock, etc.After a full day of Champagne powder, we head to the local hot springs, where, we’re told, clothing is optional after dark.
It’s a strange feeling, undressing amongst a snowdrift as my teeth chatter, but a quick plunge into the boiling hot spring and I feel all my snowboarding aches and pains melt away.
Steamboat’s wonderfully wide slopes
Steamboat is named after one of these very springs. When French hunters arrived in the 1800s, in the midst of a dense fog, they heard a strange chugging sound from a natural spring, and mistook it for a steam train, christening the town for future generations.
We’re staying in the opulent One Steamboat Place, as enormous collection of private residences and rentals that is so grand we’re surprised we aren’t bumping into Hollywood stars. This place takes ski-in, ski-out to the next level – my balcony overlooks the nursery slope, where toddlers bundled up in pastels hurtle down the piste with alarming speed – and skill.
It’s as if I’ve died and gone to some sort of snow-fuelled afterlife. But the start of my trip wasn’t nearly as smooth. After flying to Denver, we travelled straight to Copper Mountain, one of the highest resorts in the US. The resort itself is almost 3,000m above sea level, and its highest lift goes to 3,750m. We arrived at the resort late and, after a quick bite to eat, headed to bed, excited for the next day on the slopes.
But when I woke up, it felt as if my head was in a vice and my eyeballs were being squeezed from my skull. Another of my group felt similarly dreadful, but we put it down to jet lag and being wrapped up in our ski gear.
Conditions were near perfect, with softly falling snow and deliciously wide and empty slopes. But I managed just three runs before I was struck by waves of nausea. I spent much of the next 24 hours in my hotel room, vomiting and feeling as if an elephant was treading on my head. The next morning I visited the local clinic, where doctors nonchalantly confirmed I had acute altitude sickness and hooked me up to a tank of oxygen. This is not unusual in Copper Mountain, it turns out – an estimated 40 per cent of people who come straight from sea level (jetting in from Heathrow, for example) will succumb.
I was baffled and explained to the doctor that last year I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru at a similar elevation and felt completely fine, but she explained that the key is to ascend the mountain gradually, spending a night in Denver, then moving to a lower altitude resort such as Steamboat before braving the heights of Copper Mountain.
Cozy room at One Steamboat place
Thirty minutes of blissful, life-giving oxygen later and I felt like a new woman, only with a $350 medical bill to boot (this is why suitable ski insurance is essential).
Thankfully, we were due to move down to Steamboat later that day anyway, and, at the much more civilised altitude of 2,000m, I felt completely fine again.
After five days in Colorado, I can truly say the state has been a place of real highs and lows for me.
But the payoff – Champagne powder and skiing cowboys – made it oh so worth it.
Icelandair has return flights from Heathrow to Denver via Reykjavik starting at £487 (icelandair.co.uk).
Rooms at Tucker Mountain Lodge start at $173 a night
A four bedroom lodge at One Steamboat Place starts at $1,816 a night B&B (moving mountains.com). Ski wear courtesy of Helly Hansen. (hellyhansen.com). More info at steamboat.com