In my last spring break post, I highlighted the first day and a half that Elizabeth and I spent in Breckenridge, Colorado over my last college Spring Break. Over the course of the post, I noted that my first full day there had started off pretty crappy (work, migraine) and gradually gotten better from there – ending in an afternoon of puppy greeting, hot tubbing, and an awesome dinner. This post is going to be the exact opposite – an awesome morning and afternoon will give way to a nightmarish evening. All part of the vacationing process, I guess!
I woke up early once more on Sunday, March 13 and needed some true willpower to convince myself to go back to sleep. We all really needed the rest, so I fitfully dozed until the noises of the ski slopes in Breckenridge brought me back to the regular world once more. This time, when I opened the blinds to check out the window, I was both more and less prepared for the view than I had been the day before. It turned out, today was beautiful:
There was also no time to waste in getting ready. Elizabeth had agreed to try out our snowshoes officially for the first time with me this morning, and Michael and Irene wanted to tag along. However, they needed to leave for an engagement party of a friend of theirs back in Denver before noon. So, given that it was already 9:00, I figured that I ought to nudge Elizabeth into getting ready for the day.
My brief foray outside to take that picture had proven to me that it was indeed as warm as anyone could ask for out of 10,000 feet in mid-March. I didn’t even need winter gear, just a sweatshirt and sweatpants over hiking boots. Seriously, the weather was perfect outside.
We loaded up on some delicious hotel breakfast, and then grabbed our snowshoes to meet Michael and Irene. According to Google, the Nordic Center in Breckenridge had some top-tier snowshoe trails. According to the lady at the hotel front desk, we could just take the gondola over from Peak 8 to Peak 7 and then be close to the Nordic Center. Elizabeth and I figured that was a great way to handle things since our compatriots were short on time. So we bid good-bye to Winston, who was going to go skiing again that morning, and Terri and Pam, who were going to hang out in the hotel room, and the two of us walked out to the gondola entrance pretty much directly outside of our hotel. (Convenient!)
Well, what we hadn’t considered is that the front desk lady had no idea what she was doing. We left from the red dotted line below the Grand Colorado in the image below, and went across two vertices of the gondola shape. Look where the Nordic Center is. We essentially still had to make the same walk, much of it uphill. While carrying bulky snowshoes and hiking poles. I had a nasty little bruise going on the side of my arm by the time we’d hiked halfway back to where we came from.
But no matter. We had arrived at the Breckenridge Nordic Center, a mid-sized building built in the standard Swiss A-Frame style you see everywhere in Colorado. In the back of the building lay a rack where the cross-country skis and snowshoes of all of the center-goers. Elizabeth and I gravitated over there because why wouldn’t you? In the process, we never went inside, and thus missed out on the realization that you have to pay to access the trails behind the Nordic Center. Once Michael informed us of our mistake, I still refused to pay on the grounds that making people pay $25 to go for a walk is pure upper-class bullshit. Sorry, Nordic Center.
Michael didn’t tell us this right away, because he was busy trying to figure out how to sneak Oakley. Shocker: dogs aren’t allowed on snowshoe and ski trails. I never doubted for a second that he and Irene would find a way to sneak their dog out onto the trail. Neither did the two old people who were standing guard out at the entrance to the ski area. After denying Michael’s appeal to carry the dog above the snow in a baby carrier, the two of them muttered about how he was going to cut around the property with his rented snowshoes and bring the dog out anyway. They were right. It wasn’t my problem to intervene, so I just put snowshoes on with Elizabeth and Irene and we got ready to hike our trail.
If I’m being honest, we didn’t need snowshoes for the trails we were on. After a long winter in Colorado, the trails were packed hard enough that I’m sure boots would have sufficed. It was more the principle of the thing, you know? And by the same token, I stepped off the trail with Elizabeth and Irene in the first couple of minutes – and promptly sunk several feet deep into powder. A lesson learned, if I cared to learn it.
One of the things I quickly discerned was that the Nordic Center wanted to keep ski trails and snowshoe trails separate. Since the snowshoes have big old spikes underneath them, I can understand why. We conscientiously tried to steer clear of the ski trails and stay in our lane, so to speak. It was a little bit harder than hiking, but not terrible with the level surface, and our traction was phenomenal. I felt like I could run downhill if I wanted. On top of that, it truly was a beautiful morning. The sun was out, the sky was a pure blue, and it was warming into the mid-30s. In Michigan, we called days like this “spring”.
I still wanted to get some nice mountain views going. Lo and behold, the trail we were on opened into a large snow-covered meadow after about 5 minutes. I quickly recognized this as the same meadow the gondola passes under on the way to town. Notwithstanding that, it had quite the view. The Tenmile Range shone as if on display:
This was about the time that Michael caught up to us after taking a roundabout method to get on the trail while towing a large golden retriever puppy. They were nice enough to get some pictures of Elizabeth and myself in our brand new snowshoes on their first use.
Then the four of us did a rather brief loop around the meadow, passing under the gondola, over a frozen creek, and into some stands of trees. Snow clung to the branches in a particularly picturesque fashion:
We sort of kept it moving since the two of them were already late for their return drive to Denver for the party. That meant some shortcuts through the woods, some shortcuts over the pristine ski trails, and a lot of me cringing while waiting for some officious Nordic Center employee to see the rules we were breaking. Fortunately, we avoided the worst-case scenario. I enjoyed the walk. The view wasn’t “expansive mountain vistas” (I was pretty resigned to the fact that you could only get this on the ski slopes). It felt a little bit “corporate” to walk on a paid trail, too. But I enjoyed the time spent with Michael and Irene, and the sun shining through the pine trees that still had some snow cover on them was picturesque enough to make me finally feel like I was in the Colorado Rockies like I’d been looking forward to recently. Much too soon, it was time for them to go.
Elizabeth and I bid adieu to Michael and Irene (who once again had to take a roundabout route back to avoid being caught with Oakley) and headed back to the Nordic Center to plan our next move. To be honest, there was not really a good way back up to the hotel. That’s when I had a moment of galaxy brain clarity – what if we just walked over to the gondola stop? I asked one of the guard dudes if I could take a picture of the map and we strapped our snowshoes back on. Already, I could see that the used snowshoes had some defects – particularly the hiking poles, which like to pop apart on almost no notice and refused to stay in place. This time I just carried my poles so I could keep track of our walk back to the gondola. What had been a 20-minute slog down the hill and back up on the road was a delightful 10-minute stroll across the snowy fields to a small hill we needed to climb to get on the gondola. Much better.
Elizabeth had promised to get reservations at Robbie’s Tavern for lunch. When we got to the gondola, her Yelp wasn’t working, so I had to download the app to get us on the waiting list for a little over an hour from then. Perfect. The gondola clattered its way back up to Peak 8 for us, and the waitlist time gave the two of us a chance to unburden ourselves from the surprisingly heavy snowshoe gear. On top of that, it gave us a chance to pick up Terri and direct her to the restaurant. Winston met us inside some time later with a story to tell. While the four of us had been slumming down in the valley all morning, he had taken the ski lifts as high as they would go and then hiked the rest of the way to the top of Peak 8, all the way at 12,998 feet. The descent apparently was less than graceful, but that doesn’t matter. He made it.
The wait turned out to be much longer than anticipated for lunch. I didn’t particularly care, and I didn’t even care too much that we didn’t have a booth with a view of the mountain. The restaurant was clearly short-staffed, so I just wanted to get our food and not cause too much trouble for the existing staff. We managed – barely. Never count out the ability of a Fairchild meal to end up with some funky orders or appetizers or people showing up late – Pam in this case. My burrito was somewhere in the range of “good”, and the pretzel balls were decent. I would definitely go back to Robbie’s at a less-busy time.
The after-lunch period proved to be a period where we all split up. Unlike my alone time the day before, this was pretty fun for me. Elizabeth and Terri went to tear up the slopes one last time at my encouragement. Winston went in search of some scary bowls or something. Pam went back to the room and did… something. That left me to continue hiking in a new spot. This time I did my due diligence on the Internets, aided by a local One Ski Hill Place employee and got a good trail to hike on. On the far side of Peak 7, one gondola stop and a hike across the base of the ski slope away, a little trail started. I immediately noticed the snowshoe tracks leading past the hotels toward the woods. This was the start of the Peaks Trail, which goes almost all the way to I-70 in the town of Frisco. In the summer, the Peaks Trail is probably a rewarding, albeit difficult point-to-point hike. Here in the winter, it was a good chance for me to get away from the constant murmur of noise around the ski slopes of Breckenridge and just enjoy the solitude of the mountains the way God and John Muir intended.
The trail wound somewhat uphill to the north, with some broad switchbacks and generally mild inclines. For the most part my vision of the nearby peaks was obscured by big Ponderosa pines. If I’d found the little pine trees around the gondola area to be picturesque, then these were a true vision in the beauty of the outdoors. The sun shone through in a filtered fashion to add to the serene element. Heck, I could even hear (and at points, see) a few little creeks running far below the snowpack I tramped over. *This* was the life.
I think I probably hiked out for about half an hour before turning around. Along the way, I met a few people, almost all of whom were just in regular shoes instead of my snowshoe rig. If there were any animals, they remained at bay. But I finally got a sweeping mountain vista that I had sorely missed the whole trip thus far. A small opening in the trail led to 20 steps through 3 feet of sink-y snow that my snowshoes were not up to the task of keeping me on top of. But the view was worth standing there waist-deep in snow. There was literally no sound.
This is probably where the Breckenridge portion of the trip peaked. Two fun hikes in the day, and a nice lunch in between. Complete solitude in the mountains. A sunny, relatively warm day. Fun times with Elizabeth’s family and a decent amount of rest. All of this was true by mid-afternoon on Sunday, March 13, and it was all going to go downhill from here. Not instantly. I traipsed back to the gondola to head back to Peak 8, stopped in one bend on the trail to sit down and enjoy the silence again. Once I got back to Peak 8, I found Elizabeth and Terri sitting at the bottom at one of the multitudinous tables outside the hotels, drinking hot chocolate. The return of Internet serviced provided the gratifying news to me that Michigan had made the NCAA tournament. And after that, Elizabeth and I went and hot tubbed. So it wasn’t an immediate downhill by any stretch of the imagination. But down we were going.
Dinner on Sunday night was at another fancy restaurant called Aurum just off of Main Street. It was still a beautiful evening, but with a bit of a chilly bluster that belied my shorts. Aurum was sort of a new-age Swiss interior with a comfortable booth for us across from the bar. They had locally sourced, sustainable food that was also delicious. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining about my meal from the restaurant. The brussels sprouts were delicious.
Nor would I dare complain about the hospitality. The staff was phenomenal, patient, and prompt. They cut Winston’s birthday cake that we had brought to dinner for the second consecutive night. When Pam and Winston decided to do the famous 21st birthday mother-child shot, the bartender set them up nicely. Seriously, they were awesome.
But the meal was. So. Long. We were there for hours, no exaggeration. Part of it was the tiered courses. Another part was that we finished the meal slowly, encouraged by the lively good times and fun stories the five of us shared. Add in the cake cutting, and the hubbub around the birthday shot, and it was getting well into bedtime by the time Terri and I ventured outside to get the rental car. At some point, our beautiful day had been replaced by a squall of heavy, large snowflakes driven in the wind. And I was still wearing shorts, but I’ll be damned if I let anyone know I’m cold. Terri and I braved the 3 blocks back to the car to pick up the other three.
There, it transpired that a combination of altitude, never drinking ever, and a larger-than-normal shot had conspired to make Pam drunk. This was unfortunate on several levels, not least of which being the form she needed to mail back to Virginia ASAP that we were taking care of at 10:30 p.m. for some reason. A tense 20 or so minutes followed wherein Elizabeth tried unsuccessfully to find a FedEx dropbox before we finally gave up and decided to head back to the hotel. Terri, Winston, and Pam had a ridiculously early drive to the airport the next morning, and Elizabeth and I planned on hitching a ride back to DIA so we could get our own rental car for the next chapter of our Spring Break. When I got back, it transpired that nobody had packed. The next hour was a bustle of packing suitcases, giving them to Nolan, and Nolan expertly filling the car. We obviously wouldn’t be getting a full night of sleep.
If that was all, it would have been a mere blemish on what had been an awesome day, not a true unraveling. But in the middle of the night, when I’d only been asleep for like 2 hours, the fire alarm suddenly went off. It was a piercing alarm interspersed with a disembodied voice pronouncing, “Evacuate. Immediately”. I panicked and ran out into the common area in my underwear to confirm it wasn’t all on fire, then paused long enough to put on actual clothes before running away from the room.
To that point, I’d assumed the entire building had an evacuation order. In reality, our room was the only one with the voice telling us to leave. Lovely. Sheepishly, I got in an elevator with Elizabeth and Winston and went to the lobby to explain our predicament. My childhood fear of fire alarms was really resurfacing in the sleepy hotel. The staff did yeoman’s work getting us resituated in another empty suite in the middle of the night while simultaneously coordinating with Breckenridge Fire Department. Props to them. As for myself, I had unwittingly left my mouthguard on the armchair in the hotel lobby, so I couldn’t even sleep in this new emergency suite for the few hours we had left before it was time for everyone to leave. At some point, Pam insisted that Elizabeth and I should sleep in so that we could be more rested for Estes Park. I was too exhausted to argue. When Pam came back from a chat with the hotel where she confirmed it was a humidifier in Elizabeth and my room (!) that had tripped the fire alarm, and that we were safe to go back, she offered to get us a shuttle to the airport. It was 5:00 a.m. and I had barely slept, so I accepted blearily then stumbled into bed.
Like I said, Sunday, March 15 was an awesome day to start. Great hikes, great people, great meals. But when it crashed, it crashed hard. I was left to hope this wouldn’t be a sign of things to come for Elizabeth and my 4 solo days in Estes Park.