Peter Shelton

Private Skiing

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on February 17, 2011

There’s a famous wave in Indonesia called Nihiwatu. It peels across the beachfront of an exclusive resort on the island of Sumba, east of Bali. The wave proceeds from left to right – that is looker’s left, if, for example, you were nursing a beer in the resort’s open-air dining room and gazing out to the horizon.

Most of the videos on You-Tube show the wave empty, no rider, just a luscious, orderly green wall advancing to shore with the foam of the curl eating its way left-to-right at about the speed a surfer would travel on his board.

There are arguably lots of waves like this in Indonesia. This one is different because the resort owner, an American named Graves, has decreed – and he can do this apparently, because it’s his beach – that no more than 10 surfers will be out in the lineup at any one time. On a good day at Malibu or Trestles, or any other well-loved break you could name, you would be sharing the wave with three or four hundred of your closest friends.

We have a situation analogous to Nihiwatu right here in Ouray County. I am referring, of course, to the nordic track at Top of the Pines above Ridgway. On Sunday last, a balmy, blue-sky day, at the lazy man’s hour of 9:30 a.m., I skated away from the parking area at TOP utterly alone; mine were the first herringbone tracks of the day, my car the only car there.

The track at TOP drops sharply from the trailhead knoll into the bowl of what, in summer, is a shallow lake surrounded by ponderosa pines. This used to be the old Girl Scout Camp. My girls spent overnights here complete with campfires and s’mores and lightning splitting a black night sky. The county owns it now, and TOP manages the 175 acres for open space, recreation and wilderness education.

The track circles the lake then climbs into the trees on a loop called The Back Forty. This is so different from Telluride’s mostly-open Valley Floor, or the long railroad grades of Lizard Head Pass. The trail snakes across rollercoaster terrain, up and down tight little draws, through man-high oak brush and around the big, red-bark trunks and dappled shade of the long-needle ponderosas.

Every twist holds a surprise, some change of attitude or aspect, a different pitch or snow quality. You’ve gotta be on your toes, shifting gears like a sports car driver, milking glide on the climbs, hanging out a half-snowplow brake here and there on the fastest descents.

I was about three-quarters of the way around the loop when I saw Sara Ballantyne pumping effortlessly up the hill behind me. I stopped to let her by, and she stopped, too, though she didn’t have to.

Sara is an aerobic machine. She was the World Mountain Bike Champion three times before she moved to Ridgway and started a family. Isn’t it nice, she said. The track is in the best shape of the season. She was just getting in a spin before heading to the airport to visit her mother in California. Chris was behind her putting a finishing touch on the track with the snowmobile.

Chris is her husband Chris Haaland, who has for the last few years been TOP’s volunteer groomer. When I ran into him later back at the lake, he shut the snowmachine down, and we stood in the sun and talked, White House and Teakettle and Sneffels cartoonishly grand in the background.

Wasn’t the track in beautiful shape, he said. Following the most recent snowstorm, his Polaris had broken down and he hadn’t been able to groom. But a neighbor on Miller Mesa, John Kuijvenhoven, had come out with his snowcat and laid down the exquisite skating lane I had been enjoying.

Kuijvenhoven had also used his cat to pack out the steep sledding hill in front of us. Haaland’s daughter Emma and another 10-year-old friend were shrieking with delight as their plastic saucers careened off the track and plowed through the powder on the sides. Chris joined them on the hike back to the top where they conspired to jerry rig a three-person, double-jointed toboggan – Chris and Emma on one piece of plastic, the other little girl on the saucer clinging behind.

Which way shall we go? Chris asked. Down the middle? Into the powder?

Just go! came the high-pitched answer.

I took one more circuit around the lake. My skis were fast on the smooth, hard surface. It was like sailing without a sail.

It was 11:30 on a brilliant Sunday morning, and there were two vehicles in the TOP parking lot, Chris Haaland’s and mine.


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