“25 Breckenridge Faves,” co-written with Irene Thomas (Click here to download a PDF of the original article)
“Babes in the Backcountry” (Click here to download a PDF of the original article)
Soak It In
(appeared on pages 6-7)
In the simmering sanctuary of a mountain hot tub, we confront the elements—and ourselves.
I swear I heard a squeak—like wet balloons rubbing against one another—when the taut-and-toned skin of the two twentysomethings first collided. I was schlepping grocery bags back to my family’s hotel room when I noticed the couple, pressing hard and careless against one another in a hot tub.
The sun was on its final tilt, stretching light long and orange, but dark was still an hour away. Three manorexic college boys nursing cans of cheap beer sat in another tub, also staring, their mouths agape. A circle of prune-skinned seniors softly chuckled and cooed, lightly encouraging the passionate display. The two lovers knit their mouths together, completely unaware of their audience.
There are lots of iconic symbols of life in the mountains: The glow of aspens in the fall. Glittery fresh powder. Pristine mountain streams. Sunshine on your shoulders. Whatever. You want a symbol? I say it’s the hot tub.
Think about it for a moment: Like life in a mountain town, a hot tub is totally decadent with just a hint of dirty. Space and sometimes privacy are limited; germs and gossip spread quickly. It’s okay for children in small doses, but it’s primarily a place made for athletes, adventurous single folks, and successful retirees. It can be difficult to maintain, in both terms of cost and convenience. And even a three-degree temperature change, in either direction, can make the difference between a good day and a bad one.
But we’re not talking Jacuzzis here, the foo-foo indoor cousins of the hot tub. I’m talking the real deal—outdoors, in the ground or on a wooden deck, in the snow. Thick brown foam-and-vinyl insulating covers that burp steam like a new piece of Tupperware. Deep, 1970s cask-barrel-style soakers with benches made of redwood, and those shiny new one-piece, vacuum-formed acrylic models with bucket seats and jets so strong they could knock you over if you weren’t already sitting down.
That’s mountain life’s true baptismal fountain, where we all strip to our skivvies (or less) to confront the elements, one another, and ourselves. It’s the altar at which so many of mountain life’s rites of passage are performed. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t help but stare at the lovers. Seeing them, young and unfettered, filled me with nostalgia for the time in my life when the mountains were my everything—when my beard was big, my winter skin was thick, and I was never treated like a tourist above 9000 feet. Seeing them made me remember the beginning of my love affair with mountain living.
I was a freshman in college; it was my first invitation to stay in a mountain condo. The dozen teenagers that packed into the place on Buffalo Mountain each had their own firsts—some drinking for the first time, some making first-time romantic plans. For me, it was my first trip to Summit County.
The native Colorado kids changed into trunks and bikinis, wrapped themselves in towels, and ambled out to the hot tub across the snow-packed parking lot in bare feet. I wanted to join but I was terrified. In the mind of this New Mexican desert boy, the snow could have been glowing charcoals. But I knew that the hot tub snow walk was an initiation—so I bared my soles to the snow and became someone new. It sealed my sense of belonging, it made me an equal.
Indeed, the circular hot tub is a great equalizer, no one position holding more power than another, making it the perfect place for post-pow-pow powwows. Hot tub poachers climb fences for a free soak while hot tub owners grow bored of their own and hike off in search of backcountry hot springs. Access keys and codes to the best condo hot tubs are coveted, traded and shared in secret like powder stashes. Ever wonder why mountain locals are so friendly to tourists? They want an invitation to one of those big hotel whirlpools downtown.
Ultimately, hot tubs are an apt metaphor for mountain living because they are like us. Let’s face it: Hot tubs and humans are essentially oversized bags of hot water. We aren’t made for below freezing temperatures at 9000 feet. It’s easy to start wondering, especially when you’re sitting outside in a hot tub during a snowstorm, if perhaps maybe we don’t belong here.
But the hot tub, like a mountain town, is supportive. It wraps you in a warm bubble, a lover’s embrace, enabling your survival in the colossal cold. Maybe we don’t make sense here. But as you lean back and look up at the sky, enamored with the peaks around you, watching the snowflakes and steam collide, polar opposites dancing and swirling, accepting one another, it becomes possible to imagine that maybe the mountains love us back. ❄
Babes in the Backcountry
(appeared on pages 38-39, mentioned on cover)
Breckenridge-based outfitter offers outdoor adventure education with a twist.
It’s Saturday night at Francie’s Cabin, a Summit Huts Association cabin five miles south of Breckenridge. The wind outside quietly sculpts wavelike cornices on the rooftop. Inside the cabin a group of women seem to be relaxing, sipping wine, loosely chatting about everything from politics to parenting. In reality, they are learning how to survive in a backcountry emergency.
Leslie Ross, 41, has discovered something profoundly counterintuitive about avalanche and backcountry travel education: Women learn about the topic differently, and safety is as much about trust and comfort as it is technical knowledge. Ross is the founder of Babes in the Backcountry (BIB), a pioneer organization in the women-specific adventure sports industry. Focusing primarily on backcountry travel, telemarking and safety education, BIB offered its first avalanche course twelve years ago. BIB pushed for a shift in avalanche safety education, which Ross says used to exclusively target scientists and snow professionals. To do so, they designed an avy course that’s intuitive, easy to digest, but still meets American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and American Avalanche Association (AAA) standards.
“We need women to be part of the decision-making process in the backcountry,” says Ross, “for everyone’s sake.” Research would agree, because involving women in backcountry decisions may not only be positive for women—it could save men’s lives. A 2005 study of mountaineers shows men are less able to perceive risk in the mountains when compared to their women counterparts.
BIB’s success parallels a nationwide trend, says Susan Hays, editor at the Boulder-based Women’s Adventure magazine: “Women are showing their purchasing power, and companies are responding to women making their own buying decisions.” Companies realize they can no longer take a product for men and merely shrink it and pink it for female consumers—they now design products that meet the specific needs of women.
BIB winter courses come with perks—they include meals, wine tastings, access to backcountry gear (“Women should have a chance to try things before they buy,” says Ross), even dressing with a little flair on the first night of a multi-day clinic. BIB also incorporates yoga into every course, even avalanche safety, because Ross believes smart choices in the backcountry come from learning how to tune into one’s body, environment, and the traveling group.
Many new courses are open to men, too, and some are specially created for couples. This winter in Colorado, BIB will offer telemark clinics at Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, an introduction to the backcountry course in Breckenridge, and a three-day “Sisters in the Steep” clinic in Silverton. Several other courses will be offered at Lake Tahoe resorts and Sugarbowl in California.
But BIB aspires to do more than simply offer a unique educational product—it brings adventurous women together. “I had no female mentors, only brothers and guy friends. There were few women in the huts. I was asking myself, ‘Where are the women at?’ That’s why we take groups of women to huts, give them an opportunity to get into the backcountry with knowledgeable female guides,” says Ross.
While the occasional birthday, bachelorette party or reunion may fill up a workshop, most women arrive alone or in pairs, which Ross encourages. “A hut trip is a real bonding experience,” says Ross, “and that’s what we’re here for, to provide a place where women can meet other other gals to go out with in the future, women that they are comfortable with and know they can trust.” ❅
For additional information, call 970-453-4060 or visit www.babesinthebackcountry.com.