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Ski trip

Started: 2014-03-09 13:01:40

Submitted: 2014-03-09 18:29:29

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator tries, and fails, to join his employer's annual ski trip

Every winter, usually on the first Friday in March, my employer holds a ski trip to one Colorado's conveniently-located ski resorts. I missed the first two years, but I've attended this team-building event every year starting in 2011.

(I leaned to ski when we moved to Colorado in 1991, and I skied consistently throughout high school, culminating in buying a season pass to Eldora my senior year of high school, but I haven't skied much as an adult. These days Calvin is old enough I could probably try to drag him through a ski school, but that still seems like more work than it's worth.)

This year we planned to go to Copper Mountain with three full busses. When I arrived at the rendezvous at the office early on Friday morning, the first bus was mostly full, so I found a seat in the second bus and waited for it to whisk us up I-70 to Summit County.

It was overcast in Boulder, and the forecast called for snow. It started to rain as we started driving. One of the experienced old hands on the bus complained that bus drivers from Denver tend drive radially from Denver, missing the turn onto CO 93 that goes directly from Boulder to Golden, where I-70 emerges from the mountains. And we did, in fact, miss the turn, and had to backtrack through Superior onto Marshall Road.

We drove through the old coal mining town of Marshall, past homes and gardens that had been stately at the turn of the last century and now just looked tired, with a light rain falling out of the gray sky, creating a melancholy atmosphere that would not be out of place in a Cthulhu mythos story. While I was watching the scenery roll past the window, and wondering what unspeakable horrors the drab houses concealed, the bus sputtered and stopped by the side of the narrow road.

We sat at the side of the road for a few minutes, and managed to limp forward to the park-and-ride parking lot at the corner of Marshall Road and CO 93. Just as we pulled into the parking lot the two other buses in our group pulled out ahead of us. Our driver poked and prodded the engine and the ignition but couldn't get the engine to stay on for more than thirty seconds; the 'check engine' light came on and the computer detected some critical failure and shut down the engine to protect it.

With the engine off the ventilation system stopped working, so while we waited to see what would happen the bus started to get a little stuffy. I joined the crowd milling around in front of the bus until the steady rain turned into something more like sleet, and I headed back to my seat. At length, a mechanic arrived and started poking at the engine, and a new bus arrived a few minutes later. At 09:00, an hour and a half after our bus first broke down, we were on the new bus and headed, once again, toward the mountains.

Inside a bus stuck on I-70 westbound near Georgetown
Inside a bus stuck on I-70 westbound near Georgetown

By the time we reached Idaho Springs the rain had turned into snow. I struggled to get a glimpse of the newly-enlarged eastbound bore of the twin tunnels but couldn't see much out the rain-speckled bus windows. We knew that the other buses had run into traffic around Georgetown but had eventually arrived at Copper Mountain, albeit slightly delayed. As we approached Georgetown the snow was getting distinctly heavier and was sticking to the road. We hit slow-moving traffic and slowed to a crawl a little after 10:00. After an hour in traffic we still hadn't reached Georgetown, and I began to wonder at what point we ought to scrub the mission and find something else to do.

CDOT made that decision for us by closing I-70 westbound at Georgetown a little after 11:00, citing 'adverse conditions' (heavy snow) and enough vehicles stuck that they were causing other vehicles to slow down to the point where they became stuck themselves. As we pulled off the Interstate I could see uncleared traffic still waiting in the westbound lanes. We turned around and tried to figure out what to do next. No one really wanted to go back to the office, where we might actually have to work, so we decided to try to swing by Eldora to salvage a half-day of skiing there.

We turned off I-70 at US 6 through Clear Creek Canyon, then turned north onto CO 119, through Black Hawk (where I gawked out the window at the massive casinos, complete with at least one high-rise hotel, trying to revitalize the faded mining town through limited-stakes gambling), and continued north toward Rollinsville. As we climbed a hill I could feel the bus' wheels begin to slip on the snow, and soon we stalled entirely. The driver jumped out to put chains on, assisted by a sheriff's deputy who arrived shortly after we stopped (who tended to walk with his left hand braced awkwardly on his hip within easy reach of his taser, should he decide to need it while he was assisting with the chains). When the driver removed the chock behind one of the wheels the bus started slipping, backwards, down the road, until one of the passengers near the front of the bus managed to engage the parking brake. Presently a CDOT snow plow arrived to supply sand to provide extra traction to get us going.

At length we were underway again, only to stop fifteen minutes later at a wide spot on the road next to a gas station and a couple of other buildings. The driver removed and replaced the chains, apparently repairing the work he did earlier, and we shuffled off the bus to spend some time in the snow. I watched, but did not participate in, a free-for-all snowball fight.

Snowball fight somewhere north of Black Hawk
Snowball fight somewhere north of Black Hawk

I got coffee and chips for a snack at the gas station and suggested we take a group photo here, with the bus in the background, since we had missed the big group photo and we were unlikely to get any better chance. The idea took root and soon we got everyone lined up next to the bus to memorialize the stop for posterity.

Bus puts on chains in the snow on CO 119 near Black Hawk
Bus puts on chains in the snow on CO 119 near Black Hawk

By the time we pulled out of the gas station it was almost 14:00, giving us a scant two hours to ski before the lifts closed at 16:00. The unanimous consensus was that we should abandon the idea of skiing today and just head back to Boulder. As the day progressed our metric for success dropped from "ski all day at Copper Mountain" to "ski most of the day at Copper Mountain" to "ski part of the day at Eldora" to "get home safe and on time". When we limped into the parking lot at the office a little after 15:00 we could even claim to be early. It was quite an adventure, and arguably a better team-building experience than merely skiing would have been -- because now we have a great story to tell.

(I haven't yet heard what happened to the other two buses. I know they made it to Copper Mountain later than they expected, but I don't know how long it took to get home Friday night. CDOT reopened I-70 by mid-afternoon, but reported snow and heavy traffic throughout the afternoon and evening. I presume they were delayed by an hour or so. They still ought to have fared better than anyone who went to Winter Park; an avalanche closed US 40 over Berthoud Pass Friday afternoon, trapping a couple of cars until the snow could be cleared.)