Old West meets natural wilderness in Steamboat Springs
If you love to ski - and ride horses - you should arrive in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with double the get-up-and-go. You'll need it: here you can alternate days on skis with days in the saddle, during a family half-term break like no other.
Steamboat doesn't sound like a mountainous place, more like a town on a gentle bend on an old-age river. But with its wide streets and handsome wood and red-brick Victorian-style buildings, it is a Wild West town set in a real-life wilderness of mountains, rivers and forests. It was so-named by itinerant French trappers. Hearing the distant "chug chug" from one of its several therapeutic hot springs, they mistook this for a vessel labouring upstream.
The mineral-rich springs don't "chug chug" anymore. But after a full-on day in the hills they are where you soothe ice burns, aching muscles and saddle sores, soaking for hours in seething hot water. And if you want to show off - and are tough enough - you take frequent hyperventilating rolls in the snow before immersing yourself again in the warmth.
Getting here from the UAE is not complicated. From Denver it's a 36-minute flight to Hayden, where a shuttle bus whisks you to a choice of hotels in the ski-in, ski-out resort. And because what you wear on the slopes will serve you equally well on horseback, there are no extra suitcases.
Also known as Ski Town USA because of the extraordinary number of winter Olympians it has bred, it has frequent big snowfalls, relatively deserted slopes, efficient lifts and hardly any queues. Its long season stretches from November to April and skiing on 164 runs suits all standards, the longest being an easy if leg-straining 4.8 kilometres.
Skiing as a sport began here in 1913 when Carl Howelson, a Norwegian, taught the locals to groove and wax their skis and use shorter poles. About 6.4km from the town, where the resort hotels are situated, he built the first ski jump on Howelsen Hill, which, today, has bobsleigh as well as the most complete ski-jumping complex in the United States.
Winter sports were on the school curriculum in the late 1940s and early 1950s so attendance must have been exemplary. Alpine classes were held on Mondays and Wednesdays and ski-jumping on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"They even gave letter grades in skiing. I got an A in downhill, an A in jumping, an A in slalom and a C or C-minus in cross-country running," says our trail-ride guide, Ray Heid, turning in the saddle in the teeth of a snow blizzard. He is 72 and made the 1960 US Olympic team as a ski-jumper and is still as fearless on skis as he is on a horse. He is also someone my teenage daughters will not forget.
Bred from pioneer stock, Ray could ski and ride almost before he could walk and lives on his 80-hectare Del's Triangle 3 ranch. While he still loves to ski - never taking the gentler blue runs - he also leads packhorse trips in summer along the Continental Divide and half-day rides in winter.
The stands of cottonwoods, oaks and aspens on the steep mountainsides are caked with white fluffy snow and riding through them is to rewind over a century. In the searing, flesh-numbing cold we keep our thoughts to ourselves but secretly imagine we're out checking trap lines or watching for grizzlies.
Visitors in February must be prepared to dress like an Inuit because temperatures can fall below -20°C. While I thump the horn of my western saddle to keep my gloved fingers from freezing, the cold isn't unduly troubling my wife, Janie, or girls Hebe and Ruby, each layered in fleece, woolly tights, long-johns and fur hats.
Ray rides a bright chestnut Quarter Horse. With a weathered face and a wry grin he eschews modern fabrics for a red Hudson's Bay duster coat worn over another in elk hide with a beaver collar, a well-worn cowboy hat and yellow leather work gloves. He grins. "We'll still ride even if it's 25 below," drawls this fourth-generation backwoodsman.
The settling snow deadens the air. When we get going along a now almost indiscernible forest trail, the silence is only broken by the crunch of hooves, the creak of the saddles and the occasional laboured breaths from our mounts. In the more challenging sections drifts cover the way, yet our guide never falters.
The weather abates long enough for Ray to make out a curious horn-shaped outcrop the middle distance.
"That's the Horn of the Saddle," he says, and this year he skied down it. "I saw it avalanche so I went up there with my son, Perk, to see if we could find the avalanche chute where the snow would be firm enough to get down on."
We are amazed. "Did you find it?" asks Ruby.
"We sure did and it was just awesome."
Close to the end of our trek he tries to point out Sand Mountain, which he likes to ski at least once a year in the spring.
"We ride up there as far as we can and then continue on foot. It's a six-hour trek for just five minutes on skis."
We hang on his every word.
"The run is right beneath some steep cliffs and takes you down a narrow chute. The tricky bit is putting your skis on because it's so damn near vertical."
Almost home we make out the shapes of the snow-entombed barns and the smoke curling from the chimney of his log cabin. As we close in we can see we are here in what Ray calls a "three-wire winter", when the snow lies so deep that it reaches the top wire in ranch fences.
We help unsaddle then warm-up in a small cabin where we are instantly consumed by the welcoming fug of the wood-burning stove. Off come hats and coats and we feel like proper cowboys as we slurp welcome mugs of hot chocolate and look forward to an evening at the Strawberry Park Hot Springs, where the warmest rock-lined pool is 40 degrees.
Next morning we are on skis again. Our alarm clocks set early we join those intent on setting first tracks on Storm Peak, a tree-lined summit overlooking our super-warm hotel. The gondola makes it to the 3,221m top at 8.30am where we scrunch into a startlingly beautiful wonderland of rime ice and conifers laden with heavy, fresh snow.
The girls are itching to get going. "C'mon, dad, we've seen the view - let's ski some champagne powder," yells Hebe, who has picked up the term this week. This originates in Steamboat and was first used in the 1950s to describe the incredibly light and fluffy snow.
But while the skiing in North America is enthralling, riding a horse through the aspen forests comes close. If your sense of adventure and romance is in equal measure - and you are blessed with the oomph - you really should make it to Steamboat Springs.
If You Go
The flight American Airlines (www.aa.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Denver via Chicago. A return fare costs from US$1,314 (Dh4,826), including taxes
The hotel A double room at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort costs from $330 (Dh1,212) per night, including taxes. To book, visit www.starwoodhotels.com
The info Steamboat Reservations offer tailor-made packages complete with lodging, lessons, rentals, lift tickets, dining and trail rides. Call 001 970 879 0740 or go to www.steamboat.com/plan-vacation/international.aspx
The ride A guided two-hour trek through the snow on horseback costs $75 (Dh1,002) per person at Del's Triangle 3 Ranch. For reservations, call 001 970 879 3495 or visit www.steamboathorses.com
Updated: January 27, 2011 04:00 AM