Ski Resorts > Monarch

Monarch

By GREG MAFFETT
Published: February 4, 2012

I'm getting my morning coffee and I'm clearly dressed to ski. Another fellow at my hotel sees me and inquires...

"So where you going today, Breckenridge?"

"Monarch."

"Monarch, never heard of that one."

The fact that hardly anyone outside of Colorado has heard of Monarch would have been enough to get my interest. But it was also advertised as being 90 minutes from where I'm staying.

That would have been true had I driven 90 MPH the whole way. But due to traffic and a passing interest in the local speed limits, it was a 2 hour jaunt. But not a bad drive in any sense. Great scenery on the way. I passed within 4 miles of the Royal Gorge Bridge. An easy side trip if I were so inclined.

And the route was dotted with my favorite form of western architecture, the shotgun shack. The survival skills required to live in a house out here excludes I'd guess 99.9% of the American population. Its a no nonsense kind of place, the antithesis of the New Orleans "Hey you have to help us out!" mindset that prevailed after Katrina. I expect that the average citizen here has become so accustomed to dealing with the vagaries of every day life in harsh terrain that the US Federal Government could shut down for a decade and they wouldn't take notice.

I pulled into Monarch and I'm guided into a parking spot by one of the local ground traffic controllers. They set up the parking area to maximize usage and they do a fine job. I confirm that when I try to exit the lot later and have to make about 6 turns to get out of my spot without hitting another vehicle.

I arrived at opening time, 9 AM and there is hardly any line to buy a ticket. I take a chance and ask if they have a military discount. They do, 28% off. Not bad. I attach my lift ticket and am reminded I've missed the last 5 ski seasons. Somehow, the ski industry survived my absence.

I'm accustomed to the 7,000 foot base elevation at Tahoe. A 10,000 peak in California is up in the stratosphere. Here the base is 11,000, the peak is 12,000. They don't issue oxygen masks. I'm not wheezing or noticing any altitude related issues, but I can imagine some would.

My first ski run in 6 years is, in a word, boring. Of course I'm on a beginner trail on a new set of rental skis and just trying to get my bearings. But compared to surfing, this sport seems rather tame.

A couple runs later I find some steeper terrain and the joy starts to creep back into the sport. I find a stash of powder in a ravine that runs through a grove of pines. There are at least 20 paths through this wooded area. They range in width from 10 feet wide to 1 Greg narrow. Unlike the fake gates that Olympic skiers play with, these gates don't give. That brings some focus to my game.

After 90 minutes, I'm near froze, so I head in to the lodge to grab a bite.

Monarch, I should say, is no resort. It is a ski area in a national forest. Much like my old favorite Sierra at Tahoe. It is all day skiers. No multi millionaires popping out of there slope side condos. Here there are just...skiers and boarders. Serious about the sport, less focused on the glitz.

In the lodge I'm looking for food but find...a bar? Really, they sell beer at ski areas? Sure enough there are two guys at the bar sipping a pint. It is 10:30 AM. I wasn't that hungry after all. Hydrate, I'm thinking. I order an IPA expecting to see a huge mark up, something in the 8-10 dollar range. Nope. $5.

I figured that the combo of 11,000 feet, a high gravity pint and me not skiing for half a dozen years was a pretty good formula. It should make the blue runs into blue runs plus. That was in fact the effect. The only time I fell on an open trail was after that beer when I found a steep section and caught an edge in some powder. I avoided the narrow trails for a few runs, but did get to chat with a couple of the locals, all of whom were huge fans of this mountain. They loved the non corporate feel of this area as much as I did.

The only point of departure was the weather. I lost feeling in fingers and toes after 90 minutes. They were saying this was one of the warmest ski days they have seen here. Ugh. This ski area is right on the continental divide and as such is usually facing some pretty good winds that drives the wind chill into the minus 30 or 40 range. Today was a balmy 15-20 Fahrenheit with virtually no wind except what you made as you blew down the mountain.

I did duck in for lunch eventually. Had an Italian Hoagie, pasta salad and a drink that came to $13 with a tip. Still not bad for ski area prices. They really were catering to the locals here.

After lunch the sunny skies became overcast. I was visibly shivering on the first ride up after lunch. I decided to stay in the trees as much as possible for the rest of the day. That area featured steep terrain that required lots of leg action to navigate. As such I was not generating much wind chill, but my internal heater was working quite well.

All in all, I really enjoyed the ski area. Sure there were little amenities. No lodging. No high speed quad lifts. But there were very few lift lines. The area was not crowded on what is the busiest day of the week. The locals all knew how to ski and so there were no near collisions with knuckleheads.

All in all, I don't think I could have picked a better place to click back into a pair of skis.

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