Lessons in Trail Markers: Finding Your Way
“ARE YOU SURE?”
We were looking down the soft, well-defined moguls that draped over the steep face of crested butte mountain resort’s horseshoe ridge. I was questioning my 14-year-old daughter Megan’s resolve to ski something so steep. In typical crested butte black run fashion, the short but intimidating open slope was littered with exposed rocks and short drop-offs before its sheer face spilled out gently to the wide cat-track below it.
Greens, blues, blacks, and double blacks: this rating system of ski trails is universally standard but still subjective. The saying my kids and I shared as they grew up on the slopes of Colorado goes, “Not all blues are created equal.”
Blues have a lot of territory to cover. Green runs, generally up to about a 25-degree slope angle and the easiest of ways down, are the safety net responsible for keeping novices from challenging themselves with something for which they are not yet ready. If a slope labeled green is too steep, skiers and snowboarders may end up walking down with gear in hand or worse. Black ratings, on the other hand, are the gatekeepers of all things difficult—they have a reputation to maintain. Most blacks are slopes 40 degrees and steeper; like a mislabeled green, an underrated black could result in injury to unprepared skiers and riders.
Obviously, the blue designation has a large burden to bear, covering the gentle slopes just a smidge too steep for a green all the way to the slopes not considered quite steep enough to warrant black diamond. A tremendous amount of terrain falls in that range. Some blues are mellow and winding and happy and fun. Others seem like the staff simply ran out of black diamond signs and stuck on another color hoping no one would notice—even though the slope falls away from the top precipitously. In actuality, both are blues.
A run designation is not simply the random opinion of ski patrol but most often a combination of considerations: width of the trail, required kinds of turns, terrain roughness, and propensity for ungroomed slopes to form moguls. A trail will be rated by its most difficult part, even if the rest of the run is quite easy. It’s a sort of sum-of-its-parts equation that’s taken quite seriously by those responsible for it.
“WHERE TO NOW?”
All the suggestions were blue trails, each supported by fierce arguments. “Look, we’re not doing Bushwacker. It’s too steep at the bottom for your sister.“ We heard in protest, “But it’s a BLUE!”
“I know, but it’s a hard blue. It’s like a black back home.” Crested Butte’s trail map states in the fine print (and all caps) that a trail here is “NOT NECESSARILY THE SAME AS A SIMILARLY RATED TRAIL AT ANOTHER SKI AREA.” Since variance is common at most resorts, how is a visitor to know what he’s getting into? Like most things in life, thinking for yourself and accurately judging your abilities while skiing and snowboarding has benefits. More than a few times I’ve coached someone down a section of trail that was over their ability—almost always they had overestimated the run due to the trail rating. “But I can usually do blue runs!” they protest.
That exact adventure adds to the fun of skiing and snowboarding. Even inside the groomed and manicured boundaries of Colorado’s great resorts, you are still navigating your way through the trees, rocks, and trails of the great outdoors; blue or otherwise, adventure awaits!