First tracks, skiing in Colorado: Downhill all the way

"I love corduroy," says Steamboat Springs resident, Loryn Kasten. "And where we're going, it will be bea-uuuu-tiful corduroy from top to bottom."

The way she's waxing on, it sounds like fashion might have jumped the shark. Top to bottom corduroy? Seriously? That's double denim on steroids.

"For me, First Tracks is one of two things," she continues. "It's either a day where you get first access to fresh powder that everyone seeks, or alternatively, it's getting that perfectly groomed trail – called corduroy, because that's what the ski runs look like after they've been groomed – that no one else has skied on.

"You can take great big carving turns and go as fast as you like because there are fewer people on the mountain. Since we only got a little bit of fresh snow last night, that's what we're looking at skiing down this morning – beautiful, perfectly groomed runs."

As arranged the previous evening, I've rendezvoused with Kasten in Steamboat's Gondola Square just before 8am, when the day's first gondolas start to ferry puffed-up powder hounds up the mountain. The lifts here don't normally open until 30 minutes later, but for an extra $US39, Steamboat offers skiers and snowboarders exclusive access to empty, unmarked slopes ahead of the general public – an initiative they call First Tracks.

Numbers are limited to 600 on any given day, and at first glance that sounds like a lot. But considering the population of Steamboat Springs swells to around 25,000 during the peak winter season, and taking into account the resort's 1200 hectares of skiable terrain, anyone else up there will barely be noticeable.

There's even fewer today, and that of course spells good news for those of us who have made the effort to rise out of bed a little earlier than everyone else.

"It's probably because of how cold it is," suggests Kasten.

A glance at a thermometer hanging outside the gondola station reveals an air temperature of minus 19 degrees,  so I can certainly understand why not many more than 100 people have bothered to turn out this early.


I'm grouped with two other skiers of similar ability and the four of us share a gondola ride up to Thunderhead Lodge. There, we clip into our bindings to ski down beginner trails to the foot of the Sundown Express quad chair.

"Look at that sun," says Kasten, gesturing towards the skies. "Just another bluebird day in Steamboat."

The sun blazes gloriously and there isn't a cloud in sight. It's nevertheless chillier than I'd like at Sunshine Peak's 3165-metre summit, where a designated ski zone down its southern flank is reserved for owners of First Tracks passes each morning.

"As you can see, there's hardly anyone else up here yet so we can choose to go down any of these runs and probably have it to ourselves," says Kasten. "I think what we might do first is head over to the Sunshine Lift Line. It's a big, wide blue run that should warm you up nicely by the time you get to the bottom of it."

Kasten's right. There's no one below us. And the corduroy corrugations in the snow are otherwise untouched. Ahead is a blank canvas on which to create our own brushstrokes.

She leads the way, pointing her ski tips downhill while carving big, graceful turns. The rest of us spread out across the piste. Out the corner of my left eye, Steve creates his own line beneath the Sunshine Express quad chair. Kirk does likewise to my right. All of us ski at the same pace.

The surface is so smooth I soon realise I can focus on my rhythm without fear of snagging an edge on a ruffled patch of ice. I alternately switch between short, sharp turns and lazy sweeping arcs without fear of interference from other skiers. It's a cruiser's paradise like I've never experienced before, and at this point I'm wondering why not.

When we all meet up at the bottom of the slope, our faces are beaming. With just the one run completed, I know I'm already hooked. "Can we do that again?" I ask.

"Why not?" replies Kasten. "It's completely up to you."

The four of us ride the lift back to the top before squeezing in as many runs as we can in our first hour of skiing. We straight-line down the flatter Tomahawk and dig our edges into the black-diamond Rolex's steep, lower reaches. It's then that Kasten suggests we try Steamboat's signature feature.

"Want to try a tree run? Now's a good time, since there's hardly anyone else about.

"Steamboat is known for four things," she explains. "One is that it's a genuine cowboy town. You might have noticed some of the lifties wearing cowboy hats? Well, that's no act. They're real. There are currently around 400 operational ranches around Steamboat.

"The next thing is our powder snow. Unfortunately there isn't much today, but the term Champagne Powder was coined here and we've even trademarked it.

"Thirdly, it's not called Ski Town USA for nothing. More US Olympians have come from here than any other place.

"And lastly, we're known for our tree skiing. But it's not one of the more difficult places to do it. It's an easy place to start because the trees are nice and evenly spaced.

"If you're up for it, we can try the Two-Thirty Trees. You won't be able to find it on your trail map because it's between the Two O'Clock and Three O'Clock runs. But they're a great one to start on – especially now, before the mountain gets too busy."

The forest glades here are a mix of silvery aspens and evergreen conifers. Since it will be my first proper attempt at skiing between trees, I'm understandably apprehensive. Four out of every five skiers and boarders here wear helmets because of the dangers of colliding with static objects. And memories of a banged-up Michael Schumacher are still fresh after he hit his head against a rock during a skiing holiday in France.

"Just remember to look ahead to where you're going. If you look at the trees, you'll inevitably hit them," advises Kasten. "Also try to brake by kicking the backs of your skis out when you turn."

For safety reasons, Kasten suggests we stop regularly. "That way we can keep an eye on each other. And if you ever want to bail out, just ski across the mountain instead of down it. You'll exit the trees soon enough."

I start tentatively. In fact, I ski tentatively most of the way down. Several times I find myself gaining too much speed and am forced to apply the brakes. At other times, I slide the back end of my skis out too far and finish with my tips pointing uphill. My technical deficiencies are brutally exposed.

But while I'm no ballerina on the tree runs, there are moments when I find my groove. For short periods, I'm able to connect my turns and regain my rhythm.

With practice comes confidence, and after a few more runs like this I reckon I could get the hang of it. As far as I'm concerned, this kind of skiing shouldn't ever go out of fashion.




Travelplan has a variety of Steamboat Springs ski packages including discounted accommodation, lifts and airfares; see


First Tracks tickets available with a full-day lift pass and can be bought online or at any lift ticket point of sale.

Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Travelplan.



Beginners to advanced skiers can tear down one of Christie Peak's five illuminated trails. For those flying into Steamboat's Hayden Airport, it's free on your night of arrival.


Challenge your friends in a pro race format inside the Bashor Race Arena. Digital stopwatches time your run down to one-hundredth of a second.


Freestylers are spoilt for choice at Steamboat, with four terrain parks designed for different skill levels featuring jumps, rails, boxes and half-pipes.


Every Olympic ski jumper from Steamboat Springs honed their craft on Howelsen Hill, Colorado's oldest continually operated ski area in the centre of town.


The Steamboat Ski Touring Centre offers 15 kilometres of varied cross-country ski trails and 10 kilometres of snowshoe trails through meadows, groves and creek valleys.