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Pikes Peak holds hazards even for advanced skiers

March 20, 2017 Updated: March 21, 2017 at 8:14 am
Caption +
Steve Stowell of Colorado Springs skis The Bowl above Glenn Cove on Pikes Peak Monday morning, May 9, 2016, as recent storms have blanketed the northside of the 14,115-foot mountain west of Colorado Springs. (Christian Murdock, Gazette file)

The earliest accounts of skiing on Pikes Peak refer to what became known as "Suicide Hill."

Jumping was the game in the 1920s; young thrill-seekers would strap barrel staves to their feet and soar down America's Mountain. The Silver Spruce Ski Club was made up of these types, and once they had enough of "Suicide Hill," their gaze turned elsewhere, to higher, snowier slopes that the peak had to offer.

It is a history maintained by Don Sanborn, the lifelong Colorado Springs resident whose grandfather, Don Lawrie, was a club member. Lawrie later built a rope tow and helped run a fully operational ski area on the terrain identified by the club after "Suicide Hill."

"They found a more north-facing slope," Sanborn said. "It was there around Glen Cove."

With operations closed since 1984, the area today is a backcountry playground calling to downhill skiers every spring, when the mountain gets its best snowpack.

And on Sunday, it reminded all below of how capable it is of tragedy.

Rachel A. Dewey became the third known person to die skiing Pikes Peak after she reportedly lost control and fell 1,000 feet. The local middle school teacher and Pikes Peak Community College adjunct professor was 48.

She was with her husband and three teenage sons, skiing a chute known as Little Italy for its likeness to the country's form: The taker starts down a narrow path, picking up speed on the intense steepness before carving the boot-shaped base.

The run is among several within this segment of the Pike National Forest. And by the estimation of overseers, it is among the most popular.

From March into May, Jack Glavan said he often spots between 20 and 30 skiers on any weekend day daring the area's "serious, expert slopes." The manager of Pikes Peak America's Mountain called Little Italy "a double black-diamond comparative," and he's noticed more on it in recent years.

"Especially when there's good snow to get," Glavan said. "The ski areas shut down and they come here to get more skiing in."

At the moment on Pikes Peak, they're not getting that snow, said Jeff Hovermale with the Pikes Peak Ranger District. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a Glen Cove site that measures the area's snow depth, and those readings lately have been far from favorable, he said. Depth was 6 inches on Monday, according to the site's online tracker.

"That area can receive fairly heavy snowstorms in March and April," Hovermale said, "and so far that just has not occurred yet."

Authorities were told Dewey was an "advanced skier." But Pikes Peak threatens the most skilled and experienced, Hovermale said.

Boulders go uncovered or hide under slight snowpack along runs. He said skiers should also be aware of erratic weather changes at altitude that cause overnight freezing, daytime thawing and sudden winds - elements conducive to avalanches. One killed a Pikes Peak skier in April 1995, badly injuring two others.

"Know before you go," Hovermale said of his advice, adding: "Know that not every year conditions are right for skiing, and I think most importantly, realize it does require advanced skills to navigate that terrain."

A lack of snow was one reason for ski operations closing along the peak 30 years ago - cold air blowing from the high West loses much of its moisture by the time it reaches the mountain. The area today that Sanborn has skied is much different than the place he knew as a boy in the 1960s, when his father served as a patroller.

It is today, he said, all the more risky.

"Part of the danger at ski areas is why ski patrol was started in the first place - they're there to help out, mark difficult areas, or close runs that are too dangerous," he said. "If you ski out on your own in the backcountry, there are a number of things that you have to be cognizant of on your own. That adds to the inherent danger."

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