Laura Kottlowski is no ordinary figure skater.
The 30-year-old Golden resident doesn't simply cruise to the neighborhood rink, lace up her skates and take to the ice after a Zamboni turns the surface into a perfect sheet. That's just not her speed.
Kottlowski prefers a much more challenging commute to a more secluded, unpredictable venue. She wakes up early, packs her skates along with crampons and other alpine winter gear, and then embarks on a miles-long hike before testing her skills on a natural sheet more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
"It has turned into a passion of mine to find unique ice in beautiful settings," she said.
Kottlowski began high-alpine figure skating in 2009 when a friend invited her on a winter trek to Emerald and Dream lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
"So I brought my skates along," she said.
The breathtaking backdrop at Emerald Lake provided a "stunning" setting for the woman who began skating at age 6. She said both lakes were barely windblown and offered a surprisingly smooth surface. And she was hooked.
"My adventure has grown ever since," she said.
Despite Kottlowski's figure skating acumen, which she developed during her teen years and as a competitor at Penn State University, high-alpine lakes present challenges. She said the ice is varied and "usually pretty rough," noting that many lakes in the Rocky Mountains are like a washboard with cracks that can grab a blade and cause serious injury. And serious injury is one thing that is best avoided when miles away from help in the middle of winter.
Kyle Patterson, a spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain National Park, said skaters need to be cautious when exploring high-alpine lakes. Patterson said that while most high-altitude lakes in Colorado remain frozen in early March, the ice will start to thaw around the edges. She suggests wearing a helmet on lakes to prevent potential head injury and carrying an extra pair of socks in case feet get wet. She also advises avoiding frozen lakes if there are signs that the ice could be dangerous.
Kottlowski's hobby has developed into one of exploration, constantly seeking that patch of smooth mountain ice where she can put her skills to the test.
"It's rare," she said. "But when I find it, I can do jumps and spins."
Since New Year's Day, Kottlowski and her friend, photographer and fellow hiker Marisa Jarae, have increased their trips - to lakes in Colorado and even in Canada.
"She's been a great support for me because she loves to photograph my skating," Kottlowski said of Jarae.
As a graphic designer who owns her own business, Kottlowski has the freedom to take her laptop and work anywhere while satisfying her craving for more ice. She skated "a few locations each day" when in Canada, including some river skating.
"The ice up there is so crystal clear," she said. "You can see right through to the bottom of the lakes."
A January trek to Lake of Glass in Rocky Mountain National Park resulted in high-profile recognition for Jarae's photography and Kottlowski's extreme skating. A brilliant photo of the skater on a blue-bird day took ninth in National Geographic's My Adventure of the Year Photo Contest. To see the photo and learn more about the contest, visit adventure.national geographic.com.
Jarae described the Glass Lake experience on the National Geographic website: "We rose out of the steep, cold shadows of snow to this insane, rocky, mouth-watering amphitheater surrounding sparkling, snow-free ice. To say we were stoked would be an understatement."
As with many extreme sports, participants always push themselves to the edge. And Kottlowski is no exception. When she began researching high-alpine figure skating online, she couldn't find anything.
"I don't know that there's anyone like me," she said, noting that she heard of a lake called Pacific Tarn near Breckenridge that sits at above 13,000 feet and could possibly give her a shot at a Guinness World Record.
If no one else has skated it, Pacific Tarn would almost surely provide an opportunity for an American record. It is listed at highestlake.com as the second highest lake in the U.S. at 13,420 feet above sea level. The website lists only Lake Muriel (14,100 feet) in Washington as being higher but notes that Muriel is subterranean and "way too small" and says it is more of a pond than a lake.
As Kottlowski gains experience, her skating continues to improve and she keeps getting stronger. She attributes that to the requisite long, snowy hikes.
"It's getting easier to skate at higher altitude," she said.