Snow Rules at Monarch Mountain

Tucked away in south-central Colorado, Monarch focuses on skiing

This story was originally published in POWDER’s October 2016 issue (Vol. 45 Issue 2). PHOTO: Petar Dopchev

Standing at the top of what will be our last run of the day, Ryan Kempfer and I feel as if we are alone on the mountain. Not lonely—just alone. The wind has stopped; the trees are quiet. Temperatures have risen to 11 degrees—the warmest all weekend—and we have a crisp, unobstructed view of Colorado’s Sawatch Mountains set against a cobalt backdrop.

We spent the morning lapping the mile-long run under a fixed double at least 10 times before noon, linking tight turns through steep glades. First and foremost a skier, Kempfer, 37, is the base services manager at Monarch Mountain, a 77-year-old ski area 100 miles south of Summit County. He admits he has a hard time remembering his title. He’s in charge of things like ice removal and directing cars in the free parking lot, but when I met him the day before, he was on his way to help ski patrol with end-of-day sweeps. That’s how Monarch works, he told me on the lift; the staff is like a family that pulls together to get the job done. And like many things at Monarch, including the choice to operate 100 percent on natural God-given snowfall, that’s how it has always been.

“We’re old-fashioned here. It’s just simply skiing,” says Kempfer, who first discovered the mountain while visiting a nearby bluegrass festival. “Monarch is for people who want to ski and don’t need to shop or have 10 choices for dinner.”

“We’re old-fashioned here. It’s just simply skiing,” says local Ryan Kempfer. “Monarch is for people who want to ski and don’t need to shop or have 10 choices for dinner.”

In fact, as far as on-mountain dinner goes, the Sidewinder Saloon in the single lodge is the sole option—but that’s not to say the mountain is lacking. Instead, Monarch is a thoughtfully positioned alternative to the mega resorts in Summit County, where skiing is just one of many attractions vying for skiers’ time and money. Skiing at Monarch is reflective of a golden age when resorts were less focused on bigger, better, faster—an era when the skiing was enough. Monarch makes no apologies, nor does the mountain pretend to be anything it’s not. Here, the main attraction is snow.

At Monarch Mountain, skiing is about having fun with your friends, not expensive lift tickets and high-rise hotels. PHOTO: Petar Dopchev
At Monarch Mountain, skiing is about having fun with your friends, not expensive lift tickets and high-rise hotels. PHOTO: Petar Dopchev

Sitting at 10,790 feet on U.S. Highway 50, Monarch is not really on the way to anywhere except a few other places that also aren’t on the way to anywhere. But if you ask around the Front Range, it’s not impossible to find someone headed that way. I caught a ride from Copper Mountain in a black Chevy Express van—the kind your mother always told you not to get in to. At least it has windows, I thought, as I shoved my skis into the back and climbed in. The driver was headed my direction, hoping to catch the end of a midwinter storm that dropped 30 inches at Monarch in three days. Sometime after sunset, I hopped out at the Boathouse Cantina in Salida, a historic town that sprang up alongside the Arkansas River in the late 1800s and the nearest town to Monarch, about 20 miles away.

Seated amid Colorado’s Sawatch Range, which holds 15 peaks over 14,000 feet, Salida is home to 5,409 residents, including the Cantina’s owners, Penny and Ray Kitson, who offered me their spare bedroom for a few days. The Kitsons were first drawn to the area for its world-class kayaking and rafting, but after selling their river sports outfitter, they stayed for the community and the skiing.

“People stick together around here to adventure together,” says Penny. “In Salida, people love to ski and they love to ski with friends. That’s what it’s all about.”

“We’re not in a hurry to change our identity. We’d like to keep who we are and what we are so people can rely on it,” says Monarch GM Randy Stroud. “We don’t have the longest runs or fastest lifts, but we get the best snow and that’s because we don’t add anything to it. I think people appreciate that.”

When Monarch got its start in 1939, skiers relied on a 500-foot rope tow to pull them to the top of a single run. Today, the mountain averages 350 inches of snow annually and includes a cat-skiing operation with access to 1,000-plus acres of wide-open bowls and gladed skiing. Inbounds, the 800 skiable acres—with a vertical of 1,162 feet—are accessible by four fixed doubles, sans safety bars. The mountain’s one quad runs only during holidays. With an average of 2,600 guests each weekend, that means every third chair might be full. Monarch General Manager Randy Stroud is not ashamed of Monarch’s unrefined nature; he embraces it—meaning he has no intention of putting in a high-speed quad in the foreseeable future.

“We’re not in a hurry to change our identity. We’d like to keep who we are and what we are so people can rely on it,” says Stroud, who’s managed Monarch the last 15 years. “We don’t have the longest runs or fastest lifts, but we get the best snow and that’s because we don’t add anything to it. I think people appreciate that.”

I find some of what he’s talking about off the Garfield lift, where light is low and nipping winds swirl falling flurries around the ground. I head for the shelter of the trees where I am rewarded with cascading steeps of day-old powder preserved by below-zero temperatures. I cling mostly to the mountain’s south side for the day, traversing back and forth along the ridgeline at the top of the lift. Despite the several feet of fresh February powder, other skiers are scarce and I ski blissfully alone in my own private wilderness.

Rob Dickinson stays high at Monarch. PHOTO: Petar Dopchev
Rob Dickinson stays high at Monarch. PHOTO: Petar Dopchev

I load my skis in the back of Kempfer’s Jeep early the next morning. The leather seats are peeling and hair from his yellow Lab, Nala, clings to most surfaces. A metallic smell of coffee rises from the thermos Kempfer has clutched between his knees. The old radio glows green with the time: 6:32 a.m. He has to be at work by 7.

We are the third or fourth car to pull into the lot. Kempfer gets straight to it: clearing snow, setting up ski racks, parking cars as the early birds start to trickle in. Inside the lodge, I wait for the lifts to turn, hoping the rising sun will quickly warm the thermometer that teeters around 18 below zero. An older couple from Colorado Springs warms their boots next to me. They retired to Salida seven years ago and have logged 32 days at Monarch this winter, plus six in the backcountry they tell me, proudly.

I catch the first chair, my prize for the morning’s early alarm. Solo on a two-seater, I roll past trees drooping under the weight of new snow pillows. Metallic plastic beads and a pair of lace underwear are frozen solid in the branches.

Late morning, I meet Hawk White in the lift line. Wearing a worn pair of blue pants and a reflective chrome helmet, the 19-year-old sends a text to his girlfriend from his flip phone. The son of a pastor and ski-patrolling mother, White has been skiing Monarch since he was 10 years old. For the past year, he’s been taking college classes in Greeley where he works part time at a museum, trekking back to Monarch most weekends and holiday breaks. “I’d like to explore some bigger mountains,” he says, “but I can’t get myself to wait in a 10-minute lift line.”

White hikes with me to the top of Mirkwood Bowl, Monarch’s 11,952-foot summit with backcountry access and views of the mountain’s cat ski zone that opened in 1990. On the 25-minute hike to the top, he walks me through his plans for a one-room cabin he’s currently building on his family’s property in nearby Buena Vista.

Mirkwood has been closed the past two days due to blasting after the recent storm, but we’re hoping the cold temperatures have preserved the snowpack. We traverse the ridgeline, aiming for an unnamed chute with a small cliff line and protected snow. Up high, arctic winds have warped the snow into an ocean of small, frozen waves. It feels like skiing buffed granite, but Hawk isn’t worried.

“The most valuable thing about this place is every time I come up, I find a run with good snow,” he says. “There’s always a way to be on good snow and always a lack of people.”

Tom Runcie is stoked he didn't go to Vail today. PHOTO: Petar Dopchev
Tom Runcie is stoked he didn’t go to Vail today. PHOTO: Petar Dopchev

Details, Details
Including roundtrip airfare from San Diego to Denver, three days of lift tickets, cash for food and Bloody Marys, the author went all in for $460. Tip: If you flash a season pass from anywhere else, your lift ticket runs just $40.

Best Local Hang:
Grab a beer at Benson’s in Salida and say hello to Benny the moose. Hint: He’s on the wall. Three friends can go three rounds for less than $40.

Lunchroom Vibe:
Think church potluck or Girl Scout meeting: flickering lights, folding tables, and the freedom to brown-bag it with pride.

How to Get a Ride:
Come bearing gifts. Beef jerky and a half bottle of bourbon work well. Local folks know the drill: If they see you with your skis, they’re going to pick you up.

From Denver:
Busses run from DIA to Salida often enough. You’re likely to be seated among a mix of skiers, vagabonds, and Nebraska farm boys trading war stories over a two-liter Mountain Dew.