Trio of groomers keep cross-country skiers happy on Grand Mesa
Early in the winter, before the snows pile up, it takes a tip-toe stretch to reach the donation box at the County Line Nordic ski area on Grand Mesa.
Reed Hunker stretched far enough to pick out one of white envelopes and immediately turned back to his car. The wind chill at 10,000 feet was well south of zero, making it a day for teeth chatter, not idle chatter.
But Hunker, who had just finished a few hours of skiing at the County Line Nordic Trails with his wife, Debbie Cheesman, decided the experience was worth something extra for the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, keepers of the local Nordic flame.
“I want to donate some money. This is a terrific resource,” said Hunker, who knows what good skiing is, having lived 30 years in Crested Butte before moving to Hotchkiss. “I’m pretty busy with work right now so I don’t get up here as often as I’d like, but Debbie gets up here quite a bit. It’s a great place to ski.”
That many other skiers share Hunker’s enthusiasm is reflected nearly every day, and particularly so on weekends, when the parking lots rapidly fill at the three Grand Mesa trails systems — Skyway, County Line and Ward Lake.
It’s rare you’ll have the trails to yourself, but even if the parking lots are full, as they were last weekend when the new snow brought ski conditions to a peak, there’s plenty of room for solitude on the kilometers of trails.
Cross-country skiers have come to rely on the Grand Mesa trails, which offer track skiing at Skyway and County Line trails and what former collegiate ski coach Al Fournier calls the “challenging ups and downs” at the wilder Ward Lake trails.
“Ward Lake really is for the people who love to get off the groomed track and into the backcountry,” said Fournier, who lives on a small farm near Hotchkiss and is one of the Nordic Council’s three paid track groomers. “We maintain one groomed track, but it’s more challenging backcountry type of skiing. It’s challenging to groom, too.”
The Grand Mesa Nordic Council formed in 1990 when Powderhorn Ski Resort curtailed its grooming of the cross country trails, said longtime Nordic Council member Tom Ela.
“We saw a real need to provide groomed trails and we decided to try it as a nonprofit,” Ela said. “The top of the mesa is remote enough a commercial venture would be difficult, although several have tried.”
The council went for 15 years or more grooming the trails with snowmobiles, which frequently demanded superhuman effort. Skiers enjoyed the smooth trails but few realized that getting stuck in new snow and deep drifts was a fact of life for the groomers.
“Oh, I remember those days,” said Fournier with a laugh. “I wasn’t working for the council
then but I’d go skiing and help dig those guys out.”
Things improved immensely in 2006 when a grant from the Jean Thomas Lambert Foundation funded a real snow-grooming machine, a Kassbohrer PistenBully 100Nordic complete with track setters, snow tiller and plow.
Now, even on the nastiest days you’ll see one of the GMNC groomers, Fournier, Jon Canty or the longtime groomer Kenton Shaw, making the rounds in relative comfort and almost never getting stuck.
Last weekend, Canty was catching up with the new snow at County Line and putting down fresh tracks for skiers to follow.
“There were some 6-foot drifts in places where the wind was blowing, so it took a while to get around the loop,” said Canty, who was making a pass around County Line after before heading over to the Skyway trails. “But we’ve got everything open now and it looks really nice.”
But those fresh tracks don’t come cheap. The cost of diesel has skyrocketed and original estimates put annual maintenance for the snow machine at close to $3,000, plus similar amounts for insurance and other associated costs.
As then-GMNC President Joe Ramey said in a letter to members, “our membership dues ... don’t come anywhere near covering these new costs.”
Ela sighed when he thought of this.
“Our membership is about 350-400, split about evenly between the Grand Valley and the North Fork,” he said. “About half of our board (14 members) comes from the Delta area.”
The council gets no money from the Forest Service after that agency’s funds dried up several years ago, so there’s a lot of reliance on donations and membership fees.
“We raised memberships this year for the first time in at least 10 years,” Ela said. “It’s been a long time since we raised our fees but running that cat is lot more expensive.”
Nordic council memberships this year are $45 for an individual and $75 for a family, with a special $25 limited-income membership available.
“We’ve always tried to keep the costs down and be as inclusive as possible and get as many people involved as we can,” Ela said. “It’s still a real bargain compared to any other Nordic areas.”
In comparison, the highly regarded Devil’s Thumb Ranch area near Winter Park charges $18 a day for adults to access the ranch ski trails.
At each trailhead is a donation box as well as membership forms.
“People are pretty good about throwing in a buck or two when they ski and that’s really appreciated,” said Ela. “We don’t want to be heavy-handed but we try to push memberships a little and make them realize it costs a lot of money to keep the trails nice.”
Grand Mesa Nordic Council membership information is available at the council’s Web site, gmnc.org.