After years living in sunny Southern California, an escape to the Rocky Mountains during winter may as well be a vacation in the Swiss Alps — seeing towering peaks and skeletal trees draped with snow feels foreign and magical to me. The snow fills me with a toddler-like energy, enticing me to jump into roadside heaps of the stuff with unparalleled glee; moments later, it has the power to paralyze me with fear as I stare down from the top of a steep ski run.
During winter, Paragon Guides in Vail, Colo., offers snowshoe tours, cross-country skiing excursions and more. // © 2014 Chelsee Lowe
On a recent trip to Vail, Colo., I wasted no time getting into the snow. Within an hour of checking in at Vail Cascade Resort and Spa, our group was instructed to meet a guide from Paragon Guides in the lobby, where he’d outfit us in snowshoe gear in preparation for a two-hour trek through Rocky Mountains backcountry. Paul, a wiry gentleman with a contagious energy and years of guiding experience under his belt, helped us put booties on over our athletic shoes and verified that we had packed appropriate gloves. If not, he had plenty of extra items in his giant equipment bag.
Feeling as bulky as the Stay Puft Marshmallow man in our wintry get-ups, we piled into a Paragon van and wound our way to a good access point in the White River National Forest. Buck, co-owner of Paragon Tours, was waiting for us at our starting spot. After welcoming us to Vail, he offered us hot cocoa out of a Thermos and small squares of chocolate for a little energy boost — my kind of guide.
More necessary than the snacks was our snowshoeing tutorial, which took place right in the parking lot. With poles in hand and our booties strapped into snowshoe bindings, Paul and Buck doled out strategies for surviving our adventure. We practiced digging our toes and crampons into the snow on slopes near the parking lot’s edge, and we tried to adjust to having the wide deck of the shoe flopping behind our heels as we walked. I imagine that wearing Big Foot’s flip flops would feel similar.
A 10-minute lesson is all it took. Snowshoeing is rather simple, especially when compared to its snowsport cousins. Though there’s always the chance of falling, you won’t be doing it at wild speeds. And because you’re trekking into uncharted snowy landscapes most of the time, if you do fall, you will land in inches of fresh, soft snow.
With Buck holding up the tail end, Paul led our pack through the forest. He was an almanac on snowshoes, sharing an incredible range of facts about the plants and wildlife native to the snowy playground. He pointed out vertical scratches in the bark of trees — teeth marks made by elk scraping their lower teeth upwards when they snack on the bark. We learned that aspen groves are considered the largest living organisms on earth, thanks to their joined roots that stem from a single parent tree. He explained how, come fall, it becomes easy to differentiate one aspen grove from the next, because each grove’s leaves changes color at its own rate. The result is a kaleidoscope of yellows and golds on a single mountain.
We were diligent students of nature, captivated by Paul’s outdoor lecture as we climbed. We each became more entranced with the forest with every step and detail. When we rounded a corner and found ourselves overlooking the lights of Vail below us, a hush fell over the group. These are the moments worth traveling for, the ones in which you realize the power of Mother Nature and you thank her for the view she has laid before you.