I rode alone up Loveland Ski Area’s Lift 6 up and tilted the whiskey flask to my lips. “Cheers to the best season of my life.” My friends Andy and Jeff were two chairs ahead of me, pointing toward the vast ridge on our right. As we drew closer to timberline the fresh white snow beneath reflected the brightness of Colorado’s springtime sun. The lift carried us up to chase the next clue in New Belgium’s spring skiing scavenger hunt. Watching my friends plot out our next run, I thought back on the past five months.
I had experienced the steep chutes and deep powder of Jackson Hole’s backcountry access gates for my bachelor party in January. I had hiked high above tree line at Whistler Blackcomb, dropping into terrain I’d seen in photos and videos for years but never thought I’d get the chance to ride. I had taken the snow cat to 13,000 feet and ridden the longest runs of the season back to the base just above I-70 at my home mountain of Loveland, and skirted down one of the area’s most difficult runs, the Number 3 Headwall. Not a bad winter - and the forecast for the next month looked promising for late season snow - good for recreational uses as well as an extra cushion of water to minimize the wild fire risk as summer creeps in.
We strapped in together at the top of the lift. To our right, a man dressed up in a bunny costume barreled past us. This had to be the next clue in the hunt, we decided. We rode as fast as we could after him and cornered him next to a tree about a half mile down the mountain. It turned out that the goal was to snap a photo of our team with this bunny. Check.
The bunny hinted at a group of people gathered around a makeshift sign at the bottom of the terrain park to our right. “Let’s cut through those trees and into the terrain park on the other side,” I said. “We’ll still be able to make it down towards the next clue.”
They both agreed. We headed through a sparse grove of trees under warm spring sun and dropped into the park area. I jetted down the left side of the run and approached a rail I had ridden before - a rainbow box with a smooth transition and easy landing. I checked my speed into the final approach and ollied onto the box. The nose of my board slapped the box. I careened off to the right and tumbled down the icy slope. My board caught on the edge of the rail and twisted my legs sharply to the left.
I hit the ground and slid to a stop. My left ankle throbbed. I glanced around in panic. I dragged myself to the side of the run. It felt as though the ankle was in a vice. A sharp pain shot up my leg as I lay down in the snow. Jeff rode up.
“Are you going to be able to make it down?” he said.
“I don’t know yet. Give me a few minutes. You guys can go on ahead if you want.”
“No, that was a nasty spill. We might need to call the Ski Patrol.”
“Stop being a bitch, dude, let’s go!” Andy yelled from below. “We’re going to miss the next checkpoint.”
“He might have a broken ankle,” Jeff said.
I sat up. The mountains spun around me. “I can make it down.” The perceived humiliation of riding the toboggan down was too much for me. These guys would never let me hear the end of it.
“Are you sure?” Jeff said. “I can call ski patrol right now.”
“I’ll be ok.”
I rode switch down the mountain, my bad ankle on the back half of the board instead of the front like in my normal stance. I fell down every three or four turns, embarrassed to look like a tourist. When I reached the bottom of the hill, my ankle still throbbed heavily and I struggled to unstrap from the board. Jeff and Andy assisted me in walking to a bench. Almost unbearable pain took over my leg. I knew my season was over. I told them to go back out and finish the scavenger hunt.
“I’m just glad this happened in April instead of December,” I said.
“Yeah but there are still two months left,” Jeff said. “Are you going to go to the clinic?”
“Not until we get back to town. I’ll be alright for a while, just don’t take all day. I can only handle watching everyone else ride for a couple hours at most.” I chewed on what I had said to them. Why is it that I have pursued this hobby so heavily? Riding a board made of wood and fiberglass down a mountain over and over must seem crazy to most people. I knew the answers: travel and adventure. This season alone, snowboarding took me to British Columbia, Wyoming, and all across Colorado. It provided an excuse to catch up with friends new and old. It helped me get outside and stay in decent shape. I’ve always enjoyed checking out the scene in different ski towns and always made a point to talk with other riders about where they have been and where they’re headed next.
It’s a labor of love. Much like craft distilling. A common theme in mountain states like Colorado and Montana - there is a lot of love going on. I’ve always thought that it has something to do with the region - those who prioritize living in the mountains seem to have a higher tendency of also prioritizing a strong work-life balance. Mixing in a love for the outdoors with a line of work built from passion is a common theme around here. Two weeks after I broke my ankle I took off to play a weekend of shows with my band. On the way to meet up with the guys down in Durango I stopped in at Wood’s High Mountain Distilling in Salida and spoke with owner and head distiller P.T. Wood. Wood and his brother Lee formed the business that offers lines of both gin and whiskey, their Treeline Gin and Tenderfoot Whiskey being the most well known. In line with his desire to increase the balance between work and life, Wood’s is gearing up to release spirits in an aluminum can, perfect for the outdoors. The Backcountry Bottle will be hopefully available by summer. “It’s for guys going on river trips, hut trips, backpack trips,” Wood said.
“This came from being a river guide,” Wood said. “Going out and doing lots of river trips, sitting around the campfire drinking whiskey. On one of my early Grand Canyon trips in the early nineties one of the local bar guys brought three different ammo cans with a variety of different bourbons and Scotch and Irish whiskeys. We went through probably fifteen different whiskeys on that trip and talked about (distilling). That was the original inspiration.”
After years of talking and planning and a failed attempt in the early 2000’s, Wood gave up on the dream for a bit. “It started back up in 2008,” he said. Watching bigger names like Stranahan’s and Peach Street Distillers pop up around the state put a burning desire in Wood’s head to take his knowledge and put it into a distilling business. The market was tough, and the start-up costs were high. Craft beer took all the glory in those days. But Wood’s High Mountain Distilling took a small town DIY attitude and started bottling spirits that appealed to the mountain men and river bums living the outdoors lifestyle around the state of Colorado.
“The craft beer guys came into this world when there wasn’t any good beer to be had, so that was a pretty easy route to market. In distilling, the big guys are making great juice. There is crap for sure, but it’s a little bit different. That being said, people love small and they love local.”
Prominently displayed in the front of the distilling area is Wood’s original 50 gallon pot still, nicknamed Ashley. Built in the 1800s, Ashley is Wood’s original still and was used until P.T. and his crew brought in a larger 250 gallon homemade still called Frankenstill. Currently, Wood’s is in the process of acquiring a new 500-gallon system to increase their capacity above the their annual mark of 15,000 bottles. Not bad for a business that acquired their DSP on November 13, 2012.
In addition to the Treeline Gin line and Tenderfoot whiskey, check out Wood’s Mountain Hopped Gin, Alpine Rye Whiskey, and Fleur de Sureau Elderflower Liqueur. Order online at woodsdistillery.com. A little bit of Wood’s helped mask the pain of what turned out to be a broken ankle. While seriously affecting my work-life balance at the moment, I should be good to go for river season, with an aluminum bottle of whiskey sitting in my dry bag.