Packers of Primo: Sunlight’s boot packing crew risks limbs for lift tickets, fresh powder and apres beers

John Gotwald trudges through deep snow while boot packing at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Chunks of snow continued to loosen with each waist-high trudge. Some 8,700 feet up, some steps caused tiny snow boulders to tumble down the untouched powder of this double-black diamond ski run.

Sunlight Mountain Resort Ski Patroller Chris Hays estimates that Defiance rolls down at about a 30-degree pitch. Things get a little dicier with The Heathen, one Colorado’s steepest ski descents, at 52 degrees.

These boys were up until recently doing their thing along all those gnarly moguls hugging Primo Lift. On Saturday morning, they ducked under the rope closing off Grizzly from the East Ridge, then expertly cruised their way to the snow-ubiquitous top of Defiance.

Their mission: bootbacking, an activity involving a crew of die-hard snow fiends who militaristically pack down runs by the heels of their boots — to boot, at vertigo heights of Colorado’s high country. They sometimes joke they’re looking for lost wallets, but truly what they’re doing is removing oxygen from the snow so that it creates a stronger bond with the snowpack.

“Especially with how avalanche conditions work over in (East Ridge),” Hays said. “I know zones that are real prone to sliding.

“The boot packing definitely helps with stability in those slide zones.”

Sunlight Mountain Resort Ski Patroller Chris Hays briefs his boot packing crew at the top Primo Lift on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Hays, 45, is a Roaring Fork native who’s been hitting Sunlight since he was about three years old. Tom Hays, his father, is also Sunlight’s general manager. Chris works as a mechanic for a local tree service most weeks. Weekends, he’s doing avalanche control on the mountain.

Once storms roll in and Sunlight begins the painstaking process of ensuring all runs open in a timely fashion, Chris leads a seasoned crew of eight or so people to bootpack.

“They love the mountain,” Chris said. “And I guess they trust me.”

Avalanche activity in Colorado is no joke. Numbers from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center show the 2021-22 season ended with 11 people buried and six killed by avalanches. The season before, 14 people were buried and 12 killed. Earlier this month an avalanche mitigation team member in Steamboat Springs survived being buried in a slide.

The boot packing crew at Sunlight Mountain Resort gets first dibs on Grizzly run while cruising their way to Defiance on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Things we do for love

Chris said Sunlight’s boot packers have also over the years set off some pretty big cascades.

“A big thing is, if we don’t boot pack it, then we need to go up and bomb,” he said. “It could just potentially wipe out the whole run down to the dirt, then we can’t open it. 

“We can’t ski it.”

In comes Chris’ crew. This group of gung-ho, seemingly clinically insane mountaineers absorbs the inherent health risks of snow packing for several reasons — from free lift passes in exchange for their hard work and first dibs on untouched powder runs, to preseason leg workouts and apres beers at base lodge.

Either way, boot packing is not for the faint of heart, says John Gotwald. Gotwald is an electrician by trade but a snowboarder of 38 years. He’s also boot packed snow for the past 8-10 years. 

The boot packing crew at Sunlight Mountain Resort gets to work Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Gotwald is always looking to ride spots no one else does, and boot packing pays its dividends when it comes to getting fresh turns.

“I’ve been in the snow up to my armpits, for sure,” Gotwald said. “It takes a lot of work but you also have your snowboard, which is a very useful tool. That can work as an anchor to dig into the snow and pull yourself out.”  

Saturday morning was brisk, a 19-degree bite that accentuates the snow crunching underneath everyone’s boots. Chris assembled everyone on deck of base lodge, provided a morning brief of what exactly they were doing and, soon, everyone hopped the lift.

At the top of Primo Lift —Mt. Sopris pageanting its natural beauty off in the near distance, as usual — boot packer Gerry Riggins said he simply loves playing in the snow. In return, the local cabinet maker asks anyone watching him pack to reward his efforts via libation.

“I just try to get more beer,” Riggins joked. “I just tell them to buy pitchers of beer.”

Sunlight Mountain Resort Ski Patroller Chris Hays more knee deep in fresh powder at Defiance on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Fresh pow pay dirt 

The packing at Defiance was relatively tame. Chris, Gerry, John and their fellow crew members slowly and cautiously made switchbacks along East Ridge. One step into the deep snow was met by leveraging themselves with their boards, then doing it all over again. This went on for a good 45 minutes, with temperatures rising throughout.

“Weather doesn’t matter,” Riggins said. “Weather can be terrible and then we get lifted up here with the snowmobile and nobody else is up here.

“So we get even more of the mountain to ourselves.” 

During this nervous time essentially scaling down the side of a steep mountain, they joked about their heart rates increasing and the cracks forming in the snow below. Gotwald said he once broke his pelvis while snowboarding but quickly recovered and was back on his board like it never happened.

Angus Morrison carries his snowboard with him as him takes another step.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

To Gotwald, boot packing is a translatable science.

“It’s like a trough for snow,” Gotwald said. “There’s a purpose to this.”

Sunlight Mountain itself first welcomed riders earlier than anticipated, with Midway having already opened Nov. 25. With snow having pretty much dropped on the Roaring Fork Valley all week, Sunlight Mountain Resort Marketing and Sales Director Troy Hawks hopes this, combined with patrol’s continual snow hazard mitigation efforts, helps open all runs sooner than later.

“We are anxious like everybody else,” he said Monday. “But it’s always a safety-first approach, especially in the early season.”

Angus Morrison takes on Defiance at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Once Chris’ crew finished boot packing Saturday morning, each one of them took turns carving through some of the most pristine, airy snow the Western Slope has to offer. 

And once the day’s work eventually ended?

“We go have a beer,” Chris said. “I always buy my guys a beer.”

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