Sink or skim: The beloved ski tradition of pond skimming returns to Colorado
It was the last day of the season at Powderhorn Mountain Resort, the ski area with vast desert views outside of Grand Junction. Under an overcast sky as thick as whipped cream, a crowd was gathered around a steep slope, leading to a long, man-made pond. A snowboarder stood at the top, peering over about a hundred feet of murky, cold water. He paused, handed some stuff to a friend, then zoomed down, hoping against hope that he’d skim across the surface, and not fall in.
Cheers rang out as he made it about three quarters of the way before slowing to a stop in 3-foot-deep water. And what was going through his head as he started to sink?
“I thought: ‘I should have worn thicker socks,’” said Ryan Robinson, with a laugh.
Robinson, who works at Powderhorn, was not just the first pond skimmer of the afternoon, but the first in three years there. Pond skimming is a tradition at many ski areas big and small, but the pandemic had upended it — until this spring.
Sarah Lubin, who teaches adaptive skiing, is happy pond skims have returned. As she put it, it’s all about the “glory.”
“So, you don't win anything out of it, but the idea that you make it across and you look cool doing it sounds awesome,” she said, standing in line for her turn.
She looked in her element, smiling in zebra-print leggings and a mask inspired by Brazilian Carnival. She's been pond skimming for years, mostly with success. But her partner, Tom Hesse, said he was “a little nervous” about making it over the water, which shone a foreboding yellow-green.
He’d never done this before, but he did know just how to dress for the occasion: in a floor-length white tunic with a red sash, his long hair framing his bearded face. Jesus — on skis.
“And there's the whole walks-on-water parallel that is a bad look for me if I don't make it,” Hesse joked. “So it's gonna be a tough hang if I don't get across.”
About 75 people took on the challenge, some in tutus and business suits and Hawaiian shirts. There was at least one Tigger onesie. Only about half made it, and none of the kids did, many eagerly face-planting in the pool and then still looking pretty happy as they were helped to land.
And Jesus? He made it all the way, only getting the hem of his garment wet, as the crowd exploded in cheers. His partner made it, too, as did her ski-instructor friend, a guy who popped confetti over the water mid-skim.
While the history of pond skimming is about as hazy as an unfiltered IPA, many people trace it back to Alberta, Canada, in the late 1920s. The legend goes that two buddies were enjoying a day of spring skiing when they encountered a newly formed pool of melted snow.
Kendra Scurfield can imagine what happened next.
“One of them, I'm sure, asked the other to hold his beer as he tried to skim across,” said Scurfield, who works at the resort Banff Sunshine Village.
As she’s heard the story, one friend made it across, while the other plunged into the cold. Her resort has been holding pond skims, which they call “slush cups,” near the same spot for generations. This May will mark the 92nd time they’ve held the slush cup skim.
But Scurfield has only tried it once, ending in a crash.
“And it was the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I’m Canadian, so that’s saying a lot,” she joked.
Over the generations, the mix of pain and pride that pond skimming promises has rippled all over the world, often reserved for the frenzy that is that final day of the season. Many Colorado pond skims are still to come, in Breckenridge and Winter Park, Copper and Keystone.
Arapahoe Basin is planning a skim in June, long after most ski areas have turned off their lifts for the season.
And on a recent, freezing Sunday, Steamboat Ski Resort reopened its pond skim on its final ski day. That afternoon, no one made it across. Not the woman dressed like a Stormtrooper or the guy who was lemur. Aladdin, with a toy monkey around his neck and a snowboard outfitted as a magic carpet, looked both ecstatic and soaked after crashing.
Some of the biggest cheers were for Jeremy Monahan. As Superman, he was able to whip the crowd up into a frenzy as he made it out, almost — but not quite — unscathed.
He emerged from the clear pool with a shocked look and a big grin. After whooping into the air, he explained that this is about much more than getting to the other side.
“I think it’s just that crowd enthusiasm, everybody celebrating the end of a great year,” he said.
After a two-year-wait, they were celebrating the opportunity to once again be wacky and weird — and very, very cold.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!