‘Rat Lake’ returns to Howelsen Hill for last Ski Free Sunday of the season (with video)

A skier launches off of a makeshift jump into a dugout hole called Rat Lake at the base of Howelsen Hill. North America's oldest continuously operating ski area will close out the season on Sunday, March 26, 2023 with a pond skim event dubbed The Return of Rat Lake.
Tread of Pioneers Museum/Courtesy photo

Howelsen Hill is gearing up for the last Ski Free Sunday of the season on March 26 by bringing a pond skim to the base area for the first time in decades and maybe ever.

Dubbed The Return of Rat Lake, the pond skim competition draws inspiration from what Howelsen Hill and Rodeo Manager Brad Setter referred to as a “mud hole.”

“We found these pictures at the Tread of Pioneers (Museum) of what they called, ‘Rat Lake,’” Setter said. “I believe it was in the 80s or 90s, they had dug a hole at the bottom of the hill in the springtime, probably with a backhoe or something, and they practiced their freestyle jumping into a big mud hole. It’s pretty hilarious.”

In a 2007 interview recorded by Tread of Pioneers Museum, Park Smalley — a local freestyle skiing legend — explained that he and fellow skiers dug the pond to practice freestyle jumping, which had often been done into a pile of straw. He said John Fetcher, one of the founders of Steamboat Resort, helped them dig the hole for the pond.

“(Fetcher) jumped up onto the machine and starts clearing a bit and then says come up here with me,” Smalley recalls in the interview. “He said, what do you think and I said that’s pretty cool. He said, well, it’s all yours. … Literally he would come back every couple days to check on me.”

Setter said it wasn’t really a pond skim and a historic photo of Rat Lake shows a skier catching a crazy amount of air above the dug out hole — which doesn’t appear to be the softest of landing spots.

After a year or two, the event was deemed a significant safety hazard and stopped happening, Setter said, but the plan is to place the pond skim on Sunday in almost the same spot.

“We haven’t had a pond skim since I’ve been here, and I’m not sure if there has actually been a pond skim event at Howelsen in the past,” Setter said. “It’s the first in a while at least.”

The skim is limited to 100 participants who need to sign up ahead of time, and will take place from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday. Costumes are strongly encouraged.

There will also be live music from the Rattlin’ 44s, a group of local musicians who live out on Routt County Road 44 where rattle snakes are common. The band specializes in blues, rock, country, bluegrass and jazz and will be serenading skiers and riders from noon to 2 p.m.

Steamboat Springs City Council is offering free brats and burgers while supplies last. For a free food voucher, stop by the council tent. Setter said there would also be food and drink specials at the Outrun Snack Bar inside the Howelsen Hill Lodge and at the outdoor bar.

“They’re trying to knock down their inventory of food here for the season since it’s closing day, so everything must go,” Setter said. “It should be just a great day of skiing.”

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All of Howelsen’s terrain is expected to be open for the final day of the season and typical spring skiing conditions haven’t quite set in yet because of strong snowfall this year.

Also strong this year were skier and rider numbers, Setter said. While final numbers will be presented to council after the season officially ends, he said that day pass, season pass and Ski Free Sunday numbers are all higher than they were last year.

“Every Sunday has been way up over last year,” Setter said. “We’re really excited about that.”

Setter said there were some internal conversations about extending the season, but they ultimately decided against it, as most of the Howelsen’s staff will transition to other roles in the Parks & Recreation Department next month.

“We’ve got a lot to break down and put away,” Setter said. “We really wouldn’t have time to get everything done if we stayed open longer because we can’t really do anything until we close it.”

Nordic trails will remain open and Setter said they will continue to groom them while the snow lasts. The first thing to break down is the tubing area, so he said the face would still be skiable for the next few weeks.

“There will be some skinning opportunities on the face,” Setter said. “You can earn your turns at postseason for a little bit.”

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