We didn't see any skiers, backcountry or otherwise. Snowboarders aplenty, but no skiers. None concerned with the possibility of friendly fire*.
We were here to see the White-tailed Ptarmigan. Which is a bit of a curious name as the entire bird is white. Which makes for excellent camouflage as it lives on the snow covered mountain tops.
Spoiler alert: we saw it. But it took a while. And by the time the snowboarders spooked one over the hill to our side everyone except your's truly and Chris** our guide were back in the van out of the cold and wind.
If you look closely at the lower left hand corner of the image above you can see the vans of the birding groups in the parking area. You can also see a curiously elongated truck, an artifact of the panorama feature of my iPhone.
And you can see there is no one else up on the hill with me searching for the bird. Chris had headed even further up the hill to get a different vantage point. And by "hill" I mean mountain. Where I was standing was 12,000 feet above sea level (the pass is officially at 11,990 ft).
But before the mass retreat to the van we saw the bird above, a Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, a life bird for me (I now have seen the complete set of North American rosy-finches- woo hoo!).
But back to the Ptarmigan. I was scanning the mountain side with a scope. This mountainside:
And what do you notice about this mountain side (other than that bright white comet shaped object)? It is mostly snow covered, white.
So to set the scene, I'm alone on the side of a mountain looking for an all white bird the size of an American football***, that is far enough away that I need a telescope, in 20° F weather with a steady breeze.
And I found it. It was on the peak at the top left. A couple of snowboarders had climbed up and over that peak, and the bird came flying over. Chris, who was up the side of the hill saw it first and when I noticed him jumping up and down to get my attention I quickly started scanning that area.
And here it is:
Right smack dab in the center of the image (as always, click to bigafy, although in this case it won't help all that much).
Here's the view in the scope (the bird has moved a bit from the prior image):
I yelled down to the parking area and was soon joined by thirty or so other people, inducing the rest of our group, getting good looks at this bird. A bird that once it showed up was surprisingly easy to see.
Good but not great looks. A couple of days later our friend Linda of Philly Bird Nerd fame got great looks, as she writes about on her blog. Go look.
* No snowflakes were harmed in the making of this blog post.
** If this guiding gig doesn't work out there is always Cirque du Soleil.
*** As four of the eight people on the trip were originally from England this was an important distinction. Two now reside in South Africa and the other two in South Carolina. They were not the only folks form South Carolina there, as several other members of their bird club were up on that hill with us. Small world.