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Thanksgiving in Vail 29 November 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing, Travel.
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No explanation yet from the CAIC on the avalanche that killed the head of Wolf Creek’s ski patrol last week. I’ll let you know when I know more.

In the meantime, let’s explore a happier subject: Thanksgiving in Vail. This year, the resort once again placed a respectable number two (behind Utah’s Deer Valley) in SKI‘s annual reader rankings of North American resorts. Only SKI readers would rank Deer Valley number one, and in fact, the first few lines describing the place highlight its perfect groomers and chanterelle mushrooms. So it’s not all about the terrain. But most everyone, from hardcore big mountain skiers to wine-tasting ski moms, will agree that Vail’s a great place. Not jaw-dropping, but great.

And this Thanksgiving must have ranked among the best in the resort’s nearly fifty-year history. Early season snow has a way of putting a smile on everyone’s face. Christmas had come and gone last year by the time Vail opened as much terrain as was open for Thanksgiving this time around.

Funny thing was, no one seemed much interested in skiing it. Three days after the last storm, fresh lines sprawled through the bowls. Powder stashes existed in every clump of trees. That’s not to say, “Too bad. You missed it,” but rather, “it’s still out there. Go get it.” So much terrain open so early seems to have everyone mystified.

I wonder, then, if perhaps Denver hasn’t completely understood exactly how much snow has fallen on the I-70 resorts. Colorado Pass holders, who only receive 10 days to spend at Vail and Beaver Creek over the course of the season, rightly travel to Vail and the Beav only on the best of days. But quite honestly, some of those days are happening right now.

Despite the belief that it can’t possibly be that good, it is. Or was. The skiers who arrived for Thanksgiving seemed more or less uninterested in finding powder lines–like the guy last year who asked me in all seriousness, “All this snow is nice, but why don’t they groom it a little sooner? A couple days after a storm. That’s when I like it.” It’s evidently that sort of person who skied Vail over Thanksgiving.

But I don’t blame them. As a place to spend the holiday, it doesn’t suck. That Vail also happens to offer skiing appeals to a certain set of travelers. Off the slopes, the Christmas lights twinkle, carolers roam the streets, someone blows a Swiss tune into an alpenhorn. Of course, it’s not the real world, nor anything like what Peter Siebert imagined it might become, I’m guessing, but it doesn’t have to be.

This is Vail the escape, the mountain getaway, where the Swiss-themed village can let us live out the holiday fantasy of a life where only skiing, shopping, dining and drinking exist. If Vail were the “real thing” we’d go home at the end of the day. Instead, we linger, hoping to spend a little more time in the holiday wonderland.

Blue Sky Basin opens this Friday. Will you be out there to ski it?


Avalanche Kills Wolf Creek Ski Patrol Director 23 November 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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Wolf Creek, February 2010

At 7:45 this morning, while conducting avalanche mitigation work, Wolf Creek Ski Patrol Director Scott Kay was engulfed by a slide. He didn’t survive, and for the first time in more than 17 years, an in-bounds avalanche had claimed the life of a patroller. It was so unlikely, so astonishing, and so terribly terribly sad.

The mountain had already received 52″ for the year, and the 13″ Wolf Creek reported overnight was the largest total in the state according to Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade association representing all but Vail’s ski areas in Colorado. The wind had howled through the night, loading snow into slabs on top of an unstable snowpack, and this morning, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) upgraded its avalanche watch to a warning for the San Juans.

But patrollers at Wolf Creek deal with dangers like throughout—at Colorado’s snowiest resort, they have to. A team from CAIC will visit tomorrow to learn more about the cause of the slide, standard procedure in the event of a fatality, and Wolf Creek will reopen in Kay’s honor after closing for the day. For the time being, we’re left wondering how and why the slide occurred.

I write about this because I have skied Wolf Creek before, spending time on “Glory Hole” where the slide occurred but never really consider the mitigation work necessary to make ski areas safe for the millions of skiers who descend on the slopes each year. We complain so often about ropes and closed terrain, but an in-bounds avalanche as anything other than the result of control work is almost unheard of. Patrollers do all the heavy-lifting to provide an essentially effortless ski experience. Just ask the folks who do ski backcountry lines: they’ll spend thousands of dollars on gear and tens of hours in avalanche training classes to feel prepared for only the tamest slopes. There’s a lot to learn.

Certainly, skiing claims lives every year, but the tragedy strikes home when the victim is one of the sport’s own, reminding us that even the proper precautions sometimes fail to suffice. Every time I ski powder in the trees, I’m reminded of the two instructors who died last year in Colorado, in Steamboat and Wolf Creek I believe. They’d lost sight of friends in the forest—just a little ahead or behind as seems to happen all the time when skiing in the trees–and had fallen into tree wells. Both died before anyone could find them.

We can all imagine ourselves in such a scenario, and perhaps that explains the overwhelming support following tragedies like last year’s and today’s. So I’ll join with the hundreds of others in offering my condolences. It’s a sad day for the Colorado ski community, but tomorrow brings another day and another storm, the reasons we joined that community in the first place, and the reasons we’ll ski again.

How much of Keystone is open by… 11 November 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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When does X terrain open at Keystone, Breck, Vail, etc? It’s a common enough question that I’ve decided to provide a little info for Keystone (which is celebrating a 40th birthday this year) since I know it best. More to follow when I get the time.

I absolutely, postively must ski the white ribbon of death on Keystone’s opening weekend. When should I book my flight?

– Keystone’s elevation and snowmaking capacity allow it to get started just behind Colorado leaders Loveland and A-Basin, and due to its proximity to Denver, Keystone can make a profit from day (rather than destination) skiers early on . Shoot for the first weekend in November. Keystone will be open, rocks, downed trees and all.

I hate hosting family at my place. How much of Keystone will be open by Thanksgiving?

– Typically snowmaking along with natural snowfall will make most of Dercum Mountain and North Peak skiable in time to make skiing more attractive than watching the Lions. Coverage will still be thin and North Peak’s main bump runs, Powder Cap and Ambush, will probably be closed. The groomers usually leave part of Last Alamo alone at this time of year, so if you like scary, crusty bumps head there. Otherwise go back to Dercum andlook for some short, less challenging ones just under the gondola on Flying Dutchman. For park rats, Area 51 will probably be open as well depending on temperature and where the snowmaking money is going. If you enjoy the novelty of skiing on bad snow under lights, night skiing is also an option at this point.

I cherish what little vacation time I have but place no value on an enjoyable ski experience. How much of Keystone will be open in the week between Christmas and New Year’s?

– Most of it. Snowmaking has stopped by this point, so you’ll be relying on nature to provide coverage. The Outback, with all its tree and bump runs will be open, although coverage can still be spotty since this area is left more “natural” than the other parts of the resort. You’re more likely to run into rocks and downed trees this early in the season, so proceed carefully.

For what it’s worth, though, I skied knee deep back there on Christmas Eve last year. In a good snow year, the bumps will almost all be open, except perhaps some to skiers left on North Peak. You’ll see the saplings poking through them riding the Santiago Lift. The hike-to terrain may be open, too, but ask patrol first before taking too much time on foot. Wind scours the bowls, so don’t expect to find face shots this early–or ever, in all likelihood.

I like powder. When should I bring my snorkle to Keystone?

– You have picked the wrong mountain. Get thee to Wolf Creek.

I plan on celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to our country by participating in a sport enjoyed exclusively by rich white people. What will terrain be like on MLK weekend?

– Coverage will be firming up most everywhere. The trees may still be thin, but you can explore most of the mountain with confidence. The

Your keg won't care if you don't find those hot coeds you were seeking.

tight trees in the Windows between Dercum and North Peak are at a southern exposure, so probably best to avoid them if they’re open.

I’m planning to score some hot biddies over spring break. Will there still be enough snow at Keystone for me to show off my mad skillz in March? Also, “Frat! Frat! Frat!”

– Yes. March is Keystone’s snowiest month on average. This is probably the best time to be skiing here. You will not, however, find women at Keystone, so don’t plan on presenting all the bros at the Frateau with a gaggle of snow bunnies. Only your keg will provide reliable entertainment after hours.

I am addicted to skiing Keystone. I want more! When does Keystone close?

– The second weekend in April, generally. This season, Keystone’s closing day is April 10, 2011, which ¬†also coincides with the mountain’s deepest base of the year. Vail Resorts will tell you it has something to do with an elk migration or calving or something, and Texans will say it’s because snow can’t possibly exist into April. Vail comes closer to the truth–elk don’t appreciate spinning lifts too much–but in actuality Keystone closes because skiers lose interest. Since it’s a business, not the government, when the cashflow turns negative, they turn out the lights and everyone goes home until summer.

There’s always A-Basin, though.

The best 5 minutes of skiing you’ll see for a while 11 November 2010

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Running out of gas 9 November 2010

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Running out of gas on the highway tends to put a crimp in evening plans. And since those plans had initially included writing an op-ed and blogging, I chose the former, dear readers, because the former paid real dollars. Perhaps I should have blogged from my stalled car: sitting on the shoulder with hundreds of cars zipping by is scary. What life lessons could the experience generate? What telling metaphor had emerged? None that I could divine. Except this: gas light on? Get gas.