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Best Spring Break Ski Resorts for Families and College Students 8 March 2011

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Full disclosure: I hope this doesn’t come off like I’m shilling for a client. I mean, I am, but it’s because together we’ve created something really cool about a sport we love, not because it helps pay the bills.

If you’re just here looking for the Top 10s without the narrative, scroll down a little bit.

Way back about this time two years ago, my college buddies and I were headed up to Killington, VT for a spring break ski trip. We’d decided on the destination after several hours (or maybe it was days) of research on my end that focused on a few factors, namely price, proximity, and the the number of hot women who might also be there. Hearing that Killington offered all three, we laid down the $500 or so for five days of skiing and lodging, then put down another $50 each for beer because that’s how a trip with your frat works: five days, eight guys, $400 worth of beer—and, as it turned out, no women save for the two Peruvian lifties who went home to Rutland after hearing enough from all of us.

We could have done better, though, if we’d had the right info. Not that Killington was bad, of course, but what if we’d known the best spring break ski resorts? What if we’d known the resorts where the the bars overflowed with snow bunnies? Where was Panama Beach with double black terrain?

Recently, I set out to solve that problem along with one of our clients: OnTheSnow.com. The site’s 3.4 million monthly unique visitor give them some street cred as a big-time operator, sure, but what OnTheSnow really offers is data, reams and reams data. They collect popularity stats, user reviews, snowfall and base depth averages—more or less everything you’d want to know to make your spring break travel decision.

Together, we put it all to work and ranked the resorts to make an impartial listing free from editors’ picks and other subjective shenanigans. We’d figure out what was best based on cold, hard facts (err… and user reviews). For college students, we made a weighted average combining stats for resort page views from colleges around the country, user reviews of nightlife and downhill terrain and average March and April snowfall and base depths. Essentially, we wanted to know what was snowy, steep and sexy. We got that. Here’s the Top 10 (in alphabetical order):

Breckenridge

Heavenly

Jackson Hole

Keystone

Mammoth Mountain

Snowbird

Squaw Valley USA

Steamboat

Telluride

Vail

For families, we switched it up a little bit, dropping downhill terrain and nightlife (because both probably don’t matter to five year-olds) in favor of users’ reviews of “family-friendliness.” We played with weightings a bit, too, and that gave us the top 10 family ski resorts for spring break (again listed alphabetically)

Breckenridge

Deer Valley

Heavenly

Keystone

Mammoth Mountain

Park City Mountain Resort

Steamboat

Taos Ski Valley

Vail

Winter Park

Now, you might be wondering why no eastern or Canadian resorts show up on those lists. Where’s Whistler Blackcomb? Where’s Killington? As it turned out, none of the eastern resorts was big enough and bad enough to make the cut, though Mont Tremblant in Quebec did make the top 25, while Jay and maybe Stowe made it in to the top 50. I suspect we’ll create another category next year to give the eastern resorts a fair shot at winning something, although for what it’s worth, the rankings did help reaffirm the West as the only place to go for real skiing. As for Whistler, well, it came in just outside the top 10 for both families college students.

If you have any tips, suggestions or thought on who you think should have made the top 10 lists, drop me a line via the comments or my e-mail, provided in the “About” section.

This is Telluride 7 December 2010

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Driving into Telluride at night, you miss everything. Everything. This might as well be Muncie or Hannibal or one of thousands of other nondescript small towns. But then the sun rises, illuminating the San Juans. And you realize that you’ve found someplace special.

The photo everyone must take

I didn’t know a range like the San Juans existed in Colorado, jagged spines rising a vertical mile above the valley floors, almost straight up. Switzerland was supposed to look like this, but not here, not in this state where the Sawatch Range rolls up to 14,000 without much fanfare, where the the Front Range foothills elicit a yawn from Denver commuters. Why hadn’t someone said anything about this place?

And then it occurred to me, if I knew about it, I’d hesitate to tell anyone, too. You’ve heard of Telluride, though, so it’s all right. Have you seen it? Probably not. No one runs across this place by chance. Travel to the middle of nowhere in Colorado, then drive up a dead-end canyon for fifteen miles. Telluride will never find itself on the way to anything. It is, and will continue to be, the destination.

Skies?! On a bike?! Yes.

Years ago, it held that distinction because gold and silver filled them thar hills, and nobody really minded the prospect of disease, disaster and death if avoiding them meant finding riches in God’s country. If you were going to die, then Colorado wasn’t such a bad place to do it. It wasn’t Muncie, after all. So the miners came in droves, starting near the end of the 19th searching for silver, gold, zinc and copper in what was then just a valley where the San Miguel river began.

The town, named for tellurium, a metalloid element associated with gold and silver, boomed from a population of 786 in 1890 to 2,446 in 1900.  Here again, same story of western resource extraction played out: boom, and later, bust. By 1910, the bloom had wilted, and almost a third of the area’s population had departed. In their wake, they left hundreds of miles of rickety tunnels, zig-zagging under the mountains. By 1930, Telluride listed just 512 residents.

Mining continued in the following decades, albeit at a slower pace, and it seemed as though the city might drop off the map like so many other Colorado boomtowns. The mines were still churning (slowly) in 1969, however, when Joseph T. Zoline and the Telluride Ski Corporation bought the land with a vision for a resort. It would become more than that: not just a premiere American ski hill known for its knee-knocking steeps, but a stage for arts festivals and concerts of all kinds. To have seen a concert in Telluride is to have experienced something special.

Today, some of Telluride’s mining heritage remains, and despite the presence of a world class ski resort dropping right into town, the place has remained, well, likable. At first, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Was this Aspen? No, too gritty, and too few sushi houses. Was it Breck, another of Colorado’s mining towns? Wrong again—too little vomiting. So what was Telluride, this tiny town sandwiched between 13,000-foot peaks? Leadville? Yes, Leadville, with a ski resort.

Never mind that the median household value is more than five times as much. Stepping off the main drag, or looking down an alley, you’ll see a lack of polish: cars taped together, beaten-up bikes piled on a rack. Whether appearances mask reality, I’m not sure, but they create the feeling that this place is real, not a creation like Vail or Aspen. Telluride is real. The San Juans are real. Check them out.

Not Aspen

A final note: I’d tell you about the skiing, but at the moment, nearly all of the mountain is closed. Seriously. Despite near-record snowfall in northern Colorado, Telluride has missed out, and only a few trails are open. Given that Telluride’s known for its double-black, no-fall terrain, I passed on this trip. I’ll come back with another post about the mountain itself when the time is right, but the nice thing about Telluride is that the time’s always right for a visit to the town, too.

Winter Park Impressions 5 April 2010

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More than a week ago, I posted photos from Winter Park on Facebook, and it’s obvious they never made it to the blog. Typically I try to do the opposite in the hopes that when you stop by for photos, you’ll browse the writing as well. Perhaps this is optimistic–but the stats say otherwise, you browsers, you. So quit looking at Facebook and drop by here instead.

To most folks in the Front Range, Winter Park sits alongside Keystone, Copper and Breck as a mountain worth a weekend visit. Vail and Beaver Creek are just too far (and too pricey), and no one stays the night to ski Loveland, A-Basin, or Ski Cooper–despite Leadville’s desperate marketing, which essentially pleads, “We were important… once. Try us again?” So for the Friday/Saturday night stay crowd, those four ski resorts round out the options, and although I haven’t skied Copper yet, I’d guess that it, too, will supersede Keystone in my growing rankings of resorts. Nearly everything has so far.

Winter Park falls somewhere in the middle: excellent terrain if snow has fallen recently. Otherwise, not much of a mountain. Of course, the same holds true for Keystone, which would benefit from additional snowfall, too–another 100″ a year might make its trees more palatable–but where Winter Park needs powder, it gets it, clocking in as one of the state’s snowiest resorts. I’ll hike thirty minutes for knee-deep steeps, and I’ll begrudge a new, slow triple chair to ski dappled glades. Winter Park makes that possible.

Divided into two or maybe three mountains, Mary Jane, Winter Park, and Vasquez Cirque, the resort more or less prevents beginners and intermediates from spending any time with experts, meaning few possibilities for the kids to ski blues while Mom and Dad ski the bumps. For anyone used to the dread of approaching one of Vail’s ten bajillion cat-tracks at mach speed, that division offers a relief.

But maybe you like ski with yours kids. Tough luck. And maybe you don’t like bumps. Again, tough luck. Winter Park’s 1975 Mary Jane expansion gave it a national reputation for moguls, so much so that finding anything else at first comes a pleasant surprise. “No pain, no Jane” go the bumper stickers around here. Of course, given the resort’s more than three thousand acres, Mary Jane isn’t the be all and end all of the Winter Park experience.

In fact, it’s rather a nice distraction from the more entertaining hike-to steeps off Vasquez Cirque (which isn’t at all a cirque, but hey). It’s impossible to avoid comparisons to Keystone, so I won’t try. The difference between the hike-to terrain at both resorts might best be summed as, “whether it’s worthwhile.” And Keystone’s typically isn’t. Hiking offers its own rewards, but the opportunity to ski a benign pitch on wind-effected crust isn’t one of them. Winter Park serves up the steep and deep on anything off the top of the Cirque. Granted, backcountry enthusiasts won’t much care for the caravan-style trek, but for everyone else, a doable hike to the steep stuff makes up for most of the money spent on the lift ticket.

The takeaway:

– Lots of snow and excellent hike-to terrain make Winter Park a good bet for the weekend crowd.

– Avoid Mary Jane unless you like bumps or trees.

– Boring groomers, so probably not much fun after five days without snow.

– Not the place to take your cousin who’s just learning to ski if you’re both looking for challenge and want to meet at the same lift each run.

Skiing the Bell Curve 29 March 2010

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I haven’t written anything in a week, I don’t think, and although I’m tempted to blame that on something in life that intervened, it won’t work. Yes, topics came to mind, and I even put down 300 words on one of them, but every effort struck me as uninspired so I carried on in the belief that if I couldn’t write something worth reading, then I wouldn’t write anything at all. It’s been too long, though. Perhaps I need a change of scenery, some sights other than these same townhouses and pines that continue to sit outside my window at work… although if the Forest Service is right, the beetle larvae will kill the trees in a couple years anyway. I guess that’s progress.

It’s not that I’m anti-townhome necessarily, but rather that The Seasons, West Keystone’s option for more discerning and spendy travelers, represents the evidently inevitable progression and dilution of skiing into just one of the many activities offered at a full-service mega-resort. Like putt-putt golf on a cruise ship. Well, no, that shortchanges the product I sell, yet it hints at the direction the sport is moving. Open the pages of Ski Magazine (Skiing’s well-healed sister publication) and you’ll notice nearly as many articles and advertisements for Land Rovers and fine dining as you’ll see for mountains and techniques. Page 42 of February’s edition highlights the ice wines of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, and although dessert drinks hold a special place in my heart, I can’t remember the last time I gave much thought to a glass of riesling while on the slopes.

In all, it is the depiction of skiing as one facet of a lifestyle complete only once accompanied by golf-filled summers and a home on a cul-de-sac, not as an individual pursuit. Notice the language involved: “I am a skier,” not “I ski,” or “I enjoy skiing.” When we talk about skiing, then, we illustrate that it defines who we are, not what we do. That a sport can figure so largely as part of an identity ensures its durability, certainly, but perhaps at the expense of progress. And while I understand that the demographic figures indicate that the Land Rover-driving, town-home-vacationing types account for nearly all the money spent around here, I will not bow to the idea that these five-day visitors in any way advance or even sustain the sport. Money cannot replace vision, and the opportunity cost of every new condo is the terrain that could have been.

Or, as is the case of Crested Butte Mountain Resort near Gunnison, the Forest Service’s decision to kill a proposed expansion will probably work in the opposite direction, forestalling construction on any new condos. CBMR’s Snodgrass Expansion would have opened hundreds of acres of intermediate terrain rounding out a resort known almost exclusively as an experts-only, so-steep-I-just-wet-myself-a-little Shangri-La.The resort’s owners had argued that CBMR would survive if the new area opened–the dearth of blue runs had pushed skiiers to tamer mountains and visits had continued to fall. Otherwise, who knew how CBMR would fare. I can guess, however. Without miles of cruisers, without Breckenridge’s benign, well-groomed reliability, CBMR will not attract the crowd that reads Ski Magazine. And it won’t attract their dollars either.

At the same, time I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the progress: fat skis and hike-to terrain, the trickle-down from the experts, backcountry explorers and young skiers unsatisfied with carving. Innovation lies at the margins, even if the money doesn’t. When the Baby boomers retire, can we place our hope there? 

I know it shouldn’t bother me that a resort might die for lack of unchallenging terrain–after all, the bell curve applies just as well to skiing as it does to everything else–but it does. The cash has settled at the top of the curve, not at the tail with the ski bums, and so long as that remains the case (that is, indefinitely), the mega-mountains will cater to the median.

Stand strong, A-Basin. Stand strong.

Loveland Pass 22 March 2010

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Nothing much to write as of late and no new snow either, so I’ve instead taken to wandering around in the mountains. Living in the high country affords opportunities to walk outside a bit after work, just another reason I doubt I’ll return to the Midwest. As I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy living near St. Louis, but rather that St. Louis lies much too far from most every recreational activity I enjoy.

Click any image for a larger version. It’s worth it–usually.

Not much snow in March. Boo to Ullr.

Two guys who passed me, unfazed by the receding daylight.

Two Fourteeners: Torreys in front. Grays in the back. Real tall.

A-Basin: it's all open... finally.

You've seen a similar shot before.

Vacation, Wolf Creek 2 February 2010

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Erm… so I’ve been bad about the whole Sunday/Thursday posting thing, this time because after trivia I left my laptop in the car ten minutes from the apartment and wasn’t about to jump on the bus just for a blog post. But everything’s back together now, so I can can finally sit down to work on the entry about Wolf Creek. If you’d been expecting an ecstatic outpouring of love for that ski area, I apologise — it rates as merely very good, probably better with a the fair bit of snow it usually receives.

Mostly, though, it’s the San Juans that impress because the differ so markedly from the mountains up here in Summit County. That’s not just geology babbly (although that counts for something). The beetle kill hasn’t reached the area and red rock cliff bands under the snow look like something out of 3:10 to Yuma. And you’ve seen that move, right? The surrounding towns look more or less stuck in that era. Plus there’s a Dairy Queen! At any rate, they generate an atmosphere a thousand times removed from Summit County’s glitz and corporate varnish. Breck cherishes its status as a “real” mountain town, but it’s places like Alamosa, Saguache and Monte Vista that capture what rural America has become. They are a story of dilapidation, stultification. A slow, inevitable slide toward obsolescence.

And in the middle of all that cheer, or, really, 2000 feet above it, lies Wolf Creek, so before I get too involved in any more depression about small town Colorado, I’ll stop for some pictures. Wolf Creek is worth the visit, especially on one of several days each year when it receives multiple feet of powder. Right then, on days like that, I imagine few resorts in Colorado offer better skiing. The mostly unmaintained terrain allows skiers to make their own runs through the trees creating that feeling of discovery impossible at a place like Breck. Check out the fun.

Breckenridge Revisited 28 January 2010

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A month and a half ago I wrote off Breck as crowded and uninspiring. Its blues bored. Its crowds shaved away the corduroy in what seemed like minutes, leaving an inconsistently slick crust that sent gapers, and ocasionally me, careening out of control, destined for the yard sale — that debris field of gloves, poles, skis and limbs that reveal the path of truly epic (I am Spartacus!) fall. I told myself I wouldn’t ski Breck until the real snow came. And yesterday, that snow fell, just six inches of it of course but it arrived on the heels of several more. Breck’s Imperial and Six Chairs had opened a while back, too, but for the first time they led to snow worth skiiing.

So I made the trip, and discovered terrain that redeems the resort.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen pitches so steep that I stop for a moment, but it’s been even longer since I’ve encountered areas I avoid altogether. The Lake Chutes at the top of Imperial Bowl churn stomachs, and from the Imperial Chair you can watch the intrepid souls who stand peering over the 12 foot cornice. If they can negotiate that, then, well, it’s just a matter of taking on the 45-degree pitch while avoiding the pillars of rock that jut out of the snow at odd intervals. They do it, though, those peerers. They make the drop. They take the turns. All for that chairlift audience, whether they realize it or not.

But I’m less adventurous and more appreciative of my intact body. Maybe with more snow I’ll take it on, which means for now I can content myself floating through Breck’s abundant snow. So much of the terrain exists above treeline that even with more than one million visitors a year the resort can offer a few good turns here in Summit County.  Skimming on through the glades on Wednesday powder, I rescinded my moratorium on future Breck visits because after all, skiing is about chasing the good snow. I’ve never known a groomer that induced ear-to-ear grins, but get the snow falling and you’ll hear the powder-giggle, the knee-deep holler, the spontaneous, shared cheer. Now I’m just waiting for my own Lake-Chutes-omigoshoooooooooowooooo!

Assorted Photo Entry! 3 January 2010

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I always tell myself I’m going to take more photos while skiing. And then I actually go skiing — this last time in Vail’s knee-deep powder, the kind that makes it impossible to think about taking on anything other than more knee-deep powder. Photography took a back seat, but there’s still some to share.

Goudey on top of Breck's tall thing.

More photos below the fold.

(more…)

NOAA, Government in General, Beaver Creek, Ski Report 7 December 2009

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Cool stuff: More WM here in Colorado. Trevor Harrison’s in Breck and he’s got a blog.

I take back everything nice thing I ever said about weathermen — even those conciliatory words from several days ago. In fact, my faith in government has been shaken to the core. (To those of you who knew I placed little or no faith in government from the start, let’s play the silent game. You start.) Anyway, I submit the evidence:

Hrm!

Agh! Politics! The blog got political! Abandon ship! Erm… anyway, aren’t counterfactuals fun? Especially those that that have been beaten to death in the media already? No doubt you’ve all seen this graph, and if you haven’t, it’s interesting enough in that gnashing-of-teeth-and-renting-of-hair kinda way. Of course government meddling produces scarier stuff, but the next graph’s the real shocker, the most damning piece of evidence I could cobble together. Take a long sad look how our government’s crack team of meteorologists has fared in predicting the weather around here:

No snow makes ski bums everywhere cry.

If that typeface looks a little small, I’ll help make it out for you: about 2″ of snow predicted every three hours for two days of which 0″ has materialized.

Double-timing, no-good scoundrels staff our government. Their mendacity knows no bounds. They probably hate baby animals, too. QED.

I know these things for a fact. The graphs prove it. But seriously, where is the snow?! Sunday, it dumped on Beaver Creek, Vail’s posh(est) resort 45 minutes west on I-70. Now certainly, there’s been talk of the company’s seeding the clouds above the its guests’ pampered heads, bombarding the storm cells with silver ions and an offering of burnt skis — that something, anything might propitiate Ullr and bring his blessing of powder.

But it’s just that, talk. Vail already shoveled its cash into the escalators and heated sidewalks. Oh, and free, warm chocolate chip cookies for everyone, too. Over at the more pedestrian Keystone, however, nary a snowflake landed. Our $4 pitchers of PBR must inspire in Ullr a wrathful heart. Tomorrow we go in search of an appropriate microbrew.

Abbreviated Snow Report:

Beaver Creek: My snide remarks about The Beav’s ritziness aside, it’s the best thing out there right now. World Cup Racing over the weekend meant nothing doing over on the Birds of Prey, BC’s signature area, but I’m guessing it’ll open up soon enough, especially considering all the snow the area’s been getting. The beginner area’s convenient location at the top of mountain has left it with six or so inches in the last two days, as well, with more on the way. And don’t think that it’s just for beginners, either. Sure, Lydia, who hadn’t skied in a decade, found it pretty nice, but so did everyone else in our group. Beaver’s empty on the weekends, is the only place with real snow right now and serves free chocolate chip cookies. What’s not to like?

Vail: Got some snow evidently. Still not a whole lot open, though. Unless you’ve got a pass, forget about it. It’s not worth the $25 you’ll pay to park and then almost $90 you’ll shell out for an early season lift ticket. And if you do have a pass, well, don’t you have some projects you can take care of around the house before the real snow comes?

Breckenridge: Breck opened (some of) Peak 9! And hasn’t gotten any new snow! Agh! Run away! At this point, Breck is strictly for the faint of heart. Nothing here to get the braver blood flowing, although if the current storm leaves anything there, we might get some more interesting terrain open soon.

Keystone: Still the longest runs around here and the crews have done a fine job of blowing snow every night. On the downside, they’re the same several runs that have been operating since Keystone opened, a Mike G. and Sara H. report that the weekend throngs turn the place into an icy mess.  Ski mid-week.

Arapahoe Basin: Currently icy. No new terrain. Still beautiful, but why not drive to Loveland instead?

Bottom Line: Burn some skis for Ullr, and if you absolutely have to hit the slopes, make the trek to Beaver Creek.

More Openings 25 November 2009

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In preparation for the arriving holiday horde — from the eastern steppes no less — Breck opened Peak 9 today. Lots of greens and a few blues (Check out the terrain report here). Word from the two Breck vacationers I ran into today is that no one has figured out the traverse between Peaks 8 and 9, so skiing on 9 entailed(s?) few if any lift line headaches. Don’t know whether that’ll hold tomorrow, though.

Rumor around here has North Peak open at Keystone on Thanksgiving Day. So, if you’re not feeling so enthusiastic about another Detroit drubbing and think a few turns on the steeps might stave off your tryptophin-induced coma instead, Keystone may well be your best bet.