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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.


Vail Powder Day 25 January 2010

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Another lazy Sunday post that illustrates just how worn out I am after a day spent working through knee-deep powder. But it’s a good kind of laziness, the kind that a ski-bum blog ought to cherish. So here are some photos that do just that. Notice, too, the smiles on all the faces.

More below the fold.


Skiing Switzerland 15 January 2010

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A little over two years ago, I packed my bags for a 7 a.m. flight, jumped on the pre-dawn train toward Geneve Cointrin, and boarded my plane home to America, leaving Switzerland behind — for the time being. But two weeks before that, I’d found myself racing alongside Lac Leman bound for the Val d’Anniviers by way of Sierre.

If those names don’t mean anything, that’s okay. Imagine this: nearly floating along one of the best rail systems in the world with no responsibility. The French Alps crash into a dappled Lake Geneva, steeper and more jagged than any geological formation should be. France begins over there, and on this gentler side, vineyards roll away from the train as you pass Montreux, Switzerland’s Riviera, then Martigny and Sion, tracing a path up the Swiss state of Valais — literally “Valley” because that’s just what it is, an eons-old swath of habitable terrain between 11,000-foot peaks.

Imagine Caesar’s army cresting the pass into this primeval world: the mountaintops running on into infinity, higher still in every direction, and there in the middle of it the Rhone, ice-blue with glacial run-off and guiding the way toward Lake Geneva.

Now imagine skiing here.

Bowls? What bowls?

The Alps are not the Rockies. Well, yes. Of course. But I mean that; though lower, treeline kicks in sooner leaving so much more terrain blissfully, unendingly sheathed in white. The American ski industry prizes “bowls” those rare areas devoid of trees where you can ski with the sun in your face and the wind in your hair/helmet for what seems like an eternity — wherever you point your skis, there you go. No pre-planned runs in a bowl. Nothing like that exists on the East Coast, however, and even out here in the West, Vail’s seven bowls drop jaws. It is simply too much terrain to be allowed.

In Switzerland, talk of bowls is a little silly, really, because everything goes on above the trees. The Swiss don’t even bother cutting pistes through the forests, instead employing a funicular to bring everyone to a more manageable altitude before dumping them onto the slopes. Around here, only A-Basin can hope to match those views. And even with the Beach in full swing, I doubt it can wrest away claim to most authentic skiing experience.

But perhaps I’ve let nostalgia get the best of me. After all, I learned to ski in Switzerland, braving icy bunny slopes and never venturing onto a chairlift for fear of (what seemed at the time) disastrously steep descents on the intermediate terrain. Something about it grips me, though — and I know that “something” lacks any necessary precision. Maybe I can parse out my meaning. Skiing Switzerland returns in snippets: the paralysis of fear on my first run, the Leffe Blonde left on the hotel roof to cool, the Ovalmaltine with the hotel breakfast.

That evening stroll.

The American resort ski-village attempts to replicate this experience, I think, but no amount of production value can recreate the twilight stroll through a centuries-old village. The last gleams of alpenglow fade from the valley wall and it becomes clear at that moment that for all the steeps and bowls and gnarliness encountered in American ski culture, the sport lives and breathes there with the Swiss.

Vail’s Underground Instructors 12 January 2010

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No Sunday post. Or Monday post. Our chili cook-off intervened, both on the night of and the morning after, but you should have expected that, right? At any rate, I’d put off discussing Vail’s response to underground instructors for too long, and now I’m probably the last one to the party that started almost a week ago when the Denver Post reported on Vail’s crackdown on “coaches” and “guides” who were accepting pay in return for something that looked like instruction.

But not only did Vail get involved, issuing a lifetime ban to the violators, the Forest Service jumped into the mix as well, smoking out the fake instructors in a wild west sting operation. Really. Whether they rounded up the offenders and dumped them at the feet of the local sheriff, I’m not sure, but what’s certain is that the whole affair has much of the ski-news reading public up in arms about something or other. Probably this quote from Forest Service range Don Dressler:

Our big message that we try to get across is that this is for public safety. We permit people who are licensed and insured and properly trained. I can understand the economics of the situation, and we sympathize, but we need to protect the public.

No one believes that. Protect the public from what? These “coaches” aren’t out wearing orange or blue jackets purporting to be fully-certified instructors, and I doubt that anyone purchases their services with that misconception. Clients see an alternative to the $575 they might otherwise pay for a private lesson, and while they may not realize that certified instructors come with the insurance backing of Vail, the very fact that Vail is now taking on these coaches and guides indicates that enough customers have seen them as a more attractive option.

In any event, licensing (as in “fully-certified and licensed”) seems more a barrier to entry than a true protection for the public. Instruction is instruction, valued on its quality, not the process that produced it. Slapping on certifications and saying they’re about public safety glosses over the anti-competitiveness of the system.

On the other hand, Vail’s swift response makes sense. The company alone holds the permit to operate (and to make money) on on those 5000+ acres of national forest, and in debates online, the freeriding instructors have variously been likened to solicitors in Wal-Mart and rogue hot-dog salesmen in a ballpark. In both cases, the impostor attempts to sell his merchandise on someone else’s property. But this is Vail’s house. It is the Vail name that lends their efforts credence, the Vail mountain operations that move skiers around the resort, and it is precisely Vail’s enormous draw that offers this black market for instruction the chance to exist. Try imagining a similar problem at any ski bump in the Midwest.

And as for the Forest Service’s involvement… well, yes, it was necessary. The government owns the land after all, and any monetary gain made off it, as poor Ranger Dressler pointed out, must occur with a permit from the Forest Service. Vail’s own agreement with the government relays a non-trivial percentage of its income over to Uncle Sam, and operating outside those agreements stiffs a notoriously stingy government.

So while it’s tempting to point the finger at Vail for cracking down on folks just out there to make a buck… erm, actually, I’d guess that adequately describes the situation. But the larger issues at stake: rule of law, protection of property rights, and the integrity of licensure (fwiw), don’t hold to the corporate-titan-vs-everyman narrative either. In the end, I suppose it’s just not as comforting to know that when The Man got his way, he could at least make a pretty good argument for it as well.

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.


Vail 15 December 2009

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Like nothing on earth: one of the few slogans that stays well within the bounds of possibility.  Granted, McDonald’s “i’m lovin’ it” does too, but only “it” lacks an antecedent — like, say, avoiding McDonalds. Vail, on the other hand, is quite possibly like nothing on earth, and to say that this early in the season indicates just how awe-inspiring a place it is. Vail’s size defies comprehension: this weekend, mountain managers had opened more than one thousand acres, just one fifth of the total terrain. By comparison, the vast majority of ski hills across the country can’t claim that much territory at the peak of their operations.

Riding the chairlift, you give up hope of taking in Vail’s vastness and instead find yourself wondering, giddily, “How do I get all the way over there?” and at Vail, “over there” typically lies several miles away. Travel several miles in any direction from St. Louis’s Hidden Valley Ski (Place?) and you’ll end up in a subdivision. In fact, you can count a few subdivisions just by standing atop Hidden Valley’s 547′ rise. But I’m being unfair. More appropriate comparisons include Whistler, Squaw Valley and Aspen, none of which I’ve skied, and none of which employee me.


So, anyway, Vail is real big. And more than that, it benefits from a layout that denies boredom as a possibility. Suffering from skiing ennui? Take two Vails and call your office-bound friends in the morning. 1000′ of vertical, well-designed, can inspire more excitement and leave you feeling more fulfilled than straight shots twice as long. On the front side, Vail’s typical blues and blacks meander through the woods, opening occasionally into wider fields dotted with stands of pine or aspen. Each run offers an opportunity for discovery: a glade here, a patch of powder there. To ski Vail is to explore Vail, often with the feeling that you’ve ventured out alone.

I think I’m in love.

Oh, and story: Descending some untracked powder in Game Creek Bowl, I realized I’d never really learned how to ski on anything but hardpack, except for that bit I’d heard about leaning back in deep, soft snow. But of course, in the heat of the moment, I forgot all that and put some pressure on my tips to induce a turn just as I’d have done on a groomer. My skis, all too happy to respond, dove into the snow. Literally. They buried themselves two feet deep, while I, immediately released from my bindings and freed of my skis began my joyous though short-lived ascent into the heavens. Like a stone launched from a trebuchet — like a human cannonball!  — I shot toward the sky, and then, upon reaching the apex of my glorious arc, began my equally-rapid return to earth and the inevitable face plant. In all, I traveled some 12 feet from my point of lift-off. Perhaps more. And for those of you keeping score at home, this marks the second time I’ve drawn hollers from the folks on the lifts, although I’m inclined to believe they were applauding the parabolic perfection of my flight. You can be the judge.

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:


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.