Vail and hearty
The largest ski resort in the US offers big slopes and warm hospitality
I HAVE been blessed with something magical on my first morning at Vail. It’s a powder day; I wake to find the balcony rapidly filling with generous flakes.
It turns out the largest ski resort in the US is having the best season on record and this is just another in a string of great days in the soft snow. The locals’ legs are aching from skiing and boarding; a few days later I will feel the same way.
It’s almost a relief when the storm breaks and the sun comes out and I can take a breather to look at the views over the seemingly endless trails. The front slopes of Vail are substantial but the resort is best known for its Back Bowls, the expansive terrain on the other side of the ridge above the town. This is the place to be when the powder comes down.
There are seven tracks in the Back Bowls plus an area beyond, which opened in 2000, called Blue Sky Basin. There’s plenty of room to make an impression, although none of our group of experienced Aussies does a perfect job and we laugh at each other’s misfortunes and dig for each other’s gear in snow deeper than any of us have experienced.
Even the former soapie star and Australian ski team member Justin Melvey, who as Vail’s Australian ambassador is acting as our guide, takes a tumble headfirst when his skis hook the unseen root of an aspen.
Despite the unscheduled stops, I whizz about 15,240m in less than five days. I’m using the Epic Mix app and the distance is recorded by a card in my pocket; I can log on to epicmix.com each day to see how I’ve done and share my experience on social network sites.
Despite the distance I travel, I cover no more than 25 per cent of the runs. Vail opened in 1962 with just three lifts; now there are 34 across 2140ha. In the past few years, areas such as the big intermediate area at Blue Sky Basin have been opened up and some of the original lifts replaced with high-speed quad chairlifts.
The enthusiasm and momentum for the original Vail development came from a couple of members of the US Army ski division who trained nearby before going to Europe during World War II. On returning they wanted to indulge their passion for skiing on a recreational basis and began searching for a suitable site near where they trained in Colorado.
The plan was to distinguish Vail through extraordinary service and this tenet is upheld 50 years later. Schlepping in ski boots and hefting your own skis is just not done here: most hotels have staff to drive you to the slopes and cart your gear on to the snow. After that you are on your own, although many people hire a private instructor for about $US700 ($660) a day.
The Vail area is framed by the rugged Gore range, named for an Irish baron who, with a party of 40 men (including the bearers of his bath and taxidermists), spent years hunting all manner of wildlife species, stuffing them and shipping them to Ireland. Eventually the local Ute Indians got tired of the plundering, bailed up Gore and his men, took their clothes and left them naked a very long way from the nearest menswear store.
The people in the mountains today are after trophies of a different kind, such as the number of vertical metres they can ski in a day on runs such as Riva Ridge, which is named for a successful battle campaign the US battalion waged against Germans in Italy. At 6.4km, Vail’s longest run.
If your legs are up to it, nearby Highline is the longest bump run in the world. This slope is never groomed so the moguls reach considerable depth when not filled by regular falls of fresh snow at an average of about 9m each winter.
Long runs are a big feature of Vail. After a couple of lift rides to the top of the mountain, it’s a lengthy trip down. After a few days of snow, the wide groomers and perfectly manicured pistes are a delight.
For boarders there are two terrain parks and a superpipe. As a skier, I like to head into these after a snowfall and get a taste of powder snow alongside the jumps and other obstacles where no one else seems to go.
In Vail, no advanced skier or boarder is without a new challenge. About 53 per cent of the terrain is classified black diamond, yet for learners and intermediates there is a gentle green or blue run down from the top of almost every lift, a catwalk or track that winds its way through the pine forest. If you stop along these, there’s a delicious sense of stillness.
You can wake up to this sort of peace by staying at Game Creek Chalet. This pretty, private lodge sits on the mountainside at about 4000m and is accessible only on skis or by snowcat. The nearest neighbours are at Game Creek Lodge, where you can eat in style at night if you don’t feel like cooking. The real beauty of being up here on the mountain, alone bar a few select friends or family, is the starry skies and the chance of hitting the slopes before anyone else can get up the lifts.
Swiss-chalet-style architecture is evident throughout the resort, introduced by the American soldiers who were nostalgic for the European mountain towns they had visited. The buildings are mostly in pastel colours and decorated with pretty frescoes above doors and windows. In the 60s, the ski the it is new Vail lacked the rich patina of a well-preserved late-1880s town such as Aspen. However, with careful planning, a few more years under its belt and $US1bn spent recently on new luxury lodgings such as the Ritz Carlton Residences and the Four Seasons, both of which opened late last year, Vail has a depth of character all its own.
Vail’s core community is made up of old-money New Yorkers.
At peak periods at Christmas and New Year and during long weekends in January and February, Vail gets very busy. This is the time to head about 15km down the road to its sister resort, Beaver Creek, which never seems too busy. Lift passes are valid across both resorts and there’s a bus service between the two.
Service is taken to a new level at Beaver Creek, where an army of volunteers cheerily greet skiers as they head towards the slopes (on escalators to save hauling). They hand out grooming reports each morning so you know where to find the smoothest snow and at the end of each day there are happy faces offering fresh-baked cookies.
Beaver Creek was built to be a playground for the moneyed, but you are surrounded by friendly and chatty people. And among the smiling locals is a hefty contingent of Australians and South Americans enjoying good exchange rates against the greenback. However, it isn’t just because of this that the food and accommodation here are excellent value.
Beaver Creek is a picturesque resort with long and wide pistes cutting through forests of pine and aspen, and stunning views across to the serrated mountain peaks of the Gore Range. The resort stretches more than 11km from one side to the other, and although it’s about one-fifth the size of Vail, Beaver Creek has excellent terrain for every level of skier and snowboarder.
Good beginner slopes are serviced by a gondola at the base, but many of the easier runs are at the top of the hill. My first visit here was with a group that included four people who had never skied. What a privilege to learn in a place like this. After three days of lessons, all of them were skiing the easier pistes from top to bottom and having a ball.
There are plenty of difficult slopes as well; Golden Eagle is a notorious run groomed only on Friday evenings, and even when smoothed out it’s not for novices. This is the site of the only ski World Cup downhill event held in the US, and it’s the steepest and fastest.
Over at Rose Bowl, which is highly recommended if there’s new snow (as more falls on this side of the mountain), there is a series of chutes on the west boundary of the area. They’re named First Chance, Second Chance, Half a Chance, No Chance and so on, and drop so steeply down the side of the mountain that you can reach out and touch the tops of the pines as you bounce (or struggle) past in the powder snow.
But Beaver Creek is best known for its cruisy groomed slopes, tended 24 hours a day by convoys of piston bullies working their way across the slopes six abreast. These good runs are spread right across the resort from Rose Bowl to Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead.
Opened in 1981, Beaver Creek was the first snow resort designed by computer and care was taken to ensure ‘ ‘ tree islands’’ were left so wild animals had shelter and elk breeding grounds were preserved.
At $US579, an Epic Pass is the best deal for visitors intending to ski or board for 10 days or more. It’s effectively a season pass, which means you can use it for more than one trip in a season, and it’s valid for Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Arapahoe Basin, Northstar and Sierra-at-Tahoe. Both Vail and Beaver Creek offer free daily tours, which are ideal for orienting yourself to the slopes. The guides are volunteers, most of whom have retired in their favourite place and have the enthusiasm of those who are truly living their dream. Susan Bredow was a guest of Vail Resorts and United Airlines.
Blue-sky powder days make Vail’s slopes a magnet for skiers of all levels
Twilight ice skating at Vail Square
Game Creek Restaurant is perched high on a mountainside