Vail and hearty

The largest ski re­sort in the US of­fers big slopes and warm hos­pi­tal­ity

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Northern Hemisphere Ski Holidays - SU­SAN BREDOW

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 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

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