The unbearable lightness of skiing
Beginner’s luck at two Colorado resorts
My complete skiing CV consists of a trip to Falls Creek in high school, a couple of weekends at Perisher in my 20s and some gentle cross-country in Canada a few years ago. Still, when asked to check out the ski scene at Vail and Breckenridge, Colorado, I say, “I’ll be there, with sleigh bells on.” I am 52 years old. Crazy, or what?
Snapped into shin-digging ski boots that could moonlight in a torture museum, I gaze at the giant peaks of “Breck” from inside my ski goggles and realise my bravado has bolted. Chairlifts go up, up and away in all directions. It’s snowing lightly. Pop music is pulsing from loudspeakers. People suited top-to-toe in synthetics are clomping about happily. Four-year-olds are zooming down the slopes on teeny tiny skis.
But at Breckenridge and Vail I discover that skiing is perhaps the most fun you can have with (lots of) clothes on. These resorts have so many options for those who don’t want to ski all the time (or at all); there’s excellent food, and ski instructors are angels, borne on long, thin planks instead of wings.
Ben Pleimann of Breck Ski School, and Silvia Prieler of Vail Ski School, there’s a special place in heaven for you. It’s replete with moguls and jumps and black-diamond runs and all the other scary skiing things you love. We never do any of it when we’re together, and yet you make me feel like you’re having a ball. “I’m on skis, I’m happy!” says Ben.
He takes me out first, at Breck. After a few runs on the bunny slopes, I’m still smiling, and he reckons we’re good to go on our first chairlift. We do it. And then a poma. And another chairlift. He’s gently pushing me on, giving me pointers and shouting, “Less talk, more ski!”, as he slides off to watch me execute my new skills.
When we move over to ski in Vail, Silvia looks after me like a loving mother. She has different cues to Ben’s, calling out “Weight on left! Weight on right!”, as I turn-turnturn down slopes so steep that, when I look back up, I can’t believe that I’ve made it. She’s a crafty mama, never giving me time to think about it at the top. (She’s Austrian, married to a Kiwi-Australian, and was technical coach for the Australian Paralympic ski team in 2002. You can imagine how unworthy I’m feeling, but she won’t have a T-bar of that talk.)
The No 1 rule is to take lessons wherever you go, even if you’re a good skier. Private instruction is a pricey privilege, but there are ski-school options aplenty, in families, with friends, grouped by ability or even by gender.
In 2 ½ days Ben and Silvia get me riding chairlifts and navigating blue runs, one level up from beginners’ green runs. At first, the thrill comes from making it to the bot- tom of a long run alive. Soon, the grinning glee of zooming downhill wraps me in a euphoric hug. Up and over yonder, there are dozens of spectacular runs for experienced skiers that I won’t get to see. But the beautiful beginners’ runs at these resorts make my heart skip a beat.
Ski-town gondolas aren’t like the ones in Venice, silly. (I’m talking to myself here; I look around for icebreaking watercraft when told we’re catching a gondola.) These ones are enclosed cable cars that transport you around the resort and up and down peaks.
The journey to dinner at Game Creek Club begins with the Eagle Bahn Gondola from Lionshead, one of Vail’s villages. We’re given blankets and the lights of Vail disappear as our car is cabled up the mountain. In a few minutes, we’re at Eagle’s Nest, our blankets are whipped away and we await our next transport, which is a snowcat, and a total adrenaline rush.
At the chalet, a members-only club by day, the food more than lives up to the lofty altitude (about 3140m). From the prix fixe menu, I order Arctic char with spatzle, tomato, asparagus and mustard for my main. Every dish, served among heavy furniture and wood-panelling, looks light and delicious. We want to be snowed in so chef Steven Topple (an Englishman from Portsmouth) can make us breakfast, too, but the waiter tells us that’s never happened.
Game Creek is a peak, but there’s top food all around. Steaks, chops, prime rib and buffalo feature at Briar Rose chophouse in Breckenridge’s historic district (shout out to super waitress Sabrina).
Lobster mac and cheese at Pioneer Crossing, at the top of the Independence SuperChair in Breck, seems like a sensible skiing lunch. As does crab cake with spicy remoulade on brioche and truffle fries at The 10th, at Vail’s Gondola One.
At Matsuhisa, one of Colorado’s three temples to the Nobu faith, black cod with miso and spicy tuna with crispy rice are both hymn-worthy. As is the caterpillargreen Gardener cocktail of Hendrick’s gin, serrano pepper, cilantro, ginger and lime.
There’s more off-slopes merriment at Breckenridge Distillery, the world’s highest. Its main game is awardwinning bourbon but I stick to the delicious “vodka with an altitude” made from pristine Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Colorado pears are used to jazz up one vodka, and alpine herbs (hand-harvested, they say) go into Breckenridge Bitter, a yummy aperitif.
After a tasting session and tour of the barrels and stills, have a hearty, shared-plates dinner in the adjoining cavernous restaurant, where you can keep the bourbon coming in flights if you so choose.
I meet with Jenn Cram from Breck Create and Molly Eppard from Vail Art in Public Places to find out about the local art programs. In Breckenridge, the council has spent $US25 million ($33.5m) restoring buildings in the charming historic district, an investment in “creative tourism”. There are performance spaces, studios (ceramics, yoga, and more), galleries and a year-round program of events, shows and classes.
Each January, a snow-sculpture contest is a highlight, with up to 16 teams from across the globe working on 3.6m blocks of packed snow to create frozen art. Teams of four spend five days and nights chipping and shaving the blanks into intricate masterpieces, with nothing but snow permitted to support the sculptures. There’s no cash prize, only warm acclaim.
In Vail, the Art in Public Places program began in the 1980s and now the art trail includes 47 (and counting) murals, installations, paintings, sculptures and playground components. During Winterfest, AIPP creates a free outdoor cinema in the village, with an ice screen and oversized chairs and lounges carved from ice.
Also in Vail Village, the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum (reopening later this year after renovations) amazes me with the story of World War II’s 10th Mountain Division. About 16,000 soldiers trained for mountain combat in Europe here at Camp Hale, which was hastily built in April, 1942. Pete Seibert, one of the division’s elite ski troopers, led the charge to found Vail in 1962, when a lift ticket cost $5. Most Fridays, Sandy Treat, one of the last surviving 10th Mountain veterans, gives visitors a first-hand account of Camp Hale.
At Breck, we stay at Hatari Lodge, an over-the-top mansion on Shock Hill, within walking distance of the Breck Connect Gondola, which goes to the main base area. With home movie theatre, pool table, giant kitchen, outdoor hot tub and five bedrooms, the lodge can be rented through Luxury Retreats, which has plenty like it.
The Lodge at Vail is a short walk from Gondola One, which takes you up the slopes (and here at the base, the hotel has a valet service to store your skis). It’s a classy hotel where dogs are allowed to stay in some guestrooms, with special beds and house-made treats.
The Lodge at Vail also has a snow-defying outdoor pool heated to 28C; gas fire pits blaze all around and there are two in-ground hot tubs. It’s called Pool One, because it was the first in Vail, and I, for one, adore it.
Jane Nicholls was a guest of Vail Resorts.
• vailresorts.com • artinvail.com • luxuryretreats.com
Breckenridge, Colorado; on the slopes at Vail, below