VAIL - Skiers and snowboarders were hooting and hollering throughout the morning Saturday as they got fresh tracks in China Bowl, the latest terrain addition at Vail Mountain.
Vail Ski Patrol did its final checks through the bowl this week in preparation for its opening, and just after 8 a.m. the resort announced that China Bowl would open just one day after Chairs 5 and 17 in the Sun Up and Sun Down bowls opened for the season.
The snow in China Bowl was soft and plentiful - a beautiful bowl of untouched powder that had only been slightly affected by the wind in recent days. With a nice packing-down of the base by skiers and riders throughout the day, China Bowl is in good shape for the fresh snow expected to fall from Sunday to Monday. Up to a foot of snow is in the forecast for the area by Tuesday morning.
Vail Mountain has gotten more than 2 feet of snow in the past week or so, allowing for roughly half of the mountain to open in time for the holiday rush. Vail Mountain already has significantly more terrain open before Christmas than it did by late January last season.
Opening terrain in early season conditions, even with the recent help from Mother Nature, is a tough job for the mountain crews who get it done, though. Vail Ski Patrol is tasked with checking terrain for obstacles and hazards in the wee hours of the morning, and they also report to the snowcat crews, who then work their grooming magic on the slopes throughout the night.
On a 7:30 a.m. run down China Bowl on Saturday, patroller Bryan Bill turned through the soft snow and beamed with pride. He was one of the many patrollers responsible for the hundreds of smiling faces that would soon come racing down the mountain, but first he got to enjoy a quiet run in the powder, too.
Julie Rust, Vail Mountain's ski patrol director, said the teams have been working hard to get terrain open as fast as possible. They're working on everything from snow science issues to avalanche mitigation with explosives to all the little details in between.
"A very big part of it is taking a look at the access out and making sure it's going to go the distance," Rust said. "It's not just about all the stuff that looks really good, it's about the sum of the total."
It's hard to find a more passionate employee at Vail Mountain than Rust. She loves her job, but more importantly, she loves to ski.
"To take a run yesterday was - it was just an unbelievable reminder of why we're all here," Rust said Saturday morning at Patrol Headquarters, just before China Bowl opened. "It was just so good - good for the heart. That's why we all came here, right?"
Skiing or riding Vail Mountain on days like Saturday is what many people came for. Vail resident Kenny Butler, 26, managed to get back into China Bowl first thing Saturday morning because he just had a hunch that it would open.
"I just knew - I got this sense," he said while riding the Orient Express Lift back to the top of the bowl, adding that his first run in China Bowl was great. "It was awesome. The snow was good and no one had been on it, really, so it was really nice."
Brian Walker, 25, gazed out over the bowl as he rode the lift and grinned.
"It's a good base for us - it'll make for a great later season," said Walker, of Minturn. "But this is just kind of the beginning of the goodness."
As ski patrol continues its work and the weather forecasts continue to show moisture in the area, Rust and her team are going to keep doing their best to open up terrain as often as possible, she said. They will continue marking obstacles and other dangers with the hopes of getting all of Vail's 5,289 skiable acres open for business as soon as they can.
Skiers and riders are already happy about the progress, even with half of the mountain still left to open.
"YES YES YES!!! Me and some friends have been hoping that China (Bowl) would be open by the time we got there on Jan. 2.," wrote Spencer Rhodes on Vail Mountain's Facebook page. "Thank you Mother Nature."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.