Riding high in the chocolate Alps | VailDaily.com
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Riding high in the chocolate Alps

Imagine hopping onto a six-person gondola at Gold Peak. But instead of going straight up the hill, the shiny metal carriage heads east to the Vail golf course clubhouse. There you switch into a 20-person gondola that crosses I-70 and drops you off at the far East Vail station located at the base of the Deluge trail.From there you take a 50-person gondola that travels halfway up Red Buffalo Pass, where you take an eight-person chair to reach the very top of the pass. You then load onto a 100-person gondola that stops at a restaurant a few hundred feet short of the peak of the Grand Traverse. A quick T-bar propels you to the tippy top from there. This fantasy ski ride also includes, at every stop along the way, dozens and dozens of runs to choose from that end not only back at Vail, but at Copper Mountain, Frisco and Silverthorne, each having their own set of multiple gondolas, chairs, pomas and T-bars.This is the best way I can think of to describe skiing in the Alps. I realize many of you in Happy Valley have experienced this already. But up to last week, I was still an eager-to-learn virgin of European skiing and felt like the proverbial naive kid visiting Willy Wonka Land.I have visited a number of times in the summer, but had no idea just how differently they do things over here in the winter. Let’s just say it’s like the difference between how Adam Aaron runs VRI and George Gillette ran VA (reach your own conclusions).And they don’t let little things like national borders get in the way, either. From the top of a lift in Switzerland you can ski a run to the left and suddenly be in Italy, where a mountaintop restaurant serves up huge plates of spaghetti and tiny little cups of 30-weight motor oil known as espresso. A quick turn back to the right and you are again in the land of dark chocolate and colorful cuckoo clocks.I always had this silly thought that skiing on a glacier would be nothing more than attempting to stay balanced on a sheet of ice bigger than Invesco Field, but stupid me had never really thought through the fact that fresh snow falls “on top” of the 1,000-year-old ice, thus providing some of the best skiing possible.Yes, I can be an idiot at times.I never drink when I ski, and now I have reached the point where I can no longer eat as well. Riding three gondolas, two chairs, and a T-bar to reach a mountaintop restaurant is time consuming, but nothing compared to eating cheese fondue, meat fondue, and following that with chocolate fondue over a two-hour period and then attempting to navigate about 20 km of runs to make it back to the chalet before bursting the remaining button on your ski pants.Their snow fortunes around here and all of the Olympic venues have taken a turn for the better over the last week. There was so much snow one night that we awoke the next morning to the quaint sounds of Dick Cheney quail hunting, or so it seemed until I actually became conscious and realized it was avalanche control.It seems to be feast or famine. One day it’s way above freezing and we walk home in the rain and the next day there’s two feet of freshies up on top.And these folks don’t let anything get in the way of their skiing. Cow barns, hay barns, summer homes that look like barns and just about anything shaped like a barn can apparently be built just about anywhere one wishes.Everyone just skis around ’em.The same holds true for who, or what, is allowed down the slopes themselves. People with inner tubes, sleds, ski bikes, mono skis, snowboards, alpine boards, cross country skis, telemark skis, figgles and even Milka Cow costumes are allowed to ski side by side, no one category seemingly offended by any other.And unlike ski resorts in lawsuit happy USA, there are absolutely no fences separating poma or T-bar lifts from the ski runs. In fact, many runs weave directly between lift riders as they are being pulled up the hill, and you have to time your crossing well or end up apologizing in three or four languages.The most amazing part, at least from my admittedly questionable perspective, is how a country, an entire region, so hell-bent on liberal social programs cemented in tax rates in excess of 50 percent of personal income can have such an amazing self-regulated policy of enforcing personal responsibility. They demand short work weeks, month-long vacations, and unlimited free health care, yet have this, “You are le’ e-d-ott who skied beyond your own level of expertise and hit le’ pole so don’t even think of trying to blame someone else, mon ami.”Very impressive.Oh, and, before I forget, we weren’t at the men’s freestyle finals to see Toby Dawson do Vail and the rest of the USA proud with a bronze medal. But we did, however, ride on the flight over with his dad.Look for us in the crowd tonight during the women’s figure skating. I’ll be the one drinking an American flag while waving a Carlsberg bier.Richard Carnes of Edwards writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at poor@vail.net Vail, Colorado


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