It’s cloudy and cold at Vail Tuesday, the late-morning light’s a bit flat and veteran ski instrutor Bill Davis stops his group at the top of Deuces Wild, on the eastern flanks of Game Creek Bowl, to ask a question.
“What’s the No. 1 thing in powder?” he says, deadpan, as if he’s asked it a thousand times before.
“Well, I suppose keeping your skis together,” says one of his four students during a recent mid-week session.
“Keeping a good rhythm,” adds another.
“Good balance,” says a third.
“No,” Davis replies, trying to keep a straight face. “It’s going first. …”
A split-second later, before the foursome can grab their poles, lean forward and begin their chase, Davis is already plying the boot-deep, nearly untracked powder in that famous, effortless style of the Vail Ski School, having pulled off the best practical joke of the day.
Davis, a veteran of 17 years instructing at Vail, on this day is teaching another of what must be thousands of day-long group lessons as part of a long-standing program with a new name: Vail3, or “Vail cubed.” Formerly known as Breakthrough, the two- or three-day session aims at getting skiers – intermediates and experts – off the groomed runs and familiarizing them with the many “hidden places” within the resort’s vast, 5,289 acres of terrain spread across what’s really three distinct mountainsides. It’s offered early-January through mid-March on Saturdays and Sundays or Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with a option to extend the session for a third day, Mondays and Thursdays, respectively.
Since the groups are kept small – half a dozen, at most – and are with the same instructor the entire time, the instructor can really zero in on what his students need most while acting as a guide to the best snow the resort has to offer at the time.
“This is very similar to Breakthrough, but with more of an emphasis on exploring than teaching,” says Davis, in all seriousness. “And I mix it up. I might not get into Game Creek Bowl or Siberia Bowl for a week. It depends on the conditions. You feel the people out and give them what they want.”
“Ski school split’
As with a typical ski lesson, Vail3 begins with what’s called the “ski school split” – that all important, first cut in which instructors observe ever-so-briefly how the guests ski – quickly followed by “interrogation,” in which each participant is asked his or her name, where he or she is from, what kind of experience they’re looking for, as well as what’s their favorite movie?
That preliminary information helps instructors decide on a custom agenda. On the first day of this session, it was apparent Davis’ group wanted to hone their mogul skills, and with favorite flicks like “Gone with the Wind,” “Breakfast Club” and “Dr. Zhivago,” Davis – who volunteered “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – knew right away to start them out on a little-known powder stash in Game Creek Bowl called “Blue Funk,” between Faro and the Game Creek Club.
From there, it was through the wide-open trees of Ouzo Glade on to the Game Creek Express Lift, Chair 7, for another hand on Baccarat, home, Davis, says, to “the nicest bumps on the mountain.”
Davis is quick to point out many of the runs in Game Creek Bowl were named for when the builders of Vail negotiated with an sheep farmer for his land, challenging him to card games – hence the names Wild Card, Baccarat and Dealer’s Choice – and plying him with a certain sweet, dark, Greek elixir.
“Blimey,” Nigel Narsland, a tall, lanky expert skier from Towcester, England, visiting Vail for the first time after having skied the Alps for years, says on Chair 7. “It’s just so nice having instruction in English for a change.”
Why not Seldom often?
Next on Davis’ agenda is a traverse out to Vail’s westernmost reaches, particularly Sundown Bowl’s Seldom, a long, wide-open plunge just past Ricky’s and Widge’s ridges but before Never. With just enough trees to offer knee-deep, sheltered powder and at least some perception of depth, some of the “cubers” surely wonder why the Seldom isn’t known as “Often.”
“It all comes from when Vail had no Chair 7,” Davis explains. “It was quite a hike.”
Davis was with Breakthrough from the beginning – in 1990, before the mid-1990s when shaped skis hit the market and the program really took off, he says. Based out of the ski school’s Lionshead office, he’s a one-man show of sorts with a thorough knowledge of North America’s largest ski resort. And that’s convinced two other of his guests this day participate in Vail3.
“This program shows us places we haven’t been before, and we get better every year with more confidence,” says another of Davis’ charges this day, Ramiro Zuniga, a native of Colombia participating in Vail3 for a fifth time with his wife, Nicole Carbo. “This is a pretty good deal. It’s more like a private lesson for about a $100 dollars – and you see a lot of the mountain.”
“We plan our vacation around this,” adds Carbo.
A not-so-quick ride up the High Noon Lift, Chair 5, and the group is back on Vail’s Front Side above Mid-Vail winding its way through a little-known fun stretch of forest called Powerline Trees, negotiating tight pines like stormtroopers picking off ewoks in “Return of the Jedi.” Past Mid-Vail, the intergalactic battle resumes on Lower Challenge Glade.
“This is exactly what I wanted. This is awesome,” says Narsland before boarding a pair of lifts for lunch at the top of the mountain in the Wildwood Smokehouse. In keeping with the Vail3 theme, the casual cabin with an awe-inspiring view of Sundown Bowl, Blue Sky Basin and the Holy Cross Wilderness is not as well known as, say, Mid-Vail, Eagle’s Nest or Two Elk.
“And it’s my favorite restaurant on the mountain,” Davis says.
The rest of the first afternoon is a whirl, with a quick-but-gentle, post-lunch glide down Over Easy to the Mountaintop Express, Chair 4, and on to Yonder Trees in Sun Up Bowl. That’s where Davis tries to break Susan Roberts, a well-spoken Argentinean educated in Great Britain, of “credit-card shopping,” or “looking for just the right place to turn.”
Then it’s on to the southernmost reaches of Ghengis Kahn, where the snow is soft and the bumps are few and far between. Instructors refer to that area of China Bowl with the initials, “TOAR,” says Davis, although he won’t go on record with for what that stands.
So it goes. …
Before they know it, the group is on the Orient Express Left, Chair 21. Davis tells them how, when Vail’s founder, Pete Seibert, explored that area, he looked up at the rock cliffs occupying the ridge above and agreed they looked like the Great Wall of China. Hence the Asian influence in trail names there and further east.
“Yes, this really does seem like Mongolia,” says Roberts as she gazes from Silk Road out across the expanses of Siberia Bowl’s Gorky Park and Bolshoi Ballroom, then Inner and Outer Mongolia bowls.
Time to cruise the trees of Shangri-La Glade, where Carbo comes to a stop and says she’s had one of those “breakthrough moments” for which the original program was named.
“With Vail3 , they push you a little bit and go to places you wouldn’t go on your own,” she says. “I love the bumps and l love the trees. Shangri La is bumps through trees. I liked that one.”
On the second day of this Vail3 session, Wednesday, it’s beginning to snow hard. The real skiing begins with an early battle with the dust-on-crust, icy bumps of Morningside, in Sun Down Bowl, then another adventure on Tea Cup’s Morning Thunder, named after the Celestial Seasonings tea. Visibility is poor, but it is snowing heavily by now and the group negotiates the bowl’s infamous, treacherous sinkholes and streambeds in whiteout conditions on their way to Marmot Valley and parts south of Two Elk Creek.
That means only one thing: Blue Sky Basin. Soon the quintet is enjoying Champagne Glade, where Carbo’s “bumps-through-trees” breakthrough can be toasted. Davis says to drive the downhill hand forward as one rounds the huge, soft moguls – all while humming “Smooth” by Carlos Santana. Only after passing that test could they earn a shot at one of Vail’s most extreme experiences: the fateful lunge off Lover’s Leap, followed by the knee-deep, trackless powder of Iron Mask and a scenic traverse past Little Ollie to the rolling glades of Heavy Metal.
Another ride up the Skyline Express Lift, Chair 37, and the group is enjoying the “hero bumps” of Encore – perhaps the longest field of moguls at Vail – before a late lunch, this time at Two Elk, which by then seems uncrowded.
Narsland, who designs Web-based management software for the construction industry, is ecstatic.
“This is the best day I ever had,” he says.
Originally from Greenwich, N.Y., Davis is an accountant by trade who used to teach skiing part-time at nearby Gore Mountain. And after two days guiding this group, he and his Vail3 group enjoy a long lunch, having spent quality time on just about every part of Vail’s three mountainsides. Stories are long, the energy for more bumps is short and one has to wonder where the time went. It’s nearly 2:30 p.m. and he’s not yet had the pleasure of introducing his charges to one of the mountain’s most cherished experiences: Hairbag Alley, a luge-like gully through the trees just east of Northwoods that on a powder day can be a fun-filled fantasyland.
Davis says a local pizzeria used to ask about the location of Hairbag Alley – and if you answered correctly, they figured you really truly were a local and deserved a discount.
“This is great to be with somebody who really knows the mountain,” says Narsland later, on the Northwoods Express Lift, Chair 11. “I’d have never found 90 percent of these places.”
It wouldn’t be a Vail3 powder day for Davis, one assumes, without negotiating North Rim cliffs, which by this time on a snowy day towers over acres of deep, fresh powder. An adrenaline check at the bottom prepares the group for “Steadman’s Alley,” unofficially named after the famous, Vail-based orthopedic surgeon.
That’s also when Davis and company realize it’s time for last run. Of course that calls for drastic measures, and Davis decides on the famous Riva Ridge – named after the famous World War II battle in which Seibert almost lost his life – as the proper, final descent to Vail Village.
Of course, in keeping with the spirit of Vail3 , Davis opts for a detour through the much-less-well-known Riva Glade, a well-appointed playroom in the trees between Riva Ridge and Christmas. The glade tightens impossibly above Tourist Trap, making that famous face the only, final option – not the mogul-ridden gully on the right, of course, but the steep-but-bumpless wall to skier’s left.
What they learned
Standing high above the village and stalling before having to say farewell, Davis’ group reflects on what they learned in this two-day session of Vail3.
Narsland obviously is enamored with the snow itself.
“So this is what they call “Colorado Champagne Powder?'” he asks.
Zuniga looks at the experience as a whole, seeming to really appreciate where he’s been. Carbo, meanwhile, focuses on a “breakthrough” in her skiing technique that first materialized in those “bumps through trees” of Shangri La.
“I learned how not to let the bumps control me,” she said.
“Me?,” he says, ever the wiseguy. “I learned there are four things you can do with skis: Go left; go straight; go right; or sell “em.”
So it goes with Vail3.