The reverse commute
Generally speaking, ski company officials tend to get a bit squeamish when you start making T-Rex comparisons to the traffic at their resorts on weekends.But in this day and age of deeply discounted season ski passes and swelling masses of weekend warriors battling the I-70 corridor to play in the powder on Saturdays and Sundays, even the most promotional of ski execs will acknowledge the crowding. But they’ll also tell you there are many tricks to avoiding long lines.”In any ski area you can learn what the pattern is for the masses ,” says Vail chief operating officer Bill Jensen, “then you work opposite the pattern.”Jensen, an avid skier who will log more than 50 days on the slopes this season many of them on weekends or during peak holidays says the key to maximizing your experience at any of the major resorts popular with Front Range skiers is to stay ahead of the pack, especially on powder days.”Be one of the first guys in line at Vail, and you say the first thing you get to you have to ski because you’re there, but then you’re in the pattern and the masses will catch up to you in 30 or 40 minutes,” Jensen says.President’s Day weekend, of course, promises to be one of the busiest of the season, though many Front Rangers and locals won’t have to worry about it Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 15-16, because Colorado Passes, Merchant Passes and Employee Passes will all be restricted.For the droves of destination and day skiers who do manage to hit the hill, Jensen has some recommendations, at least for those in the intermediate to advanced categories.”B-line it to Blue Sky Basin by 9:30 a.m., and then work your way back (to the Back Bowls),” he says. “It’s the reverse commute; that’s exactly how you have to do it do the reverse commute.”There’s that traffic terminology again probably the last thing weary Denverites want to think about after a week of battling T-Rex gridlock. But if you have a Monday-Friday job, and you live to ski on the weekends, there’s no avoiding the high-country commute, and most locals are willing to share their techniques for dodging the masses in the mazes.Jensen, for example, calls Chair 26, a quad chairlift in the frequently deserted Lionshead area on the front side of Vail Mountain, “one of Vail’s best-kept secrets right now.” He also recommends checking out Chair 10, an old, slow double lift that serves great bump runs and intermediate terrain but never seems to attract a line (see related story).But Jensen and others always come back to Blue Sky Basin, the controversial two-bowl expansion area that drew so much heat from environmentalists in the late ’90s but has quietly become one of the best-kept secrets at Vail.With more than 600 acres of gladed expert and intermediate trails far to the south of Vail’s existing Back Bowls, many skiers think it’s too distant to head for right off the bat. So they spend the morning making their way to Blue Sky, moving slowly east through Sun Down, Sun Up and China bowls. That’s the herd mentality you have to break, the experts say.”Avoid the elk migration,” says Vail Municipal Judge Buck Allen, an avid skier of Vail Mountain since the early ’70s who, because of his job, mostly skis weekends.”People tend to start at the bottom then work their way eastward across the mountain toward Two Elk (restaurant atop China Bowl) for lunch, so it’s called the elk migration. If you can avoid that elk migration, or kind of go against or in front of it, then you’re OK.”He also suggest heading straight to Blue Sky Basin.”Get out to Blue Sky Basin by 10:30 a.m., ski there, and then around noon start heading the other way,” Allen says. “Instead of heading east, head west.” But he warns against getting into the farthest west bowl (Game Creek) at the wrong time (between 10:30 and noon), because it bottlenecks with only one lift out.Whatever you do, and wherever you go, get off the base of the mountain as early as you can, keen observers say. The early bird gets he powder turns and usually an hour or two of quality skiing before the crush of humanity.”Go early, before ski school starts and all the parents drop off their kids and head out,” says Peter Sherman of Greatneck, Long Island, N.Y., the orthodontist of Olympic gold medal figure skater Sarah Hughes and a 25-year veteran of skiing Vail. “Get out before 8:30 and you get a few solid runs in before 9:30 or 10 and you’re also already on top of the mountain.”Sherman has a tip for avoiding the notoriously jammed maze at the bottom of Vail’s Sun Down Bowl (the slow triple Chair 5): “You can just keep riding up and down Chair 17 in Sun Up Bowl, and you’ll get some good powder in Yonder trees.” Frequently used as part of the eastward commute to China Bowl, Chair 17 is often under-utilized.Sherman’s wife, Linda, has her own suggestion for avoiding big weekend crowds at Vail: head to Beaver Creek, Vail’s sister resort, just 15 minutes farther west on I-70.”Get out before parents put all their kids in ski school, get on Centennial (the main quad out of the Beaver Creek base area), and once you get up on the mountain, you’ll hardly ever see a line, even on a Saturday,” she says.Asked if he has any other tips for avoiding weekend lines at Vail, judge Allen says, “That’s the secret, is not having people know about the secrets.”FOR INFOBOXHere are the top tips for avoiding the weekend crowds at Colorado’s major ski resorts:1. Go early. The first hour the lifts are running (usually between 8:30 and 9:30) there are rarely long lines, and once you’re up high on the mountain, it’s easier to stay ahead of the crowd.2. Think outside the box. Avoid the major feeder runs into the base areas, especially at the end of the day and at lunchtime, and ski the fringes of the mountain the out-of-the-way pockets where the snow is better and lift lines are shorter.3. Either eat lunch early (by 11:30 a.m.) or late (after 1:30) because most people are slaves to the noon lunch whistle. Also, indulge in a sit-down meal. You may pay 10-20 percent more, but you’ll avoid the throngs in the cafeteria.4. Don’t necessarily leave early to get back on the road. Everyone’s thinking the same thing, so you can still get stuck in traffic at 2:30 and you miss one of the best parts of the day. The upper slopes are usually deserted between 3 and 4 p.m., so ski till the bitter end or head into town for dinner. The local merchants will love you, and you’ll be behind the traffic.5. If possible, stay Saturday and Sunday nights instead of Friday and Saturday. You’ll get a better deal on a room, and you’ll have zero traffic heading into town early Monday morning.6. Ask a local.