Vail Valley Voices: A day in the Torture Chamber (skiing Vail)
Vail, CO, Colorado
I started skiing when I turned 40 in 1989. After 20 years of continuous ski instruction, my obsession with Vail, powder, bumps and crud has reached epic levels.
As a lifelong exercise freak and former jock, I needed to find another athletic pursuit after my football and rugby careers ended. Skiing has filled the void perfectly.
But the journey has not been without incident. Pushing beyond my limits has resulted in a number of mishaps including a broken nose (bled on Yonder), broken ribs (fell on a ski pole), monstrous hematomas (just ask Bill Sterett at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic) and much more.
The thrill of pushing the edge of the envelope has made it all worthwhile, and my injuries have abated, reflecting better technique, which brings me to the next piece of my skiing biography.
Several years ago, I hired Mike Janell as my instructor. He was also a professional mountain bike racer during the off-season until his untimely death in 2007. His physical conditioning was superb, as was his technical ability.
Janell angulated like an Olympic racer and hit the bumps as well as any freestyle skiers. He inspired me to new levels of achievement, and so we jointly created the “Torture Chamber.”
Technical expertise on all terrain and in all weather conditions was the minimum requirement for a visit into the Torture Chamber. We always stayed within the Vail boundaries, opting to make the challenge a test of our endurance rather than subjecting ourselves to avalanches and the like.
My preparation for the chamber to this day continues to be a twice daily workout regimen when at home and an aerobic session after skiing each day.
An average day in our Torture Chamber consisted of non-stop skiing from 8:45 to 3 with a one-hour break at the Game Creek Club. Janell and I liked to feed our chamber guests well, so I treated them to a large meal and then we attempted to make them throw up after lunch. We didn’t rest while in the chamber. Lift rides were the only respite to extreme physical exertion. Never did we stop in the middle of a trail. The objective was to get to the bottom of the run as quickly as possible.
Sometimes we started the day with a warm-up run. If we did, it might be a top-to-bottom run down Riva Ridge. Riva is the longest trail in Vail, beginning at the top of Chair 4 and ending at the Vista Bahn lift in Vail Village. It can be a particularly exhilarating if conditions are favorable, not too many obstacles under the snow and good light.
I remember many times hauling ass down the trail, my ears popping from the change in altitude and my face aching from the wind chill. It’s an easy run, so speed provides the rush.
After our warm-up run, we boarded the lift and headed up to the top of the mountain, where the back bowls and Milt’s Face awaited us.
Milt’s is a moderately steep and bumped trail. It’s wide open except for a few trees at the top, which come in handy during whiteouts. Our objective was to avoid the groomed slot to the left of Milt’s. We continued traversing to the right to maximize the number of bumps we would encounter.
At the bottom, we took Chair 17 to the top of the China Bowl. On arrival, we made a u-turn that brought us to the top of Ghengis Khan. Ghengis is one of the most famous trails in Vail. It’s wide open and really steep at the outset and may have large moguls. The view is endless, and upon entering Ghengis I always get a chill. The run is a long one, but we wasted no time and were always on the catwalk in no time.
The China Bowl lift took us to the main entrance to the China Bowl, and we went right toward Siberia Bowl and the infamous Red Square. After a fairly long catwalk at mach 2, we arrived at the top of Red Square. Once again the views are breathtaking. Red Square is a lot like Ghengis except it’s skied less, so crud, not bumps are the major challenge. Skiers must blast through clumps of snow, and only good turning technique enables you to keep your speed down.
An endless tuck past Two Elk and towardsthe front of the mountain brought us to Highline. Highline is the granddaddy of all the bump runs in Vail. Never groomed and laid out broadly between beautiful trees, it welcomes skiers with moderate-sized bumps that get increasing larger and reach monumental proportions on the steep face. The bumps are so large at times that my twins virtually disappeared in them when they were younger. This is one of the places people refer to when they use the expression “Volkswagon” bumps.
The catwalk took us down to Vail Village once more.
From this time to lunch our itinerary changed from day to day. One favorite route was a relatively relaxed run down Powerline, a short bump run that can be treacherous if you ski too fast. I have taken some hard falls on this little gem, resulting from unwarranted overconfidence.
The trail leads to Ram’s Horn (or Horn of the Ram as we refer to it), and then to Look Ma.
Ma is a nasty short face with big bumps right under a chair lift. All day long you see skiers lying down on the snow, asking themselves why they chose the old lady. It ended quickly, at which time we headed up Chair 3, where it is our turn to laugh at the people rolling down Ma.
At the top, we headed to Ouzo Glade, if it had snowed. This sweet trail in the trees is really a fun experience, but it’s tight and one needs to be cautious. The reward is the warmth and food at the Game Creek Club, an oasis from the rigors of the morning, complete with slippers to rest your tired feet.
After 45 minutes, I usually had to drag Janell away from the food troughs as the chamber beckoned us to re-enter.
The schedule for the afternoon usually didn’t vary. We headed up the Game Creek lift and skied under the lift on Wild Card. I think this run has the best moguls on the mountain and, once again, the objective was to ski this run as fast as possible. Although the moguls can be large, they somehow retain their shape in spite of the efforts of less capable skiers who cut them up. At the bottom of the run, the bumps are smaller and we usually opened it up.
Without fail, we always went up the lift and headed to Ricky’s Ridge. On a sunny afternoon, this is one of the most pleasant trails on the mountain. Its soft snow and moderate bumps are really a joy to ski.
We took the catwalk to Chair 5 and headed to Forever, one of my favorite trails on the mountain. It’s really long, as its name suggests. The run never has large amounts of snow because it faces the wrong direction, so we generally find crud and small to moderate bumps.
But the key is to ski without stopping and savor the incredible burn in your thighs. Janell and I impatiently waited for laggards at the catwalk when they run out of gas on the way down.
At the top of the mountain, the final trilogy to this story — Prima, Pronto and Log Chute — awaited us. I often wondered whether these last challenges were so great because we skied them at the end of the day. Our guests, if they continued with us after lunch, were usually fed up at this point. But we never asked anybody to do anything we weren’t willing to do ourselves.
So we navigated our way through the transition area off of Chair 4, dodging the snowboarders and the beginning skiers making huge GS turns.
Prima reminds me of a beautiful woman. It’s the most elegant trail on the mountain, but not one to take lightly. It’s wonderfully shaped and a fitting final tribute to our day. The moguls are monstrous but well formed by good skiers. The top is not that big of deal, but the steep face is a big deal, a really big deal. Even the best mogul skiers must take their foot off the accelerator at this time, as lines are hard to find.
At the halfway point, it’s time to visit Pronto. I think this trail is the toughest on the mountain. It has large bumps and deep troughs. After a few days without snow, the run gets icy and is virtually impossible to ski with precision (at least for me). I’m very happy to get off this face without making a fool of myself, and you can just imagine how my guests feel about it.
Now to Log Chute. If you stay to the left (I shouldn’t be giving this away), the bumps are well-shaped but challenging nevertheless. The day was finally over, and I tried not to fall as I rushed to put my skis in the corral.
Originally, the Torture Chamber was a joke. Janell and I wanted to create a series of challenges that any seasoned skier would appreciate and even think was a little crazy. But it had become a way of life for us.
For me, skiing proficiently is important, but facing the best Vail has to offer is also important.
Being physically fit is key to surviving in the chamber. I should point out that the chamber is open for 13 straight days during the winter and spring for those who dare.
I miss Mike Janell and dedicate this piece to his memory. Rest in peace, pal.
Sal Bommarito is a frequent contributor to the Vail Daily.