Welcome to the back
It may not have been one of those epic days they are famous for, but it just didn’t seem to matter Friday.
Vail dropped the ropes leading to the legendary Back Bowls – Sun Up, Sun Down, even China, briefly – opening the way for an excited crowd of skiers and snowboarders to track “em all up.
“I just can’t believe it’s so good,” Charlie Powers of Edwards, who’s been skiing Vail for 32 years, said with a gasp as the Sun Up Lift, Chair 17, lifted him off the snow for another ride to the top of the mountain. “I didn’t think it was ready yet back here, but that was wonderful.”
Powers pointed to his route down Sun Up: Headwall, that long, wide expanse littered with huge pine trees between Yonder and Slot. The snow, about knee-deep, three-day-old powder, wasn’t of the bottomless, buttery kind one often associates with the Back Bowls, but neither Powers nor anybody else back there seemed to care. After all, it was enough just to be there after skiing or riding Vail’s Front Side exclusively for weeks.
“Opening the Back Bowls just let’s me know it’s going to be a great winter,” Powers said.
“Dropping into Sun Down’
Heather Bonewitz, a snowboarder from Boulder, said she woke up at 5:30 a.m. in the morning on her quest for that quintessential powder encounter. For her, it was up the Riva Bahn Express, Chair 6, then the Northwoods Express, Chair 11, before “dropping into Sun Down.”
“The first three runs were great, then it all got tracked out,” she said. “So I went to Sun Up, and Yonder Glade was great.”
Sun Down Bowl was a real eye-opener for anyone who took it on, as its slopes were littered with small, grassy bushes poking through the roughly 2-foot layer of heavy powder. Not a single person was overheard saying they’d hit bottom on rocks, however.
“I got face shots all the way down,” Nick Zuzelski, a snowboarder from Golden, said after taking the Sun Down Lift, Chair 5, back up to the top of the mountain. “It’s still a little thin, but deep enough to keep me happy.”
“A little deeper, a little steeper’
By 10 a.m. or so, Jeff Moore and Natasha VanderMolen of Colorado Springs already had done a respectable amount of Back Bowls reconnaissance. They said they thought Ricky’s Ridge in Sun Down Bowl, named after one of Vail’s first ski instructors – Swiss national Ricky Andermatten – had better snow than Milt’s Face in Sun Up Bowl, named for Vail’s assistant ski patrol leader in 1962, Milt Wiley.
“Ricky’s was better today, a little deeper, a little steeper – and a lot fewer people,” said Moore.
The inevitable lift line at Chair 5 did occur, by the way, with a 20- to 30-minute wait building up by late morning, sending some people back to the Front Side for a respite. For example, Andre Lazaski and Greg Robak, two skiers of Polish descent who live in Troy, Mich., headed for Northwoods.
“You have to watch out for the grass back there. But it was nice; we’d never done that before,” said Lazaski, recalling other places in North America they’ve skied without any Back Bowls. “You know, of all the places we’ve been, Vail is the best.”
By lunchtime, however, the lift lines at chairs 5 and 17 had calmed down quite a bit, with chairs ascending the mountain empty. Why? Perhaps it was because the ski patrol announced they would be opening the west face of China Bowl briefly as a “sneak peak for locals,” sending any true powderhound with the time – and the legs – scurrying east for a quick plunge down Dragon’s Teeth, Jade Glade or Gengis Kahn.
Patrollers said they figured it was best to let the locals pack the snow before another storm this weekend drops another layer on the mountain. And they really didn’t want to encourage skiers and snowboarders to head into China Bowl “if they don’t belong back there.”
Bonewitz, in the end, may have been one of the few non-locals to find out in time. The Tea Cup Express Lift, Chair 36, was open for three hours, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“I thought they might try something sneaky like that,” she said, gazing across China Bowl to Shangri-La and areas east and south still not open to anyone until Monday. “And besides, Vail’s not complete without Blue Sky Basin.”