Where bigger is better
The previews are over, the weather predictions – as well as a lot of snow – have been made, and hopefully the skis are tuned and the new gear is ready to go. Get ready to hit the slopes of Vail, North America’s largest single-mountain ski resort, where the overwhelming majority of people truly believe bigger is definitely better.
“I pride myself on finding deep powder,” says Farnham St. John, who’s skied like a bandit at Vail for seven years. “And Vail’s so big, there still are spots out there I’ve not found yet – even spots nobody’s found yet.”
Vail opens today for its 41st season with 637 acres of accessible terrain, 10 lifts and 33 runs having received 51 inches of snow in November – just 7 inches less than the average for the entire month. The official settled base of 15 inches at mid-mountain can be deceiving, however, as a special reconnaissance mission to the top of the mountain Thursday revealed fresh, undisturbed powder nearly waist-high – unofficially – in many places on slopes higher up.
Operations managers say they expect to open up more terrain as early as next week, with even more by Thanksgiving Day. The Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin should follow by mid-December.
“Big skis for a big mountain’
St. John says he’s ready to continue his Vail adventure this season, searching every last inch of the resort’s 5,289 total skiable acres when it’s in full operation. Blue Sky Basin, an expansion area that opened in 2000, “opened up a lot of new lines” that still haven’t been skied at all, he says.
“I’m going to do my best to find them,” St. John says, adding he still prefers skies 185 cm long or longer.
“You need big skis for a big mountain,” he says.
Vail really is like three separate mountains, each with it’s own challenges.
The Front Side alone, when it’s all open, offers 1,627 skiable acres – mostly groomers, including the four-mile Riva Ridge, one of Vail’s most famous runs. But there’s plenty of steep stuff, too, like Pumphouse, the Narrows and Highline. Other locals’ favorites include the relatively extreme North Rim and South Rim as well as Prima Cornice.
Then there’s Vail’s famous Back Bowls, which typically open in mid-December where there’s 3,017 acres of legendary powder, 93 percent of which are recommended only for experts. There are six large bowls – including west- facing and partially forested Game Creek – stretching 7 miles across and up to 1,800 vertical feet. Many locals, of course, know first-hand to heed a common rule of thumb: “Forever on a powder day.”
“Clearly the Back Bowls are where to go on a powder day,” says Jen Brown, a former ski racer who now works for the resort’s communications department. “Every bowl has its own character, its own challenges. And there are locals who literally do have their own powder stashes. We have visitors ask where those stashes are, but that’s like asking a fly fisherman where about his favorite fishing hole.
“We just tell them to skip their leisurely breakfast, head straight to the lift, grab a local and stick to their tail,” she said.
And of course there’s Blue Sky Basin, home to 645 acres of mostly north-facing terrain, much of in its natural state. Some people say it’s as close as you can come to backcountry skiing with a chairlift. It’s been established, too, that whatever the official amount of new snow is reported by the ski company, there’s probably a whole lot more in Blue Sky Basin, with the best snow in Vail found with a leap of faith off Lover’s Leap or below the cornice above Iron Mask.
“The top of Pete’s Express Lift, at 11,570 feet, is the highest point at Vail, and from there you’re literally miles and miles away from town,” says Brown.
“More places with powder’
Chris Anthony, a renowned extreme skier known for his parts in ski films by Warren Miller – including this year’s “Journey” – agrees that bigger really does mean better in many ways.
“When you have a bigger area, there’s more places with powder to find. It spreads people out, so it’s less congested,” he says. “You really can ski Vail all day any day without hitting a lift line – if you know where to go.”
Jeff Berger is a lift operator taking on his second season at Vail. The 28-year-old from Chicago says he takes pride in working at the largest ski resort on the continent. Last season, he was stationed at a wide variety of locations, such as Blue Sky Basin, Golden Peak, Mid-Vail and Cascade Village. A snowboarder, his favorite lift to work is the Riva Bahn Express, Chair 6, at Golden Peak, for that’s where most of his friends are, riding the half-pipe.
His favorite lift to ride on his days off, however, is Earl’s Express Lift, in Blue Sky Basin.
“I’m stoked. I can’t wait to take some runs,” says Berger, who spent most of his day Thursday shoveling snow and building mazes at the bottom of the Wildwood Express Lift at Mid-Vail.
“Something for everyone’
In Vail Village, even the merchants say they take pride in doing business in the largest resort around. Some of them say they’ve been getting calls all week from people all over the country – even out of the country – who want to know how the snow is on Vail Mountain.
“I guess now we can tell them it’s great,” says Dee Tobin, a sales associate at the Golden Bear at Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive. “And it’s great to know a large part of the mountain is going to be open for opening day.”
Tobin says many customers ask where to ski at Vail, and when the map comes out and the discussion starts “they really can’t believe how big it is.”
“It really is unbelievable how many runs, how many acres we have here,” she says. “There’s something for everyone.”
“It still could happen’
Dick Hauserman, a Vail Pioneer who helped build Vail in the early 1960s with with Pete Seibert and company, says it’s hard to believe the resort is celebrating its 41st anniversary. He can still remember the first opening day, when there almost wasn’t enough snow to ski on and snowmaking technology didn’t exist.
“All I can say is we’ve come a long way, a far cry from the orderly community togetherness of those founding years. One might say, “Give us the good old days,’ but that doesn’t happen when you go from a small village to become a big city. Size and shape are hard to control; they should be watched carefully,” says Hauserman, 87.
“It would be nice if we could get back the early values of community, spirit and balance between the locals and the visitors who come here to enjoy this still wonderful place,” Hauserman said. “I still could happen.”
Lifts scheduled to be running today include:
– The Vista Bahn, or Chair 16, and the Giant Steps LIft, Chair 1, from Vail Village.
– The Eagle Bahn Gondola, or Chair 19, and the Born Free Express, or Chair 8, from Lionshead
– The Wildwood Express, Chair 3, and The Mountaintop Express, Chair 4, from Mid-Vail.
– The Little Eagle Express, or Chair 15, a beginner’s lift at Eagle’s Nest.
Vail winter events calender 2003-04
Today – Vail Mountain opens 9 a.m.
3, 10, 17 – Wednesday night free Streetbeat concert series. This year’s lineup spans rock, blues, gospel and other genre. Shows are held early evening in Vail Village, with a mid-winter break from Christmas through mid-February. For more information, call 949-1999.
12 – Sun Up and Sun Down Bowls open.
19 – Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin open.
20 – 30th Annual President Ford Holiday Tree Lighting, Vail Village, 6:30 p.m.
31 – New Year’s Eve fireworks.
4-8 – ReTreat Yourself with Barrett Christy, a women’s snowboard camp. For more information, visit http://www.ridewithbarrett.com.
15-19 – The Session at Vail: The season’s most progressive snowboard competition returns to Vail for its second season, featuring the world’s elite athletes competing for the largest single payout of any snowboard competition. For more information, call 949-1999 or visit http://www.sessionvail.com.
27- Feb. 1 – US Freeskiing Open. Some of the top skiers in the world convene for a weekend of competition in Slopestyle, Skiercross, Halfpipe and Big Air. For more information, call http://www.usfreeskiingopen.com
7, 28 – Mogul Mania. Dual-mogul skiing, telemarking and snowboarding competition, plus the big-air contest. Course located on Cook Shack.
18, 25 – Wednesday night free Streetbeat concert series.
20-24 – Mardi Gras Celebration. For more information on the event, visit vailmardigras.com.
3, 10, 17, 24, 31 – Wednesday night free Streetbeat concert series
6, 27 – Mogul Mania on Cook Shack (see above).
17-21 – American Ski Classic. Ski-racing legends and Hollywood celebrities compete in a week-long celebration of alpine skiing, parties and racing action. For more information, visit http://www.vvf.org.
1-4 – SkiTAM. Cable and telecommunications industries initiative benefitting the U.S. Disabled Ski Team
1-4 – Vail Film Festival. A gathering place for visual artists and those committed to bringing art to the world. The festival will include screenings of over 100 films, workshop and panel discussions, an opening night party at Game Creek Club and a Sunday afternoon barbecue at Eagle’s Nest.
7, 14 – Wednesday night free Streetbeat concert series
7-10 – 14th Annual Taste of Vail, featuring wines from the country’s most noted vintners and food from the Vail Valley’s world-class restaurants. For more information, visit http://www.tasteofvail.com.
10 – Snowshoe Shuffle
8-18 – Spring Back to Vail. Vail’s second annual end-of-the season party featuring bands, unique competitions and the World Alpine Pond Skimming Championships. For more information, visit http://www.vail.com.
17 – World Pond Skimming Championships at Golden Peak.
18 – Vail Mountain closes for the season.
– Source: Vail Resorts