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Firsthand Report: Viva Vail
By Matthew Graham, DCSki Columnist
February 12, 2008

Ahhh VAIL! When fellow skiers ask about our trip to Vail, my wife and I both respond “it was the BEST ski trip ever!” And we rattle off accolades about the slopes and the village and our hotel and the weather…. and then one of us stops and notes “oh yeah, everything was great except that our friend Julia broke her arm on the second day of skiing.”

Our good friends Mike and Julia joined us in Vail for their first ski trip ‘out West’ at the end of March, 2007. My wife, Karen, and I had been to several resorts over the years in Colorado, plus ski mountains in Nevada and New Mexico. We all met up at Denver Airport on a cold Saturday night: Mike and Julia flying in from Philly and Karen and I arriving from Washington, DC. We rented a car and Mike drove the easy two hour trip via interstate to Vail. We stopped halfway there to pick up some groceries and, of course, a few bottles of wine. Mike and Julia booked a one bedroom condo in the Lionshead Village while Karen and I were a shuttle stop away at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa. With the two hour time change, Karen and I were exhausted when we checked in at 11 pm Mountain Time. We went straight to bed, not bothering to unpack.

The back bowls of Vail. Photo provided by Matthew Graham.

The Cascade has its own private lift into Vail. On our first morning, however, we grabbed the shuttle over to the Lionshead Village. I didn’t bring my own skis, instead signing up for a demo package at Vail Sports. I had decided to get serious about finding new skis after Karen and other friends told me I needed to upgrade. Even complete strangers on the ski-lifts had started to verbally abuse me about my ancient K2 skis. I started my demo-days with a modern pair of K2s, called Recons - a fat stiff all mountain ski. We met up with Mike and Julia at Vail Sports and jumped onto the Eagle Bahn Gondola. Whoosh! We were at the top in a few minutes. We warmed up on some beginner and intermediate slopes. Soft snow, uncrowded slopes, clear skies - it was perfect! We found an intermediate trail called Born Free that had one good steep section and we repeated it several times because it was so much fun. This was rather silly when you consider that Vail has 193 trails, plus bowls and a total of 5,289 skiable acres with a vertical drop of 3450 feet.

We stopped for lunch at one of the mid-mountain cafeterias and then split up for a couple of runs. Julia, the least experienced skier of our group, wanted to chill out on some easier terrain. She and Mike explored the green slope Swingsville while Karen and I tried the intermediate run Christmas, both on an upper section of the mountain. We met at the bottom of the lift and split up again. Karen and Julia jumped onto Swingsville and Mike and I swooshed the tree-lined Expresso, an intermediate run. After what seemed like only a few more runs, the four o’clock closing time approached and we regrouped to ski back to the base of the mountain. The temperature difference on the mountain was remarkable. While there was great powder and cold air at the top, the bottom had turned balmy and the snow quite slushy.

Groomed powder at Vail. Photo provided by Matthew Graham.

I traded the K2s in for a pair of Volkls. Karen has Volkls and LOVES them. We caught the shuttle back to the Cascade area and finally got around to unpacking. Our room was as big as Mike and Julia’s condo and included a sitting area, a table and chairs and a cozy, king sized bed. After a quick shower, we met up with Mike and Julia and continued onto the main Vail Village for dinner. Upscale clothing shops lined the streets of the village, with an occasional ski store, coffee shop and restaurant mixed in. We wandered down the street to Los Amigos for Mexican cuisine. The joint was hopping and we grabbed a few chairs at the bar while waiting for a table. The restaurant featured a large outdoor deck with additional seating. Despite the earlier warm-up, however, it was now too cold to sit outside. Halfway through my margarita, the waitress arrived shouting my name and showed us to a table next to the window. The food was no better and no worse than that of any of the chain restaurants, such as Chevy’s and Chili’s. Still, it was filling after a day on the slopes.

In the morning Karen and I took the private Cascade lift up to the Simba trail and sped down the hard-packed groomed run that had re-frozen overnight -; sort of like skiing back east. At the bottom we found our friends in line at the gondola. Julia had picked up a pair of demos to experiment with more advanced and stiffer skis than the pair she owned. We all rode up to start the day again on the Born Free slope. I zoomed ahead with Karen following and Mike and Julia taking up the rear. About halfway down I stopped with Karen to wait for our skiing buddies. They failed to arrive after five minutes. I called Mike’s cell and got his voicemail. Maybe they had diverged onto another trail by mistake. Karen and I continued down to the lift and again waited. Finally, I reached Mike on his cell. Julia had taken a bad fall and hurt her arm. Ski patrol was just arriving and they would be transporting Julia to the ski patrol office partway up the slope. Karen and I immediately caught the lift up and found Mike waiting next to the patrol hut. Julia lay strapped onto a ski-stretcher, wrapped tight like a mummy. She was in good spirits and laughing about the incident. The demo skis were much faster than she was used to and she caught an edge, falling onto the hard-pack with her arm extended. “I guess I won’t be buying those skis,” she joked. The patrollers thought her arm might be broken. But she’d have to get an X-ray at the hospital to find out for sure. As they loaded her onto the ambulance, I asked Mike what he wanted us to do. He told us to keep skiing and he’d call us from the hospital with an update. Mike climbed into the ambulance and it drove away. Karen and I stood there stunned.

The Eagle Bahn gondola. Photo provided by Matthew Graham.

As there really wasn’t anything else we could do, we decided to explore more of the mountain in order to be guides for our friends when they, hopefully, returned with good news. As usual, I was the optimist conjecturing that Julia had only jammed her arm badly. Karen, who broke her arm previously, was certain that it was a fractured humerus. We ventured over to the Wildwood area on top of the mountain and made a few runs down some long intermediate groomed cruisers. This upper mountain snow was pure groomed powder like we had grown used to on other trips ‘out West.’ Vail boasts the most groomed terrain of any ski resort in North America and is rated the Number One Ski Mountain in North America by Ski Magazine. We stopped for lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe and then discovered another really fun slope: Avanti. It’s rated blue-black (intermediate-expert) and was so exhilarating that we skied it three times in a row. Mike called to report that Julia had, in fact, broken her arm. It was a clean break (no twists, not compound, no separation) and she was being released from the hospital with merely a sling - no cast. The couple would be taking the shuttle bus back to their room. I told Mike I’d bring over pizza and wine to their condo for the evening… lots of wine. Karen and I criss-crossed our way back across the mountain and rode the Cascade lift down to our resort. Yikes! Riding a lift down a steep mountain is scary. It feels like your just going to drop off a shear precipice. We skied off the lift at the bottom -; again an unusual experience -; and dropped off our skis at the ski-check. The Vail Cascade Resort and Spa not only offers a free ski check, they also have a boot check where your boots are placed in racks with air piped in so as to dry the boots. Vail Cascade has a rental shop, a general store, a bar and restaurant, fitness center, hot tubs and, of course, a spa. In addition to hotel rooms, they offer a wide range of condos and houses for rental. It’s definitely a BIG, BIG step up from most of the other hotels and condos we saw in Vail.

The Cascade lift. Photo provided by Matthew Graham.

We picked up an extra large veggie pizza and arrived at the condo to find Mike cooking pasta. It was going to be a night of carbs. Julia was sitting propped up on the couch and in great spirits. She praised the cleanliness of the Vail hospital, the great staff and how she really enjoyed the efficiency of the shuttle bus system. I’m a pretty positive guy. But if I’d just broken my arm, I’d be a miserable wreck. I wouldn’t be extolling the virtues of a bus system. (Julia is a much better person than I’ll ever be.) After we ate, Julia insisted that we not worry about her and enjoy skiing the next day. She told Mike she’d be okay all day reading and looking out the balcony. Yep, a much better person.

The next morning, Mike propped up a few pillows for her on the sofa and met us at the gondola. I had exchanged the Volkls for a different pair of K2s, called Crossfires that aren’t as fat as the Recons. All of the skis I had tried were good. None of them, however, really blew me away. We took Mike up to the Wildwood Area and found the trails empty. We played follow the leader, with Mike in front, and traced his tracks through the crisp powder. The Wildwood Area has ten slopes and we flew down each one, zipping right back onto the empty high speed lift.

Another couple of friends, Jan and Ben, had arrived late the previous evening and were planning on meeting us at noon at the top of chair lift number 4. (There are 34 lifts!) Karen, Mike and I left Wildwood and dropped down another long blue/black cruiser to another lift to another run to reach chair lift 4. Jan and Ben called to say they were running late and to go ahead and have lunch without them. Thus, our little trio stopped in at Buffalo’s Restaurant for sandwiches and soup and ate outside on the deck under the bright sun. I mentioned how my current demo skis were okay. Mike told me to try his skis - Dynastar Contact 11s. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my boot to fit into his binding. Luckily, Vail Sports had a demo tent right next to the restaurant and, even more luckily, had pair of the Dynastars. I swapped skis while we waited for Jan and Ben.

With a fresh set of skis and our other friends finally arriving, the real skiing began. The five of us wound our way down a long, long trail called Sleepy Time into the China Bowl - a vast ocean of whiteness on the back side of the mountain. There were numerous marked trails in the bowl. But you could basically ski wherever you wanted. It was incredible - pure open skiing!!! And a large part of the fun was due to the fact that I LOVED THE DYNASTARS! After searching for a new pair of skis for three years, I finally found them. They were fast, yet easy to turn. I felt as though I was floating above the snow. I lost count of how many times we zoomed down the bowl before we headed to yet another section of the mountain called Blue Sky Basin. It was the complete opposite of the bowl. Here the trails slalomed through thick pine trees. On one slope, Big Rock Park, the trail dropped into a gulley. You had to keep up your speed or get stuck. And yes, one of our group, Jan, got stuck. She had to take off her skis and climb out.

Author Matthew Graham. Photo provided by Karen Graham.

From Blue Sky, we followed another series of trails and long chair lifts to return to the main face of the mountain. We were covering an incredible amount of territory in only a few short hours. We found ourselves in another section of the mountain and tried several more slopes before ending up back near Buffalo’s Restaurant. I parted with the Dynastars so as to return the K2s to the main shop. Ben and Jan decided to head back to the base of the mountain while Karen, Mike and I squeezed in another few runs before the lifts shut down at four o’clock. There was a long line of skiers at mid-mountain waiting to ride the lift back to base. I didn’t feel like waiting and convinced Mike and Karen to ski down a long serpentine green trail despite their protests that it would be super slushy from the afternoon sun. “It’ll be fine”, I exclaimed. The first bit was quite nice and then it was pretty much poling our way through long flat sections of slush. Near the bottom it seemed more like we were water skiing on a hot day - while wearing thermal underwear and ski jackets. Karen and Mike enjoyed repeating “I told you so.” I countered, with “but we’re getting in some extra skiing.” We were all hot and exhausted when we arrived at the bottom. I returned my skis and Karen and I stopped into see Julia. She was sitting on the balcony smiling and basking in the warmth of the sun. We all talked briefly about the day of skiing. Karen and I, however, couldn’t stay long as Karen had made a spa appointment.

Later, while Karen enjoyed a deep tissue sports massage, I (the idiot) spent an hour working out at the fitness center with weights, huffing and puffing, at 8,000 feet. We finished the evening with all of our friends having dinner at Ristorante Ti Amo, a short drive from Vail Mountain. Jan and Ben had discovered it on a previous trip to Vail - exceptional Italian cuisine at moderate prices. Karen and I sadly departed the following morning. Jan and Ben skied for another few days and Mike got in one more day on the slopes while his wife sat ‘propped up’ on the sofa. It was the absolutely most fun skiing trip ever… oh yeah, except for our friend breaking her arm.

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Connie Lawn
11 years ago
Great article and photos. I agree and have to think Vail is my favorite area. The views are breathtaking! I first went there with Jerry Ford years ago, and they gave the White House press corps season tickets. Ford used to claim I caused him to fall down! (not true).
Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece. That is what snowsports are all about!
Speak truth to powder.
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