Firsthand Report: Vail - The Killington of the West
Author thumbnail By Robbie Allen, DCSki Columnist

Ok, I am not a Vail guy. Ski Magazine called Vail “the New York Yankees of skiing.” I am a Pirate’s Fan. Everything I read about Vail said it was not the place for me. A land of massive runs, fast brand new lifts, blue sky, posh 5 star resorts and champagne powder. A high roller, big spender kind of place. I am not that kind of guy. I like to buck the trend. Place me at an out of the way ski area, skiing ice in the rain and I am happy. What was there for a guy who drives a ten year old Saturn in the land of Hummers that is Vail? Turns out a lot.

Sure, the “village” is hokey and unnecessary. I-70 cuts through the valley taking away any real visual appeals on the front side and in the village. But Vail is not about views of scenery. It is about skiing. With the largest trail map in the US it offers plenty of skiing.

With my family in tow and free lodging provided by the in-laws, off to Vail for Spring Break we went. As many have reported, when the weather is good, transit from Denver on I-70 is no problem. Denver International Airport probably sees more sets of skis and rents more SUV’s than anywhere else in the world.

Vail does resist the temptation to discount their $90 lift tickets. But by signing up for the Peaks program and purchasing in advance you can whittle a little off the daily rates. Prices start to get reasonable if you are staying for 5 days or more. Also note your Vail pass is good for skiing at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone. So you can move around some if you like. But in the end get yourself on these slopes. They are outstanding.

Day One we discover that eastern bases don’t work on powder. We got off the Eagle Bahn Gondola and put on our skis. My son and I tried to go and could not! It seemed a year’s worth of frozen granular had destroyed our bases. My wife’s and in-laws’ brand new skis had no issues. We realized we needed a tune asap, but were too excited to give up a day of skiing. So we decided to ski the day anyway and have them tuned overnight.

It was a good and bad decision. Bad in that skating and towing the kids was tough. Good in that black diamonds were very doable with the speed limiter of the poor bases. It was like driving with a speed governor. It was hard to get in trouble.

Dad, my skis will not go…? Photo provided by Amy Allen.

Being the first day and looking to warm up we stayed mostly on the front side of Vail near the Lionshead village. We found several trails to our liking. We skied off the several high speed chairs and a bit off the gondola. Even in this small part of this huge area we found plenty of trails to entertain. Conditions were great for so late in the year, with coverage close to 100%. However it was hard to tell with the poor ski bases. To close the day I raced the gondola down with my family inside and won.

Day Two we recovered our newly-tuned and waxed skis and headed for the hill. The free public transportation system in Vail is excellent. An electric hybrid bus picked us up right near our condo and dropped us off at any of the base areas. We headed towards the Lionshead base area again only to notice a looming gray sky rolling in. Once in the gondola and headed up the hill the leaden sky unleashed a full-on winter blizzard. It was a white out! The wind roared, stopping the gondola twice on our way up for 15 minutes at a time. Once free of the gondola and out on the peak it seemed more like Vermont than Colorado. The wind was whipping and the snow blowing sideways. Ah… I felt right at home.

Spring Skiing in Vail. Photo provided by Amy Allen.

The power was quickly piling up on the slopes. We decided to head a bit lower and tried to make our way over to Mid Vail. It was a challenge as the snow was coming fast and furious. I was marshalling our little group of four (my wife-37, son-7 and mother in law-62). It was tough to keep them all in sight and upright. Several times I had to hike back up the hill to help someone out of a fall. The snow was so deep that this was a real challenge.

Once in the Mid Vail area the snow abated a bit. We decided to jump on the high speed quad to the 5op of Vail. It turned out to be a mistake as there again the snow found us and we had to descend back through the thick powder in a near white out.

The winds prevented the Back Bowls from opening that day and I didn’t think my little group was up for it anyway. Later in the week the elk showed up and they closed the back bowls for the season. Still there is plenty to ski at Vail without the back bowls.

Looking down at Mid Vail. Photo provided by Amy Allen.

One thing that is remarkably different out west than the molehills I normally ski is the time it takes to make a run. At this point around 11:30 am we had been on the hill for about 3 hours and only made a handful of top to bottom runs. The deep powder impeded our progress greatly. However the women in our group were getting tired. So they decided to try to make it back to Lionshead base area. My son and I were on a quest to cover more ground so we headed toward the Vail Village base area.

It turns out we made the right call as the weather cleared throughout the rest of day. We had a gorgeous afternoon. My son had discovered the joy of marking his runs on a trail map with a yellow highlighter the night before, thus was determined to add more markings to his map today. So off we went.

Morning storms had cleared the mountain. We never waited for a lift and only rode with someone else once. It was amazing how few people were left on the hill. This was good and bad as a lot of the supplemental lifts were not turning. I later found out that Vail was operating at about 1/8 the normal employee level. Many of the foreign workers left early due to changes in visa restrictions. Conditions may have allowed Vail to stay open later but the lack of employees meant that this was the last week of the season.

We also learned the extent of our eastern skiing ability. In the morning we had experienced the silence of powder skiing. What fun! However as the deep powder on the slopes warmed, the snow became heavy and too hard for my seven year old to handle. Thus we stuck mainly to what was groomed. And there was plenty as the groomer fleet was out in force. At one point we stood to the side and watched no less than 7 grooming cats parade up a slope with sirens blaring.

We lunched at the lodge in Vail Village and were the victims of the employee shortage. I was cut off in the line and someone else snagged the last two sandwiches in the only open cafe! So my seven year old enjoyed a lunch of chips, jelly beans, a cookie and a lemonade. Don’t tell his mom!

After this power lunch we were at it again, covering much terrain and seeking out new trails all the time. We managed to cover one side of the trail map to the other. Sure Dad had to do some towing and pushing but we all had fun. The trail map, now covered in mostly yellow, hangs proudly in his room.

To me Vail is the Killington of the West. Sure the bowls get all the fame but there is plenty to ski on the front side without the bowls. With the bowls in play there may be too much! For this East Coast small hill guy Vail offered plenty. I may even rent a Hummer next time.

My team at Vail. Photo provided by Ev Hoffer.
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About Robbie Allen

Robbie Allen is an avid small hill skier. He has written several articles on the many small hills he has sought out.

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