The beauty, the splendor, the adventure. It’s “Like Nothing on Earth.” Here the snow is whiter; the sky is bluer; the mountains are bigger and the people are prettier.
With 3,400+ feet of vertical rise, 21 km2 of skiable terrain, and 346 inches of annual snowfall, it’s a veritable skier’s paradise. It doesn’t get ranked #1 in the U.S. all the time for nothing. And, truly, the Back Bowls and sections of Blue Sky Basin are unlike anything I’ve ever seen; I really am in love with the place.
I could go on and on about how much I like it, but it’s all been said. You deserve better (but, more importantly, are a lot more likely to close this page if you think I’m just going to drone on and on about the same stuff again. Don’t touch that dial. Or on second thought, touch that dial all you want. Just don’t close the page…)
At a place like Vail, you come for the adventure, for the views, for the experience - and you get it. But ten years from now when you’re sitting around on the porch telling stories, you won’t be talking about the great tree skiing in China Bowl, or the feet of fresh powder. It’s not that great meal you had that’s going to make you cackle so hard your drink sprays painfully out your nose. It’s not remembering the baby’s-butt-smooth corduroy that will make you laugh until you can hardly breathe.
It’s the other stuff, the stuff you didn’t plan for.
Like that one time your buddy threw a hatchet through his tent, or that time you slipped and fell - with stooge-like grace - into a wet salt flat and caked your pants with so much mud you couldn’t wear them the rest of the trip. (I liked those pants, too.) It’s always the “other stuff” you remember ten years from now, stuff that’s not bought in a package deal or delivered slope-side. It’s not the things that went right; it’s the things that went wrong.
It’s the misadventures.
When Scott and I left Park City on December 15, 2008, the weather was beautiful (so beautiful, in fact, there was precious little snow on the ground). We knew there was a storm rolling in, so we decided to leave early (2 p.m.) in order to get to Vail before midnight. In good weather, the drive takes around 7.5 hours, so by our highly-accurate and ultra-scientific calculations an extra 2.5 hours would be enough to compensate for possibly less than perfect conditions, and would still get us there on time, especially since we were being smart and beating the storm.
We decided there were two main route options. Both were fairly direct and would take about the same amount of time, so we decided to let our handy-dandy GPS do the choosing for us and got on our way.
Apparently, there was a third, much less direct and much more time-consuming route we hadn’t considered. Guess which one the highly advanced navigation computer - whose one purpose in the world is choosing good routes - chose? If you guessed Door #3… you should consider a job in the portable navigation industry. You’d fit right in.
About two or three hours out of Park City, as we wound in and out of cow pastures and outhouse-sized shacks, we started getting the feeling we weren’t taking either one of the sensible routes. It seemed our electronic guide had decided that highways are for sissies, and that real men took smaller, much less well-plowed roads through the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm.
Not wanting to be out-manly-manned by a small, female-voiced GPS unit (but especially not wanting to turn around and effectively have lost four hours), we decided to keep going. The computer must have known what it was doing. Surely it wouldn’t lead us to a narrow, nearly-closed road on the top of a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm. It had to know better than that.
It wasn’t until later that Scott decided to share the story about how, while guiding him to his Denver hotel, this very GPS led him an hour and a half out of the city into a residential cul-de-sac and insisted he had arrived at his destination. Truly, we were in good hands.
As we continued on our expertly-chosen path, instead of the safer, wider, plowed highway, both the snow and the roads got worse as the sky grew dark. Eventually the storm was so bad we could barely see anything, and snow had mostly covered the lines on the road.
This made us question from time to time if we were, in fact, even still on the road, and if continuing straight would not lead us off a cliff. A few times, the only way we could verify one way or the other were the cars that had slid off the road into a ditch on either side of us. (Our thought process was something along the lines of “If that guy slid off to our left… and that guy crashed on our right… Yeah! That’s gotta be the road there between them.”)
Fortunately, we soon came up behind a large truck towing a horse trailer, and we figured if he could manage this road, so could we. Plus, if we saw him fall off into oblivion and certain death it would be a hint that we should stop and go some other way. Basically, he was our canary in this snowy and wind-swept coal mine of a road, and we did well while we were behind him. If you’re reading this story, horse-trailer-truck-guy, thanks. We appreciate it. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t long before he turned down a side road and we were left once again to our own devices.
Shortly thereafter, we stopped to re-evaluate the situation. It appeared we were supposed to continue on this small road all the way up over a mountain pass. Knowing that it was probably a bad idea to take such a road even if it were open, and figuring it wasn’t open since we hadn’t seen anyone going the other way in quite a while, we decided to hang a right on (what turned out to be) an equally small road that also went up over a mountain pass. Perfect!
This, however, was against our electronic overlord’s wishes.
If we thought the GPS a bit sinister for choosing this route to begin with, now we were making it angry.
As we wore on, the GPS became increasingly agitated by our new plan and, perhaps to teach us a lesson for being deviant, refused to calculate a route that included our current road. For the next half hour, it insisited we turn around by using one of the numerous branching forest roads, all of which were caked in at least two feet of snow.
Hardly a minute passed without its harsh, grating, and increasingly upset demand: “In point two miles, turn right on unpaved road,” followed shortly by what I became convinced was a sigh, and a reluctant “recalculating.”
The new calculation would, of course, be relayed to us by an even more bitter, “In point one miles, turn left on unpaved road!” The more we ignored it, the more ill-tempered it seemed to get.
I’ll never be certain, but I’m pretty sure I heard it swear at us at least once.
Each setting we changed in an attempt to out-maneuver the machine was met with another smug “turn on unpaved road” command. Was this the Deep Blue of GPS units!?
This went on for miles and miles until we eventually figured out we could trick our evil master into forcing it to take us where we wanted to go.
Such sweet and brilliant success.
After doing battle with our GPS for over half an hour, we, in a flash of instinctive genius, discovered that we could use the “via point” feature to choose a point via which the route would be calculated. This was profound, ingenious, and blindingly obvious.
Having beaten the machine at its own game, we happily cruised along without being commanded to turn around, content with our victory. But the satisfaction was short-lived. Not far up the winding, snow covered road, we came upon a pair of particularly troublesome signs.
The first one read: “ALL OTHER COM VEH SNOW TIRES OR CHAINS REQUIRED”
We realized that probably didn’t bode well for the road conditions ahead, particularly since conditions were already approaching unsafe. But thankfully we were not in a commercial vehicle, so we decided to continue.
Then we saw the second sign.
“ALL VEH SNOW TIRES OR CHAINS REQUIRED”
Uh oh. “ALL VEH.” That meant us, right?
We didn’t have chains, and we were pretty sure we didn’t have snow tires either. We got out into the blowing snow to check, felt the treads, intently and academically discussed various types of snow tires, and got back in still pretty sure that we didn’t have snow tires.
But then again, the rental place did claim the car was “winterized.” What a deliciously generic word. Did that mean we did in fact have snow tires, or did it simply mean the heat worked?
There was just no way to be sure, but turning around meant losing hours of valuable time and facing the inevitable smugness of the GPS. Then again, continuing on meant risking a large fine, and - oh yeah - falling off the mountain into an untimely and surely gruesome death.
We were undecided.
As we sat debating the various merits and hazards of each approach, we spotted a trucker stopped to the side of the road, putting chains on his tires. He looked like he knew what he was doing, so we were pretty sure he’d know if we had snow tires or not.
“Maybe we should ask that guy if we have the right tires,” Scott offered.
“Well we could…” I said, “but he’s probably going to say that we don’t. And then our ignorance defense is shot if we get stopped. Plus, it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. Let’s just go.”
We pondered the situation for a few more moments, decided that neither of us had died so far, which was as good a reason as any. We’d keep going. My mind raced to construct a valid defense should we be pulled over. I had it all worked out.
Me: “I mean really, officer, who has any idea what ‘All vehicles’ means? It could mean anything. Those signs really should be more clear.”
Officer: “Well played, sir. You’ve got me there.”
Me: “Not to mention the rental place told us the car was winterized. And as we all know, winterized definitely means ‘has snow tires installed and a working heater.’”
Officer: “Another good point, you brilliant fellow. You are certainly in the right, not to mention exceedingly brilliant, and (don’t take this the wrong way) dashingly handsome.”
Me: “Why, yes. I get that often. Thank you officer, and have a pleasant evening.”
Officer: “You do the same. I’ll go take those signs down this instant. And here’s $100.”
Fortunately, I never did get a chance to try my rock-solid defense. We were never pulled over. In fact, we hardly saw any other cars at all along that road, much less a police car.
The conditions did in fact get worse the farther up the pass we got. The road was poorly-plowed, and the storm was now blizzard-like. It would have been very reassuring if I actually believed we either had snow tires or the signs didn’t apply to us. But I was pretty sure we didn’t and I knew they did.
The edges were steep and the road was slippery. We took it slowly, sometimes having to inch our way along to avoid sliding, particularly on the way down. The demon GPS said not a word, but I have no doubt it was smirking on the inside, wallowing in its victory, and would have been happy to remind us (should we be so foolish as to ask) that it recommended turning around miles ago on an unpaved road.
We made it over the pass without incident, and afterward it was smooth (if snowy) sailing into Vail. We arrived around 2 a.m., almost a full 12 hours after we started.
The misadventures continued throughout the trip, from me realizing I left my ski pants in Park City, to us walking in on an unbelievably bored class of cooking trainees learning how to cut a cucumber properly. (Hint: “Let the knife do the work. It should cut smoothly through, with almost no effort.”)
From being turned away from a fancy yet utterly uncrowded restaurant for the crime of - gasp - trying to order just dessert, to nearly being trapped on a bus by a drunk woman, these misadventures added laughter and variety to an already great experience.
When you go to Vail, you expect great skiing and a great atmosphere, and you get it. Every single day I miss skiing through aspen trees in the Back Bowls, waking up overlooking the slopes, and taking in the views from the top of the mountain. It was 60 degrees in Atlanta as I wrote this. I even miss the cold.
All of that is well and good, but when I think back on this trip years from now, I’ll be thinking of the possessed GPS, the canary in a coal mine and the quite clear, but conveniently ambiguous warning signs.
The things that stick out will be what was unexpected instead of what was planned. Never be afraid to relish in the mishaps and off-kilter experiences.
After all, it’s not what went right, but what went wrong that makes a trip truly memorable.
It’s the misadventures.
Once J.R. finally arrived in Vail, there was only one thing left to do: ski.
Above, J.R. skis through fresh powder in China Bowl.
Video by M. Scott Smith.
J.R. Patten is an ultramarathon runner, backpacker, skier, and general outdoor nut. And he shows up to class at Georgia Tech from time to time.