Connie Lawn, Charles Sneiderman, and Kathryn Whiteman went skiing in the Colorado Rockies in late March and early April, 2012. They contributed the following reports from their trip.
We are now in Vail, Colorado, and it is as glorious as it was the many times I have been here before. Common wisdom says this has been a bad year, and the snowpack is low here and in most other snow resorts in the world. But the trails are wide and groomed, the sun is shining, and the weather is warm. Anyone who is here is truly fortunate!
Our visit is helped by the fact that we are staying in a luxury condominium and conference center called Antlers at Vail. Our suite is incredible - modern, spotless, and large. We have two Master bedrooms and two smaller ones with two single beds each. The condo is large enough for two couples who are always on their computers, a large, friendly dog, and more friends, if they choose to visit. There is also a large kitchen, a balcony overlooking Vail, a whirlpool bath, fireplaces (for next winter), and big flat screen televisions. Outside they have baths and hot tubs. And they knew I was coming - there is unlimited coffee, tea, and hot cocoa in the lounge. There are also newspapers and dog biscuits for the dog guests. Is there a correlation here?
Antlers is within easy walking distance of the Lionshead Mall and gondolas. There is plenty to do in the village, after the skiing. There were many people savoring the sun in the outdoor restaurants, and hundreds were strolling through the Mall or visiting the restaurants. Vail is approaching its 50th Anniversary and has added features (it coincides with my 50 years skiing, but more about that later). Vail will soon have a new gondola which will replace the Vista Bahn Express. The 10 passengers can zip up to Mid Vail in 7.5 minutes. If they are too jaded to look at the scenery, there is Wi-Fi access in the car. They can tweet, but they may miss some views! What is this world coming to? There are also heated and cushioned seats - definitely not needed in this warm weather!
Vail also has a new Mid-Vail Restaurant, called “10.” It honors the 10th Mountain Division. Many of the returning soldiers founded the top ski resorts in the nation, including Vail. This is timely, at a period more people are paying attention to wounded warriors and all those who serve.
We have not yet hit the slopes, and are looking forward to that tomorrow. It will be the first major test of my hip since I broke it here a year ago. I want to emphasize I did not actually break it skiing. I was standing on the mountain, flopped over, and hit the hip in a sensitive spot. I heard a crack, but could not believe I had done serious damage. So I skied down with a broken hip and limped around on it for two days, using a ski pole as a crutch. No wonder I messed it up. This year I will be wearing special hip protector pads from New Zealand. They have helped me so far, and hope they will not be tested again.
One other point on negative events. As we arrived in Colorado, wildfires were lashing parts of this magnificent state. Some people and animals died, and homes and forests were burned. The flames were fanned by winds gusting as high as 90 miles per hour. We could see the billowing smoke and smell it from the airport. In fact, we flew into Denver in gusts of 70 mph. I was terrified, and did a lot of praying. But those pilots of Southwest Airlines did an excellent job, and I am grateful to live to ski another day.
This trip to Vail is a wonderful family visit and I have the opportunity to share the skiing and writing with my husband and my daughter in law. So here are the contributions from Kathryn and Charles:
Charles and I started out taking the Eagle Bahn Gondola up from Lionshead. Figuring it would be slushy at the bottom, we worked our way across the top of the mountain, sticking mostly to blue and green runs, to Mid-Vail. We stopped at the new 10th restaurant which was opened in December 2011 and dedicated to the US Army 10th Mountain Division; it has a display of the white long wooden skis that they trained on and used during World War II.
From there we took the Mountaintop Express chairlift to Patrol Headquarters to meet Henry, the mountain rescue dog. Henry, when he is on duty but not actively on a rescue mission, stays with his handler at Patrol Headquarters in the offices down one level from Buffalo’s restaurant. We waited for a flood of little girls “oohing” and “awwing” to move off so we could get a look at the huge golden retriever and give him a scratch on the ears before we left him to his nap. On the floor of the office like that, he looked like your average big, lazy dog, but his handler told us that he can sniff out avalanche victims through six feet of snow. Across from the office is “Henry’s Hut,” a yurt that is open to the public with indoor and outdoor seating for tired, hungry, cold, or thirsty skiers to take a break. The inside is decorated with poster-size, framed photos of Henry in action.
After our brief visit with Henry, we worked our way back over and took the Wildwood Express lift to make Lost Boy our last long run for the afternoon. To our surprise, we found the best snow of the day in this long, gentle, wide, sweeping, and nearly empty trail. The views were spectacular, the sky was blue, and it was a fantastic way to finish off our skiing before dropping down Eagle’s Nest Ridge to take the gondola back down to the bottom. We downloaded with a snowboard instructor and her students, and she confirmed for us that it was a much better idea in these conditions to get in one more run at the top and download, instead of trying to ski the slush at the bottom. Yes, we passed some patches of dirt and ice on our travels, and yes, it got a bit slushy and sticky by late afternoon, but it was still a fun and a beautiful day of skiing.
On our second foray out, we made our way across the top to the Mountaintop Express lift. Though we knew that Blue Sky Basin was already closed, Charles wanted me to at least see it, since I had never made it all the way over to the east side of Vail before. We followed Timberline Catwalk across the top of the back bowls and then down through a fragrant pine and blue spruce forest to the Sourdough Express lift. Timberline took us over to Two Elk Lodge and a beautiful view of Blue Sky Basin. It was delightfully quiet there in late afternoon and on a narrow run through the forest like Tin Pants, the smell of the trees just envelops you as you glide by. Of course, in this weather, my gliding was occasionally interrupted by a soft patch of snow that would reach up and grab my skis, making it feel like someone had just put the brakes on.
After passing the bottom of the Sourdough lift, we came out of the trees to find a mid-mountain trail map. Just before we reached it, Charles pointed out the infamous spot where Connie fell and fractured her hip exactly one year ago. We paused to marvel at both the fact that she refused a ski patrol sled and skied down to the Riva Bahn Express chairlift to download and that she is back skiing this year. As she herself would say, she’s a tough broad.
Once we reached the map, a very helpful Vail Mountain Host stationed there suggested with a Tennessee drawl that we not try to cut back across the bottom of the hill on the Northface Catwalk because the cover on the bottom of Riva Ridge was giving out. Instead, he recommended that we either work our way back the way we came across the top of the mountain, or that we ski down a bit further, download on the Riva Bahn chair to Golden Peak Village and take the free shuttle back to Lionshead. We chose the latter to save our legs for the next day and commemorate Connie’s path.
We were not alone and there was a short downloading line including a sitskier; this is the first time either of us have seen a sitskier downloading. Normally they use a safety strap to hook the monoski to the back of the chair, since there is no room to close the safety bar. This sitskier went down solo with no safety strap. We guessed that he was probably a Wounded Warrior and was used to coping with far greater risks than this. The bus stop at Golden Peak (about 50 feet from the bottom of the lift) was filled with skiers, boarders and those in street clothes. We all squeezed on the bus, equipment and all, for the short ride through Vail Village and back to Lionshead.
On the third day, Connie and Dan had some great morning runs in Vail - a great way to end the ski season. Katie and Charles went to Beaver Creek. Katie writes: “Unfortunately for ski conditions, it was the warmest day yet, and the snow was sticky and slow. In order to stay where conditions were best, we took the Centennial Express Lift and continued to Cinch Express Lift to the highest summit at Beaver (11,400 feet) and stayed around the Red Buffalo, Mystic Island, Booth Gardens area, taking the Drink of Water Lift several times before downloading on Centennial, as was recommended by a mountain guide. When we got off at the bottom around 3:00 pm, we were met by a lovely woman in chef’s whites carrying a tray of homemade, warm chocolate chip cookies. Even on a warm day, few things are as satisfying as a warm, gooey cookie before your skis are even off your feet.”
That concludes our great adventure this season. Pray for a good winter and for a quick return next year!
Vail is always glorious, and I have had some of the best times of my life here (and some of the worse, when I broke my hip just standing around last year!). But I skied again this season, enjoying the sunshine, the well groomed trails, and the incredible vistas! I have had the good fortune to ski in many areas of the world, including Mt. Blanc in France and in New Zealand. None of them command the views of Vail. I was happy to return to some of my favorite trails, including Simba, Born Free, and that scenic cruising traverse from the Avanti Lift (number two chair), past the rugged, majestic peaks, and back to the Eagle Bahn Gondola. It is called Eagles Nest Ridge. Yes, it is better to download from there in this record warm weather. The bottom part of the mountain is too soft. I did ski down the first day - that was enough. But I hate to miss skiing across the little bridge at the end - that is always a treat.
If you don’t want to ski, there is a fun park for young at heart at the Eagle Bahn. It is called Adventure Ridge, and includes a giant trampoline, biking on the snow, and special kids snowmobiles. There is also snow tubing. And for superb dining, the family ate at Bistro Fourteen. We rode the Gondola up, and it is truly dramatic to see the lights of Vail below us as we descended. You do not need a lift ticket to enjoy those facilities in the late afternoon and evening.
For lodging, we stayed at the Antlers Vail; one of the most luxurious and comfortable condos I have ever enjoyed. General Manager Rob LeVine is a special person - warm, funny, and conscientious. I am told he is a legend in Vail. As I am writing from our seventh floor room, I can look up at the mountains and ski slopes (sadly, with melting snow) and down at a fast flowing mountain stream. There is also a warm outdoor swimming pool, and two hot tubs with powerful jets. The pools look like part of the mountains, with giant rocks placed in them for dramatic effect.
Condos are always pricy, but the cost is reduced if you share it with a number of people. We had 4 adults, a big friendly dog, and 4 computers. Since we are all workaholics, the free WiFi was essential. Also in the condos, we were able to make runs to the well-stocked Safeway and prepare our own food, although we did visit a few restaurants. The Antlers staff will run to the store and shop for you, if you give them a list.
For ski rentals, we have been absolutely delighted with Ski Butlers. They meet you at your hotel to bring and fit your equipment, and take it back when you tell them where and when to meet. Or you can leave the equipment with a responsible person, and Ski Butlers will pick it up. This time we used Rossignol skis and boots or Dynastar skis. They were rocker bottom skis, which are said to float on powder - when there is snow. They were also excellent on slush and kept us from catching our tips.
This is a big year for Ski Butlers - an enterprise founded by clever young people who love the snow sports industry. They are one of seven finalists for the 2012 Dream Big Small Business of the Year Award. They will join the other finalists in a business summit in Washington, DC in late May. We wish them the best of luck. Ski Butlers serves over 30 major resorts in the West and British Columbia. They have grown quickly since they were started by college students in 2004.
When she wasn't skiing, Connie Lawn covered the White House as a reporter since 1968.