Holiday bells are chiming and everyone in the Mid-Atlantic is beginning to pull out their skis, put on their ski boots, and stand outside in the 50-degree weather and start the snow dance. Apparently the warm winter of last year had inspired many of us to begin this process before Thanksgiving because the first week of December, Washington DC received 6 inches of snow! Not only was it working here, but also out in Colorado, where the first ski slope opened on October 2nd! So with all this snow, what’s a travel weary road warrior like myself supposed to do? Plan a ski trip of course!
Right after Thanksgiving, I pulled out my ski boots and put them on. You really should prep your boots for the ski season by wearing them around the house so they begin to adjust to your feet again. I found this in a magazine article and showed it to my wife. This gave me the excuse I needed to walk around the house with my boots on. Even though I got crazy looks from my wife, my feet would thank me a week later when I began to ski.
The week before my trip, we were lucky in DC to get 6 inches of snow. This allowed the local areas to open up for the season. Why wait for Colorado when I can get a day in here? My wife and I went to Ski Liberty on the first Saturday they were open. Now normally this early, the conditions at Liberty are very sub par. However, the new snow they received (and lots of snowmaking) let them have conditions that we don’t normally see until February! The front side of the mountain was open and only two runs on the back. That was enough to get some turns in.
My wife is a good intermediate skier but always lacks the confidence to just hit the slopes. We took some green runs on the front to warm up. The crowds were really minimal so the lift lines were short and the front was not skied out by 11 a.m. (like normally happens). We went to the backside and took the blue down. Liberty had done a great job of getting good coverage, as there were no brown spots on the open runs. Only on front side black did I see any ice patches and they were easy to navigate for any experienced East Coast skier.
After a few runs, I helped my wife with her technique and taught her a few lessons I learned last year from my ski instructor at Steamboat (Otto would have been proud). She began to get more comfortable and worked herself up to get more daring: she wanted to take a jump. At the bottom of the green run, there was a small jump. I went down and spotted for her so she wouldn’t hit any other skiers. She got some speed, hit the jump, and caught some air. Ok it was very small air (I think she got one whole ski off the ground), but this is a huge improvement for her. With 4 good hours in, we decided we should celebrate with a beer at the bar.
With one good session of turns in, I flew to Denver on Monday. I met up with a friend there and we drove to his condo at Vail. I had never skied Vail before so this was very exciting for me. The drive up I-70 from Denver is a gorgeous drive. However, I did not understand how great it could be until I drove over Vail Pass right at sunset. The sun bounced off the mountains and peaked around corners, illuminating the ski in an orange-red hue that almost made me cry. This trip was getting good.
Vail is a huge mountain and has lots of everything for everybody -; as long as you have the money to buy it. Everything you’ve heard about Vail is true. It’s expensive, it has too many rich and famous (or rich and snotty) people, and it’s probably one of the biggest and best mountains out there. It’s also a place that you should go with a local or you may wind up somewhere you don’t want to be. Most articles you read say you need a local to find the powder stashes. Vail’s base was already at 40 inches but they had not received any fresh stuff for about 3 weeks. There were no powder stashes to be had, but my guide took me on the GS tour.
It was a Tuesday when we went and there were virtually no crowds. Since Lenny (my personal Vail local) has skied there since he was a kid, he knew which runs would be the most fun. We set out to hit the runs that are normally crowded, but today, we almost had them to ourselves. We started out on “Born Free,” hitting big GS turns all the way down this blue run. I didn’t know the name of this run when we started but it felt like I was free the whole way down this run. The fall line shifted and you just had to ride it, not ski it.
We headed to the Vista Bahn Express and then the Avanti Express, which opened us up for some blacks. We skied some great ones like “Look Ma” and “Pickeroon.” We headed to the Mountaintop Express and skied down “Gandy Dancer” and “Northstar”. Lenny was really in shape and I was still getting my ski legs (plus trying to get oxygen as I wasn’t quite adjusted to the altitude). I suggested we head back to the Blue Sky Basin area, as I really wanted to see that before I keeled over. So we went to the Back Bowls to work our way to the Basin. Sundown Bowl gave us our first view of Blue Sky Basin. The pictures are nice but it is a sight to behold. We then worked through China Bowl, Siberia Bowl, and Mongolia Bowl. We were finally at the base of Blue Sky and I was all but falling over with exhaustion. I called uncle and said we needed to head back. This was no easy task as we had about 2 hours to get back to the condo.
We skied back across the whole Vail range again. When we got to the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola for the last run, I couldn’t do it. I took the Gondola down and told Lenny I’d meet him at the bottom. On the ride down, I looked out and soaked in as much of Vail as I could. I decided I would probably not be back anytime soon. Even though it is a great mountain, it is an expensive place to ski ($50 lift ticket on a discounted buddy pass, $25 ski rentals after 50% off, lunch for 2 was $50 and I’m still hungry).
I spent the night in Dillon at the Holiday Inn. I used my frequent stay points because I had to save some money. For dinner I went to the Dam Brewery with a college friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. She had suggested this as one of the better breweries in the area and more of a local’s place. I had the Dam potpie and she had the Dam salad. Washed down with a couple of Dam Pale Ales. The Dam bill was only 30 bucks for both of us. My decision to stay away from Vail was more solidified.
In search of more savings, the next day I decided to ski somewhere a little cheaper. I also wanted to find some snow and a storm was starting creep in over the continental divide. Put the two together and you have the Loveland ski area. Loveland is more of the locals’ mountain and if you’ve ever driven up I-70, you’ve seen it as you passed through the Eisenhower tunnel. Loveland boasts the World’s highest quad chair at 12,700 feet. Plus the lift ticket was only $29. I got on the lift just as the storm was starting to creep in.
Loveland is nowhere as big as Vail, but it has some great above tree line skiing. Being at the Continental Divide also makes it one of the coldest places in the Rockies to ski so make sure to bundle up. I warmed up on “Richard’s Run” and then took a ride down “Nix Nox.” “Nix Nox” was a bump run and the sun had not yet hit it, so it was very hard packed and icy. I felt like I was in the Mid-Atlantic.
The snow began to fall lightly and I took a ride up Chair 6. Even though the Indian casinos are fairly new to Colorado, all of these runs are named after gambling. I did “Blackjack” and then went for the “Straight Flush.” Feeling lucky, I went for the “Royal Flush” and then rolled the dice and decided to head to Chair 9 which is the World’s highest Quad Chair. The storm had really rolled in and at the top I could barely see 5 feet in front of me. I found some packed powder conditions at the top and my snowblades were not well equipped to be skiing these conditions. I just took it easy down the mountain and just soaked in the joy of skiing something close to powder. The small storm only gave us about an inch that day, but it was nice to be skiing in the snowflakes.
I skied around to Chair 4 and found some great little blue chutes. I skied the North Chutes and then skied the black Fail Safe Trees. Back up Chair 4, I took Sunburst Bowl over to Tickler Gulch and wound up at the bottom of Chair 8. Ironically, I had skied around I-70 and was facing the base area, just on the other side of the highway. I took the black run, “The Face,” down to the bottom and to the tunnel that goes under the highway back to the base. My legs were still screaming from skiing so hard the day before that I decided it was enough. I was driving back to Denver that night and I could really use a hot tub. Loveland may not be as big as the other mountains in Colorado, but I was definitely happy with my ski day. If you’re into skiing many different mountains, put this one on your list.
Two days later I flew to San Jose, CA in search of my next adventure. This entire trip was “work related” so I had to do some tasks in San Jose. But that night, we drove up toward Tahoe and Kirkwood resort. One of my co-workers has friends near there who own the St. George Hotel in tiny Volcano, CA, population 100. It was population 99 but someone had a baby that year so they marked through 99 and wrote 100 on the sign.
There was a storm coming in and Kirkwood was supposed to get some snow that night. They received 10 inches of fresh and we were all excited. Volcano is about 45 minutes from Kirkwood so we loaded up. Kirkwood had not received any snow for about 3 weeks so the entire area was buzzing. We quickly discovered that the 10 inches were mainly at the top of the mountain as the bottom runs were a little icy and very hard packed. We had some skiers in our group that had not skied in a few years so we stayed on blues and away from the top of the mountain.
The wind was really blowing by noon and it was difficult to stand around outside. At the top of Chair 11, I was waiting for part of our group. While standing there, the wind was blowing so hard, it began to push me at about 10 mph. My group finally arrived and we headed off the top of this mountain as soon as we could. Snow pellets were hitting my face and I got hit once by a chunk of ice/rock in the head. We tried to ski lower and headed to the Snowkirk chair that we had not skied yet. While riding up the chair, it consistently stopped. At one point, a huge gust of wind came through and the chair blew backwards and we were almost parallel to the ground. This chair had no safety bar and for a split second, we were holding on for dear life. At the top of this chair we discovered we had gotten off on the bunny slope chair.
With the wind blowing so hard and our near-death experience, we decided it was time for lunch and headed in, going as fast as we could and zipping past all the fallen newbies (safely of course). Kirkwood is an old-style resort in that it has only enough amenities to make it a resort. The food in the restaurants is very much in line with low quality sandwiches and lots of frozen, twice fried foods. After eating, we felt bloated and nauseous. It didn’t matter for skiing though, as the wind had become so bad that they closed the mountain.
We headed back to Volcano where we were in for a special treat. The St. George Hotel, even though it is in such a tiny place, has built up a great reputation among the locals and adventurous dining clientele from Sacramento (only an hour away). Mark and Tracy Berkner bought the hotel 5 years ago and remodeled it with nice rooms, bed and breakfast style, and set up up a dining room and banquet space for bigger parties. The hotel also has the only bar in Volcano. On this particular Saturday, the town was having their annual Scots Walk, which ends at the bar for celebrating. Here we learned of the local tradition of drinking Moose Milk, a shot made up of bourbon, sugar, and cream. You must wear the moose antlers while doing the shot and the whole bar begins the chant of “moose, moose, moose, moose.” Take my advice, don’t do more than one shot.
Dinner that night was head and shoulders above our sandwiches at Kirkwood. In fact, it was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Mark is a classically trained chef and his food is what has made the St. George Hotel the success that it is. Since we were special guests, he treated us to a 6-course meal of his choosing. We were not disappointed. Butternut Squash bisque, Cajun-spiced prawns with vegetable spring rolls, seared lamb with caramelized carrots, and a crème brulee that was to die for. Tracy was a gracious host and paired the food with locally made wines. They both gave us special treatment and made us feel at home. As I watched them throughout the weekend, I discovered it wasn’t just because they knew someone in our party. They treated everyone like this. Guys, if you ever head out to Kirkwood with your significant other and don’t mind staying 45 minutes away, take them to the St. George. They’ll get that bed and breakfast feel that women love so much and you’ll get the local hangout feel that doesn’t feel like a bed and breakfast. There are not many places you can get the best of both worlds.
But this article is about skiing and the best was yet to come. That night, the wind had a definite benefit for Kirkwood. It blew in 20-26 inches of new fresh powder. When this type of snow comes in, the roads to Kirkwood (and all of Tahoe for that matter) become treacherous. There are plenty of crews working to clear the roads, but the Highway Patrol sets up stations that require you to have a 4 wheel drive with snow tires or tire chains. If you don’t have chains, there is a local entrepreneur there to sell you the chains and put them on for you.
Of our group, only myself and my buddy Rodney were left to ski as the others had to go and catch a plane. Without restrictions, we knew it was black diamond day. My best day ever was at Kirkwood when I skied in powder up to my chest. This was my second best day, even though the powder was only to my knees. We started up the Snowkirk chair, yes the bunny slope chair we had last skied the day before. But this was for a warm-up and the other lifts would have meant traversing uphill. I’d much rather ski downhill so this was the solution.
We skied to the Reut chair which put us in some nice black powder runs and gave us some great off shoots into the trees. This was where the powder stash was. Plus the trees were not so close together so you could get some good speed and really feel the powder flow under your feet. We then took the “Wagon Trail” run, which is a gully with 15-foot high walls on either side. Hit this trail top to bottom and it feels like the water rides at Great Splash, except the water is frozen.
We discovered that Kirkwood had these gullies all over and they proved to be the most fun of the day. “Stump Run,” “Look Out Janek,” and “The Drain” were the most fun of these gullies. Other great runs to hit are “Shotgun” and “Conestoga,” which are some great blacks with enormous rock faces that you can ski in between. Think the Warren Miller movies on a small scale and not as steep. By this time, it was 3 o’clock and we challenged ourselves to see how many runs we could get in before last chair at 4. We got 4 good runs and hit our last chair at 3:55 p.m. Last run, where do we go? Back to the “Wagon Trail” for another gully run. We sat at the bar and had a beer to celebrate a gorgeous ski day. Ullr had been very good to us.
The best ski week of my life was now over. I had hit 4 different resorts on 5 ski days in a week’s time. And they were from sea to shining sea! Ok, mountain range to mountain range across the country but you know what I mean. I can only sit back now, look at my collection of ski maps again, and watch the Weather Channel searching for storms. How can I top this week? I’m not certain but I’m sure gonna try.