The summer heat and humidity have taken over in Washington, DC. Thoughts of lovely crystallized water vapors falling and gracing the ground seem far away. It’s probably at these moments that I think more about skiing than any other time (you always want what you can’t have). I also have a business trip to Denver planned for the next day and I’m currently deciding to call my travel agent and fire him. How can you plan a trip to Denver in the middle of summer?!
So as I think about Colorado and stare at a trail map of Jackson Hole, I decide to drown my sorrow in a project someone asked me to write earlier this year.
I had the privilege of skiing (for the first time) three of the biggest mountains in North America: Steamboat Springs, CO; Jackson Hole, WY; and Whistler, BC. Now I can’t tell you how big they are in ranks of all ski mountains, but with Steamboat having the smallest vertical of the three at 3,951 feet, they all are in the neighborhood of the biggest.
I found all three mountains to have many pluses and minuses. I’ll try to cover as many as possible to help you make a decision on where to go this year. So print this out, grab a lemonade, and go sit in that kiddie pool and dream that you just fell into deep powder.
Flying at anytime nowadays is a hassle no matter where you’re going. Flying into heavy ski areas can be even worse. Jackson Hole and Steamboat Springs are adventures unto themselves. Both towns have very tiny airports serviced by few carriers (normally just the big guys like American and United). And the flights are very limited. They only fly in and out through major connecting cities (Dallas and Chicago), and only seem to be open between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
You will also need to be prepared to not get your luggage on time. At both airports I had members of my party not get their luggage with their arrival. We learned that the airlines would hold back luggage because of weight restrictions. The airlines will typically get them on the next flights out and will courier them to where you are staying. We were lucky both times and received our luggage that night. However, if there is a big snowstorm, you may be riding down the slopes on rented long johns (perish the thought, yuck!)
Flying to Whistler was less uneventful. You will typically fly into Vancouver airport. The more adventuresome (i.e. those who really like to drive) can fly into Seattle. It’s about a 2-hour drive to Whistler from Vancouver, longer from Seattle. Be prepared either way, as you are going into another country. If you don’t have a passport, I suggest you get one. I’ve read recent articles that state the Canadian government will now only accept passports or raised seals on birth certificates. Anything but the passport can get tricky. There’s far less hassle, it’s easier to keep up with, and it’s easier to replace.
Although arriving at Vancouver and getting through Customs was relatively easy, beware of the trip home. I travel quite often and have gotten my time down at the airport to arriving one hour before I leave. After standing in the line to check in (which I started to regret because I thought I was pushing it), I had to take my ski gear through to Customs, through the duty-free shop (one last chance for that cheap carton of cigarettes and tax free liquor), up the escalator, over to the baggage drop off, and then hope that I found the correct baggage belt to drop it on (luckily I did).
After that, there was still the $10 CN fee that is charged to go back to America. With the exchange rate it turned out to be only $6.45 American. However, I was a little offended that I had to pay a tax to get back to my homeland. One other note, once this process begins, there is no turning back. You are forced to continue on through this process, so rent a luggage cart out front.
Once you get to these areas, the need for a car is minimal, depending on where you stay. Jackson Hole and Steamboat (I swear they are virtually the same place in different states) have bus systems that take you from the towns to the slopes. Or you can stay slopeside at either mountain. Both mountains have that cowboy charm in town and the hopping life of bars that you can get in any good ski town (think Breckenridge, slopeside).
Whistler doesn’t really have a town: it is a town. The entire environment was built like the European-style villages you read about. There are two mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb) and they both have their own interconnected villages. Everything is within walking range. There is a centralized grocery and liquor store that was a 5-minute walk from where we stayed at the base of the mountain.
There are many options available to you at all three mountains. If you want to stay slopeside, call the central Mountain Reservations number. This typically is the most expensive, but I’ve read that you can get great rates last minute (I have yet to experience that).
If you want to go cheaper and stay further away, the towns of Jackson and Steamboat Springs have many local hotels that did not look bad on the outside. There weren’t many chain hotels, but the hotels there had the chain hotel looks. Whistler has every price range, depending on how far you want to walk to the slopes or take the bus. I stayed at with local “friends of friends” for all but Whistler, so I came out cheap for both trips.
One of the best hotels I heard of was the Rabbit Ears Hotel in Steamboat Springs. We had friends go to Steamboat 3 days before us and they stayed at the Rabbit Ears. We thought this funny but it was the only place they could get. However, they were pleasantly surprised. For $100 a night, they were on the edge of town and walking distance to many of the pubs and restaurants. Every room had a view of the mountains behind it, and jacuzzi tubs in the bathrooms. The staff was very friendly (they let us park there 4 days later as we went on a snowmobile trip, no charge, no tow).
There is only one real reason you would go to any of these mountains, and it’s to ski! At this point, all three mountains become totally different. They are geared towards different groups of skiers, although any level skier can find plenty to do to amuse themselves. I’ll give each mountain a little spotlight of its own.
Steamboat Springs is known for one thing: Champagne Powder! And I have to admit, I found a little bit of that. After a 10” drop the night before, we went to the least crowded part of the mountain and drank the powder like it was Sunday brunch.
Ever seen the Warren Miller film with Billy the Kidd skiing powder through the Aspens? That’s where I was. Although I didn’t have the exact same conditions as Billy, for a guy raised on East Coast skiing I was in heaven. The aspens were well spaced and they held much of the snow that had been gathering all year. This is in an area that is all blacks and blues so it keeps a lot of novices away. I used to say if you can ski the ice coast you can ski anywhere. I still believe that, but I do have more respect for true powder skiers. It’s not as easy as I thought.
The other side of Steamboat is loaded with many lifts and people. More of the lunch spots are on that side, along with the Gondola. There are also too many lifts. Steamboat is not a mountain that rises straight to the top -; you must take the Gondola up, ski down to another lift, and take another lift up. While this doesn’t sound too bad, the congestion at the Gondola top can be quite frustrating at the beginning of the day. Your best bet is to get to the top and go to the backside of the mountain. There is a huge bowl that is not that crowded. I even found a huge jump (about 15’ high into 4’ of powder). It’s also by a ski lift so you can show off or get laughed at (I seem to get this feeling I’m 13 years old and invincible when I get on these big mountains. Is that right for a 32 year old?)
Steamboat is known for having lots of jumps. Many Olympians call Steamboat home and practice here (ever heard of a guy named Johnny Mosely?). Steamboat has a terrain park that is built for every level. And we’re not talking about just any half pipe -; they had one area with small jumps, rails and picnic tables for jumping and grinding. They also had a humongous jump for complete aerial complexity. There were guys jumping (on skis, mind you, I didn’t see one board on this huge jump) pulling off all the tricks you see in the Olympics and the X-games. I sat and watched these guys for about an hour, thoroughly entertained.
Jackson Hole is a completely different mountain. It’s not as famous and family-friendly as Steamboat. Jackson Hole developed its name and reputation as the mountain for the extreme free skier. And if that’s you, it doesn’t disappoint. With 4,139 vertical feet, there is plenty of space to roam.
The green runs are mostly at the bottom of the mountain and serve the purpose of alerting you you’re almost at the bottom. The blues and blacks are spread throughout the mountain, but if you’re not skiing blacks, don’t go to the mountain left. Here there are 3 bowls that you must ski through to get anywhere to a blue. Once there, it’s going to take you back to the easier side of the mountain. But don’t become complacent. It’s more of a traverse than a trail (only about 4 feet wide), and you would be in extreme danger if you fell down the side.
If you want to get really extreme, Jackson Hole has opened up the backcountry in the last 2 years. Access is limited to a few gates and there are many danger signs at these gates. If you want to go backcountry, you go at your own risk. The backcountry is not patrolled and if you hit an avalanche, you’re pretty much dead. However, if you do want to go backcountry and you’re a bit of a novice, guided tours are available for a fee. The guides will take you to the same areas you could go on your own, but people will know you’re out there and you’ll have someone that is more experienced taking you to the less dangerous areas. Even though you have a guide, there is a still lot of risk.
Jackson has few options to the top of the mountain. There is a gondola that goes to the middle top of the mountain. This is the mode to take for warm-up runs and for the intermediate skier. From there, you have access to all the areas of the mountain except the most extreme. If you want to go to the most extreme sections of the mountain, you’ll need to take the Tram. It rises to the very top of the mountain, giving you access to the entire vertical and the most extreme skiing the mountain has to offer (you should end with the infamous Hobacks if you go this way for some of the best views and skiing). Be warned, you will feel like cattle as you are herded through the gates and stuffed onto the Tram. If that’s not enough trauma for you, when the tram goes over the crevice with the rocks sticking out, the wind picks up and you begin to pray to any god you can find.
Whistler is a combination of these two mountains and a whole lot more, especially when you throw in Blackcomb that sits directly beside it. Both mountains are run by Intrawest [which also owns Snowshoe Mountain Resort], share a lift ticket, and are connected by only a 100-foot walk between gondolas at the base of the mountains. Plus, you could fit Jackson Hole and Steamboat into both mountains and you still would have more terrain to explore!
Like Steamboat, Whistler does not have a lift straight to the top. The gondola (there is only one choice to start) will take you to mid-mountain and then to the crest. From there, you have access to the rest of the mountain. There are lifts that go to different peaks all over. The left side lift will go to an area that has wide open greens, blues, and blacks. Feel frisky; take a ride over (literally) some 15-foot couloirs. Or if you are not frisky, ski by them. It’s part of the natural scenery that is just amazing.
When I visited Whistler, it was in April and spring skiing was definitely in effect. So much so that Blackcomb was closed and the bottom third of Whistler was already melted, making it obviously unskiable but open to mountain biking. I skied for two days on Whistler Mountain and never got to see the whole thing. I take that back -; I saw most of it but didn’t come close to skiing all of it.
Now that you’ve been overloaded with information, where do you begin to plan your ski trip? I ski every year with a group of about 10 people. There are variances to the last 2 or 3 each year and we need diversity. Everybody likes to ski and everybody likes to party. However, both levels of skiing and partying are beginner to advanced. So when I look at the overall mountain, what offers everything for everybody?
If you’ve never been to Steamboat, you have to put it on your list. The “Champagne Powder” is definitely something you must experience. It’s so good that they even trademarked the name. The bottom of the lifts have some great apres ski bars, from rowdy bands getting the crowd pumped up to small bars more quiet and serene. Steamboat was nice but the overall consensus of my group is not set on going back. It was a great experience, but now I’ve had the experience.
Jackson Hole is not quite the place to take the group yet. While there are plenty of runs that we all could ski, it is still a mountain for the hard core. The Mangy Moose bar at the bottom of the hill is the main attraction for apres ski. While the nachos were good, there was not a lot of atmosphere (I was there over a weekend) and the local town was not loaded with excitement. I will go back to Jackson Hole with the more advanced few of the group. Our ideal apres ski is drinking a few beers, tuning the skis for the next day, and watching Warren Miller videos.
Whistler has the best of both worlds. It has lots of variety for skiing and any type of apres ski you want (although I don’t think the movie theatre was showing the Warren Miller flicks). You’ve got bars, nightclubs, restaurants, the whole works. Plus you’re in Canada and the dollar is pretty strong. With the recent economy, that’s a strong benefit. The flights are typically more expensive, but I’ve learned that you’ll get the savings back once your there. Unless something goes wrong, the Ski Gang (we’re trying to come up with a better name) is going there this year.