There are no vistas I have ever seen which compare to Vail. It is a brilliant blue and white moonscape. From the top of most runs, you have the sensation of seeing to the end of the earth. It was sheer heaven for the thousands who came to Vail for its last weekend of the season, April 16-17, 2005.
Yes, many people knock Vail, but I would never be among them. It is expensive, and can get very crowded (just like in the East). But, you get your money’s worth. One instructor told us the skiing terrain is 8 miles wide, or 5,200 acres. It vies with Whistler as the largest ski resort in North America, but Whistler has more vertical. You are unlikely to run out of trails and cutoffs at Vail - I think it would take at least a week of solid skiing to sample everything.
The weekend we experienced Vail boasted the best of all conditions. It was warm and summerlike. By the afternoon, some girls were skiing in bikini halters and many men were bare-chested. I stupidly had on my usual ski suit, and lived to regret it. I tried shedding layers in the heat and bright sun, but was not very successful.
The snow was soft and forgiving, and I made it through the day without a fall. Yes, it was slushy and heavy toward the bottom, and Vail had signs suggesting you ride the lifts down after skiing at high altitudes most of the day. But, the bottom did not bother me. And, at one section, a large crowd got into the act with the traditional spring tradition of pond skimming.
The last night featured an enormous “Snoop Dogg” concert for the younger set in East Vail. (An ironic entertainer for such a wonderful, dog-friendly town, where dogs are everywhere - much to my delight). Lift tickets for the last day were only $10. A terrific way to end the season, but with more than enough snow on the slopes to easily last another month (as was the case with many of the Western resorts. Some had a slow start, but finished with strength).
My husband Charles and I started in the bowls, at his insistence. It was a wise choice. Wide, exquisite, soft moguls, and tons of variety. You could happily ski all day in the back bowls. And, don’t think you have to be an advanced skier. Many of the catwalks and wide trails are fine for beginners - much easier than the narrower trails in other parts of the mountain (although nothing appeared to get as narrow or crowded as back home). That does not knock the East; it is still some of the best training in the world. Many trails marked intermediate in Vail and other parts of the West are considered beginner in other regions. And, you don’t usually have to dodge the ice and the intense crowds you face in the smaller areas. Both Eastern and Western skiing and snowboarding compliment each other, and make for a better athlete.
Since our time at Vail was, sadly, limited, we concentrated on Tea Cup Bowl and the Blue Sky Basin in the morning. In the afternoon, after we got some of our strength back, we took the shuttle bus to Lion’s Gate and rode the Gondola. Again, to me, everything we experienced was superb. I often took cutoffs through the woods, so have no idea whether the trails were named or ranked. It really didn’t matter in such terrific conditions.
At the start we took Vista Bahn to the Mountain Top Express, with an elevation of 11,250 feet. Charles and I took the long, sumptuous catwalk around the back bowls known as Sleepytime. There were numerous cutoffs from the trail through the bowls. We also loved skiing the magnificent “Blue Sky Basin,” down from Belle’s Camp. It has some of the best views and trails at Vail. There were also people cooking their food at outdoor fireplaces at Belle’s Camp, which had a commanding view, at 11,480 feet. Visitors brought steaks, chicken, and beer, and sat in the sun, reveling in the view of the rugged mountains.
But, so much was left undone - all those back bowls with the international names - China, Siberia, Mongolia, and the newer ones - Pete’s and Earl’s bowl. It is ironic - I used to ski those bowls in the 70’s when Gerry Ford was President, and those of us in the White House press corps had the good fortune to follow him to Vail. By skiing those bowls, President Ford could say he had visited China, Siberia, and Mongolia. Sadly, President Ford is in ill health now, and rarely visits the region. But his family members do, and outdoor parks are named in honor of Gerry and Betty Ford.
After about two hours in the bowl, we took the Teacup Express back up, and had a rather long, hot traverse along the West Wall to the rustic Two Elks Lodge. Watch those traverses - they are no fun in the heat. There is a rope tow to help us lazy skiers, but it, and a few of the other lifts, were no longer in service. If the Orient Express lift had been operating, you could take that out of the bowl, and ski down to Two Elk Lodge. But, Vail wanted us to have a strenuous summer workout. At Two Elk, we joined the others in the “outdoor beach” and had a fine deli lunch. Some nice touches - hosts and hostesses handed out tissues as we entered. There were huge jugs of cold water and suntan lotion. All were needed in the strong, brilliant sun at that altitude - 11,220 feet above sea level.
After lunch we cruised down past some of the more famous old runs - Sourdough, Whiskey Jack, Northstar, and others, through to the center of Vail Village. By this time the heavy, slushy snow exhausted us. We had just flown into Denver the day before, and driven to Vail in the morning, so the stress and fatigue factor were high. Instead of skiing across, we walked to one of the free shuttle buses which interlace Vail. It took us to the West side of the village, where we staggered downhill a few blocks, and took the Eagle Bahn Gondola. This provided a dramatic, if scary, view over Vail and the Rockies. We only had time for one beautiful, magic run down, over Born Free. The big, wide, well-groomed runs reminded me of Whitetail, but were longer and less crowded.
I remembered how wonderful it was when I used to stay in the condos at Lionshead near the gondola, where you could walk a short distance to the lift. The same could be said for the condos and hotels on the Eastern side, near the center of Vail Village. They are all expensive. As is the usual rule, try to work out a package deal with the airlines or ski clubs. If you go on your own, share the condos with several people. Buy your food at the excellent nearby Safeway, and cook in. But, the last weeks of the season, you can get special deals with lodging, restaurants, and sales in all the stores. I definitely recommend Vail for those last spring weeks.
The gondola brought a flood of other memories to me. The first time I traveled there with President Ford, I was hit with a serious bout of altitude sickness. The Vail Associates threw us a fancy party at night on the top of Eagle’s Nest, and all I could do was be very sick in public! I was not alone - other members of the press corps were very sick for the first few days. Today, there are better medications to control that, if you don’t have time to get used to the altitude on your own.
There were other memories of those days. Only a few of us in the press corps could ski well enough to keep up with Ford, and I was one of them. Special guards from Vail were hired to protect the President, and they did not know the rest of us well. Several times they actually pushed me off a catwalk into steep, snow covered woods, as I tried to do my job. In recent years, I was told President Ford said (with good nature) that I was responsible for all the falls he took.
Vail has changed a great deal since the days I first skied here. It is much larger and more expansive, as well as expensive. The town is more crowded, and we met at least three local families who say they moved to other towns to find a more comfortable lifestyle. They still visit Vail for at least 10 days a year, thanks to a special pass which allows them to ski at Vail and a few of the other major areas in the region (Breckenridge, Keystone, and Beaver Creek are all owned by Vail Resorts Management Company).
Vail is predominantly a young town, as evidenced by the thousands of twenty-somethings attending the concerts and bars after the slopes closed. But, I was extremely pleased to see a number of retired professionals doing what I hope to do one day - serve as ski hosts or hostesses on the mountains. In exchange for one day of volunteer work a week (which often includes giving ski tours), they earn a free ski pass. I asked one of the 70 year old ladies what their title is. She said, “we call ourselves street walkers!” So let’s hear it for all the tourists, skiers, snowboarders, and street walkers of Vail. They could not have chosen a finer place.
When she wasn't skiing, Connie Lawn covered the White House as a reporter since 1968.
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