In early fall, the ritual begins. We inventory our equipment, comb through the equipment issue of Ski Magazine, and maybe watch a ski film or two to put us in the mood. We also start to ask ourselves questions. Where should we ski on weekends? Should we buy a season pass? How many ski days will we log? Last but not least, we begin looking at the calendar and plan the big trip. The big trip will be the apogee of the season, and everything that skiing ought to be about: big vertical, face shots in untracked powder, and good times galore with friends and family.
But where and when should we go? The choices for the Washington area are mind-boggling. The area’s three major airports make it a snap to fly anywhere in North America. Even ski destinations in Europe are not that hard to get to. Closer to home, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine offer world-class slopes less than a day’s drive away. Over the years, I have experimented with different approaches to planning the big trip and think I have finally come up with a decent methodology. It’s not a “one-size fits all” approach, but rather, a loose collection of “lessons learned” over time.
Snow: Skiing/Snowboarding depends on snow -; a point often overlooked by people planning ski trips. We get so hung up about dates, price, and location that we forget why we’re doing this in the first place.
I remember booking a mid-January ski trip to Europe in October once and agonizing months ahead of time over the crappy snow conditions there. Fortunately, once I arrived, it started snowing and terrain began to open up quickly. In the future, I may not be so lucky. If you must book a trip for the early season (late December/early January), consider heading somewhere with a robust snowmaking system. Many New England resorts fall into this category, including Killington, Mt. Snow, Okemo, Sunday River, and Stratton. Killington’s legendary system allows it to open as early as October during some years and stay open into May. Seventy percent of its 1,182 acres of ski terrain is covered by snowmaking.
In the West, water restrictions and endemic drought conditions often mean lackluster snowmaking. Guns cover only 33% of Vail’s slopes. Park City Mountain in Utah can only boast snowmaking on 15% of its slopes. Whistler only makes snow on 7% of its terrain. Anyone who traveled to Whistler in January of last season knows how warm weather or drought can spell disaster for ski resorts with limited snowmaking. For skiers who enjoy the West, several Lake Tahoe area resorts possess world-class snowmaking systems, including Heavenly, which boasts 69% coverage, and Northstar, with 50%. The Tahoe area also receives over 360 inches of natural snow.
Europe has a terrible reputation for snowmaking. The Alps also suffer from Mid-Atlantic style thaws and often receive very little snow until mid January. What is more, because of environmental concerns and high-energy costs, many European resorts have only installed guns on critical, low altitude access trails. Hence, early season skiing can be iffy. Nonetheless, some resorts defy conventional wisdom. Schladming and Hauser Kaibling in Austria have systems that rival those found in the Northeast and as a consequence, host early season World Cup events. Other European resorts that offer a wide-range of high altitude, “snow-sure” terrain include Courchevel 1850 in France, Zermatt in Switzerland, and Solden in Austria.
(Note: Solden recently experienced a tragic accident. A helicopter dropped a concrete block on one of its high-altitude gondolas, killing nine tourists and damaging the cable car. Before booking a Solden package, check with the resort to see how this accident might affect access to higher-elevation terrain.)
February typically yields the best snow throughout the northern hemisphere. “In my opinion early February is the best mix for snow and pricing,” claims Heather Thelin of Park City Mountain. “From January 27 to President’s Day is really the best time, but early March can also be wonderful.”
Last minute travel allows the skier to head for the freshest snow, wherever it may be, but it is not without risks. “Last year during the President’s Day weekend we had to advise a couple of people to book rooms in Salt Late City because they were booking so late,” recalls Thelin. “This year we have worked hard to get more properties so it may not be as big of a problem.”
Rapidly rising airfares combined with failing major carriers may pose even bigger risks for the last minute type. Typically, airfares are lowest in February and March, and the best fares are usually advertised between thirty and forty days prior to departure. But this year, it may be wise to lock in a decent fare early, especially for those heading to Europe. SkiEurope typically offers very competitive contract fares but their trips sell out quickly, so book early. Another good bet is Austrian Airlines, which sells very reasonable ski and stay packages during the winter months, and offers daily non-stop service from Dulles to Vienna. For anyone who may have business in London this winter, consider taking advantage of discount airline SkyEurope’s new direct service from London’s Stansted airport to Poprad, Slovakia, and Salzburg, Austria -; two destinations with marvelous ski resorts nearby. Closer to home, Jet Blue’s Dulles to Sacramento route is a favorite for skiers interested in the Tahoe area.
Vertical: If all a skier wanted to do was accumulate vertical, she could conceivably buy a season pass at a local resort and ski there as much as possible. But logging vertical is more than just taking endless runs down Limelight. For most skiers, “big vertical” relates to descents that cover over 1,500 feet of vertical. For those who have never done it, skiing a trail covering more than 2,000 feet of vertical is a transcendent experience. To use a birding analogy, it’s the difference between birding in the Peruvian Amazon and West Virginia. Both places offer great birding, but the Peruvian Amazon is the Holy Grail -; a place with more bird species than all of North and South America combined!
When considering vertical, always look at the number of trails that have the big numbers. Also, pay close attention to snowmaking and lift access. Having to take three slow lifts to ski 2,000 feet of vertical can take some of the fun out of a run. At Solden, accessing one of the glaciers requires the skier to ride five separate lifts.
Lifts: Good access to big vertical or even small vertical demands modern, high-speed lifts. Because of the power of the Whitetail Express, one can bag a lot more vertical in a day at Whitetail than Timberline even though the size of the two mountains is comparable.
When shopping for ski resorts, I look for places with a lot of high-speed quads and 6-packs. Some high-speed gondolas and aerial trams can cover a lot of vertical quickly, but I detest removing my skis to ride them and also don’t like the subway car feel of those lifts: sitting on an open air chairlift beats being packed in a tram with a lot of sweaty skiers hands down. My apologies to DCSki columnist Jim Kenney, but big lifts don’t always mean big fun. In fact, I love small lifts -; lonely, slow doubles that no one rides, but which service some of the most interesting terrain at a resort. Another lift I have learned to love is the Poma. They require a bit of skill to master but can be a lot of fun to ride. As my wife once put it, “you get to ski up the hill as well as down.” In Europe, there are generally no lines at Pomas and they often service hidden stashes of powder.
Transportation: Clearly, driving to Timberline is easier than flying to Slovakia to ski, but what about flying to Utah versus driving to Vermont? When you add up all the hassles of getting to the airport with ski gear, checking in, and clearing security, an eleven hour drive suddenly looks much shorter and maybe less painful. Furthermore, even with high gas prices, driving to Vermont and buying midweek ski and stay package at a modest motel near Stowe or Killington represents a very cost effective means of taking a ski trip. The snow and weather in Vermont may not be as good as Utah but the vertical at Stowe exceeds 2,000 feet, and the mountain offers quite a bit of challenge and variety. On the other hand, many of the Utah resorts have better uphill transportation systems and then there’s the snow. It’s all about snow right? That’s rule number one for all ski vacation planning. If you can book last minute and Vermont just got a heap of powder, by all means go, but if you need to plan long range and are hedging your bets -; Utah is where I’d place my wager.
Europe is harder to get to than the West, but it’s not as far from DC as one would think. Getting there is like taking a slightly longer red eye to the West Coast. Once you arrive at your destination, traveling to the slopes rarely requires a rental car. Public transportation and shuttle bus systems work extremely well. In short, Europe allows you to eat, drink, and be merry and leave the driving to someone else -; no white knuckle driving on snowy mountain roads. A few resorts here in the U.S., however, have excellent public transportation systems and their numbers are increasing yearly. “Our shuttle service is great! It runs every 15-20 minutes from 7 am to 1 am,” explained Thelin of Park City. “It runs everywhere in town including Deer Valley and the Canyons, so there is no real need to rent a car. We can even arrange a shuttle to pick up the vacationer at the airport and drop them off at the end of their holiday.”
Lodging and Lift Tickets: These represent two of the most costly components of any ski vacation. Recently, I compared the costs of ski and stay packages at Bad Gastein and Park City. Even when the transatlantic airfare and the relatively high Euro are factored in, Bad Gastein proved significantly cheaper for lift tickets and accommodations within walking distance to a ski lift. The Bad Gastein quote also included half board (breakfasts and dinners). As this case demonstrates, you pay a premium in the United States for accommodations at a resort, and lift tickets also can be pricey. If you are willing to drive further, however, costs diminish markedly. Salt Lake City offers numerous moderately priced hotels within commuting distance of the slopes. “Even places just 1-2 miles from a lift are significantly cheaper,” according to Thelin.
The type of lodging also varies considerably between resorts. Some places offer nothing but large, generally expensive condos and others have numerous, less expensive hotel or motel room options. In Vermont, the Mountain Road near Stowe has numerous inexpensive but nice motels. In New Mexico, try staying in Santa Fe. It’s a lively town less than two hours by car to Taos with a good local hill (Ski Santa Fe), and some reasonable hotels.
Lift tickets are yet another conundrum. In Utah, as in many ski regions of the U.S., ski and stay packages often lock you into a single resort -; a shame given all the variety in that area. Europe, by contrast, sells passes good at dozens of resorts for about half the cost of some tickets in the U.S., which are pushing $70 a day at some venues.
Timing: In both Europe and the United States, February is high season for skiing because most schools schedule winter breaks during that month. Typically, February also offers the best snow and weather conditions for skiing on both sides of the Atlantic. So should one plan a trip in February? If you have children, you don’t have a choice. To avoid some crowds, those with kids may wish to book at places a little off the beaten track such as Snowbasin in Utah. In Colorado, Telluride receives fewer visitors than the I-70 mountains due to its harder to reach location. DCSki’s Jim Kenney wrote an excellent article last year about Eldora, Loveland, and Winter Park -; three other slightly off the beaten path Colorado resorts. Similarly, Big Mountain and Big Sky in Montana and the Canadian resorts near Calgary fall into the hard to get to, but low crowds category. In the Northeast, try Jay Peak, Sugarloaf Maine, or any resort in Quebec except the very popular Monte Tremblant.
This year, February in Italy will not only be crowded with school kids on holidays but also with people attending the Torino Olympics, which run from February 10-26, 2006. Many of the Alpine events take place at Sestriere, part of the French-Italian Milky Way alliance of resorts. The Olympics may make lodging and transportation difficult in much of northern Italy during late February.
Besides big Alpine sporting events such as the Olympics, The World Cup, and World Championships, another event to think about is the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place from January 19-27, 2006 at Park City. Skiers report that the many festivalgoers do not ski, so the slopes don’t get too crowded during the event. However, the festival does make it difficult to find accommodations at Park City and nearby resorts during this period. Getting reservations at popular restaurants may also be problematic, but the film center is open to the general public so catching a good flick might make for a fun evening.
Conclusion: Keeping in mind my major criteria, I intend to reserve the first or second week of March for my big trip. March tends to offer excellent snow but fewer crowds than February. Prices also start to fall in March and longer days mean more skiing. Looking at DCSki.com articles, I noticed that DCSki columnist Connie Lawn often schedules big trips late in the season. Some of my favorite forum contributors also make trips late in the game. JohnL recommended Snowbasin in March -; a trip I just might make. Europe may be an option given the deals I found at Bad Gastein. Another option is Heavenly, where another friend’s family owns a condo. And then there’s Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia. Even Vermont or Maine could be fun under the right conditions. My wife would like us to spend a week at Timberline and Seven Springs, and just chill. Everything in the end will depend on snow! I promise to chase the flakes and refrain from making any reservations until the last minute. The prospect of holding off on a commitment until the very last minute is a risky approach, but it also has its appeal. War-gaming endless ski vacation scenarios during the course of the winter will keep life interesting.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.