Dec 15th-17th, Colorado:
Everyone I met and spoke with had the same thing on their mind. Had you had your trip to Colorado planned for a while? Yes. Been worried about the lack of snow this winter? Yes. How'd you feel about the three feet of snow that fell the 8th-10th? Thank G**. Well, that's not quite true. Two die-hard snowboarders were a little disappointed the three feet didn't fall this weekend, but other than that it was 100% Pure Unadulterated Relieft.
Colorado has been dry this winter, especially compared to last winter which started off with a bang and kept pretty much a-rollin' right into spring. It was such a good snow year that when Sandra and I ventured into the high country for our "minimoon" in late August, the normally brown late summer landscape was deep green. Lush fields gave way to verdant forests and deep running creeks. It might as well have been June. Nature has since made up for this abundance though: since September, the watchword west of the Mississippi has been "dry." Even going into November, when the jet normally fluxes down out of Canada into a zonal flow and brings the welcome first precipitations of winter to the high country, it's been dry. So for us early ski-trip planners, a worry set in. How can we make three days of it when the ski resorts have four, five, six manmade snow runs open? Is Breckenridge really charging $79 for that crap?
But just as all good things must come to an end, so must all bad things. And two weekends ago, the weather pattern broke, and broke hard. Northern Colorado didn't get the best of it- Wolf Creek down toward Pagosa Springs averaged over a foot of snow per day from December 1st to 10th, and even now is skiing on a base (100 inches) that is deeper than most ski resorts in northern CO have received in total snowfall this year (90 inches total at Loveland). But three feet is nothing to sneeze at, and the ski resorts seized the opportunity. By this weekend, most of the resorts had close to 75% of their terrain open.
Over three days, I skied three consecutive resorts in what passed for good-but-still early season conditions: Copper on Saturday, Breckenridge on Sunday, Loveland on Monday. The following notes are delivered with the caveat that it is early season skiing, so it may need to be qualified for mid-winter conditions, but here is how I saw things coming out over the three days:
1) Copper. Saturday morning. Cold, what would pass on the east coast as brutal cold (minus 9 at eight a.m.) but in the dry air of the Rocky Mountains was manageable (so long as there wasn't any wind). Despite three days of forecasted high winds, the winds at Copper were light, and I was told that this was the case at Vail as well.
Copper can be classified as: long runs, good intermediate pitches, but on the longest good intermediate runs a bit overskied and rubbed down to the snowmaking base, making for fast and slippery eastern-style skiing. The Timberline Express area has less snowmaking and a little more dispersal of crowds though, and is a little higher up, so it holds the softer snow better. The bowls up top- what few were open- were comparatively lightly skied. Despite having only three feet of snow, there were very few rocks showing through and only a few baby pine trees. Copper is the place to be if you want to find some good snow on the ungroomed early season. The novice terrain is also something to behold. One chair for novice skiers runs all the way to a notch between the two highest peaks, affording beginners a grandeur normally reserved for the toughest of skiers. The steepest pitches tend to be relatively short at Copper, what keeps the black diamonds there are the unrelenting mogul fields. Try running a top-to-bottom 1,300 foot vertical (or more) mogul field your first day out and you'll see what I meant. I can only imagine how magnificent Copper is when all the bowls are open.
Copper gets high marks for advanced terrain, moderate marks for intermediate terrain (a bit overskied in my opinion), and high marks for novice terrain. Not a bad all-around resort; I can see why so many people like it.
2) Breckenridge. Breck surprises you because it is not as steep as you might think it's going to be before you get there. I had always been under the impression that this was a Taos/Jackson style tour-de-force, but I think I was mistaken. Most of the terrain there seems to be one mark higher than it should (eg blues should be greens, blue/blacks should be blues, blacks should be blue/blacks, etc).
You can also tell that Breck is skied more heavily than Copper. The key early season is looking at the condition of the ungroomed terrain. Whereas Copper generally had a good snow surface, the blacks and double-blacks were largely thin at Breck- off of Lift E, for instance, you really had to do your rock dance to pick your way down Inferno. It was fun, but it took some serious scouting to get through without the proverbial "tttthhhhccckkk" sound.
But don't get me wrong: Breck is VERY sweet and it is easy to see why it has such a big following. The groomers were by far the best groomers I've seen in CO (though I haven't skied Vail yet). One secret to Breck seems to be that if you're an intermediate, ski the odd-numbered peaks (Peaks 7 and 9) and skip the even-numbered peaks (8 and 10): 8 is pretty crowded, 10 is windblown. Seven is absolutely magnificent intermediate terrain, and the groomers on 9- while somewhat flat- are spectacular.
For advance skiers, lift 6 and the Horseshoe Bowl are absolute musts. Now, as a warning: Breck is cold. It catches a lot of wind and much of their above-treeline skiing is wind-blown, so conditions are tough both as far as snow goes and as far as frostbite goes. It was windy at Breck when it was calm at Copper and Vail. However, Lift 6 and Horseshoe Bowl seem to get shelter from the prevailing winds off the Ten Mile Range, and attract a lot of fluttering powder down into their quiet shoulders. Ergo, the snow off Lift 6 and into the Horseshoe Bowl was unbelievable. Lift 6 was generally soft with scattered powder- work your way west of the lift. But Horseshoe was even more amazing. On a day when there hadn't been a snowstorm in a week, I skied three consecutive runs through 3-5 inches of fresh powder, all blown in off the surrounding peaks, so your tracks were covered each time.
One downside to Breck and Copper: the trees are pretty thick at both mountains, so it doesn't have that "go where you want to go" feel of Utah or some of the smaller CO resorts. I've noticed this at other resort-style ski areas, and generally it kind of gets me down. I love to be able to go anywhere- Northstar is probably the best place I've ever been for that feeling but of course the Cottonwoods, Wolf Creek, Grand Targhee, and other snow monsters have more than their fair share of terrain like that. In northern CO, the forests are thick , making it difficult to shimmy off a run unless a track has been cleared- but also making for breathtaking scenery as well.
3) Loveland. Loveland has kind of that "go where you want to go" feel because of it's elevation, and is also probably the steepest of the three and has the best snow. I'll admit it, I've got a soft spot for Loveland. I love that place. The base lodge is still the only building, the lockers are in the lunchroom and people can still brownbag there, the employees look disgruntled, the skiers look like hippies, classic rock plays out of the loudspeakers, the lifts are slow, the snow is soft, the parking is free, the runs are steep, the trees are spacier, and you are IN the scenery instead of surrounded by it. The only downside is being near the interstate.
Also, a word of caution: do NOT ski the south facing lifts unless you've received a LOT of snow or some recent snow. Everything over there is wind-blown, icy, rocky, or crusted at this time of year. I took four runs and regret almost all of them, though I imagine January would be better.
The north facing slopes are still great. Loveland had the longest, steepest runs of the three resorts. They were a bit more skied than Copper but a bit less than Breck, so you could more easily concentrate on your turns than on rocks (though you still had to be on the lookout). Of course, you're right beside the interstate but that has it's moments, too- like when you're skiing alongside an 18 wheeler (I can only imagine what a trucker must think seeing that for the first time).
So that's the report. Places to eat? Pug Ryan's in Dillon and The Mint (if you like a cook-your-own-steak place) are both great, but the best beer in the area is probably the Dam Brewery ("Get Your Own Dam Beer"). The steaks at the Mint are out of this world.
So if you skipped the 20,000 word essay and want the one-sentence summary, here it is: Copper for an all-around vacation, Breck for cruisers and some great upper mountain skiing, Loveland if you're old school. Looking forward to the next trip out to CO to provide more goodies for vacationing spirits. Peace out.
ps- one other thing: I found the people at all three resorts to be exceedingly friendly. Maybe it was the time of year, but anytime something happened- two poles bump against each other, someone accidentally skis over your skis at the unloading ramp, whatever- people would instanteously apologize. I even struck up conversations with people I was sitting next to in the lunch rooms. I was surprised- down in Denver, I'm always kind of put off by how aggressive and stressed people seem to be, but if these were "Denver-ites" they didn't seem to be taking that attitude into the mountains. That was probably the most pleasant surprise of the whole trip, was the friendliness factor.
Dang Z., do you get paid by the word?
Of the three, I've only skied Breck and Copper. The lift up Peak 8 in Breck was not in existence when last I skied there.
I pretty much agree with your assessment of the mountains, with a few differences. I never felt Breck had a reputation as an extreme/big mountain; it was/is known as a great ski town with a relatively large ski area. On a powder day (Peak 8 is generally closed), as you've said Lift 6 (plus the T-bar) are the way to go. The snow can really pile up in some of the gulleys serviced by Lift 6 (locations only shown in person.) The T-Bar can be a tough, windy, foggy ride, but you can access some additional sections of Horseshoe & Cucumber Bowls, plus some open or lightly treed moderate angle terrain to skier's left. I agree that Peak 7 has some very nice groomers and lesser crowds. Peak 10 has minimal intermediate terrain and is a hike from Peak 7. Even mid-season, the cover under Lift E is pretty sparse.
For Copper, I've felt the groomers serviced by the Super Bee lift were excellent; variety of terrain, excellent snow conditions, nice steep sections at the bottom. Plus that lift books so you can rack up some serious vert. With a moguled section or two to venture in if you get bored with all groomers. Did you ski that lift? The (intermediate) terrain off the American Eagle is not that great and that section gets very crowded.
The bump runs serviced by the Alpine and Resolution lifts are long, steep in some sections, and uncrowded. Seems like you're out in the middle of nowhere. I've never made it back to Copper Bowl (it's a big mountain and not the best section of a varied group of skiers), but I've hit some great runs off of Spaulding Bowl, Union Meadows and Union Bowl.
Copper is also know for having Expert, Intermediate and Beginner trails fairly isolated from one another. Good in many respects, bad if you ski in a group with varying levels and want to ride up together but take different trails down. (Copper also had the lamest looking Club Med I've ever seen - you walk by it depending where you park.)
Overall, I prefer Copper over Breck. And both >>> Keystone.
Guess I'm also getting paid by the word...