On December 15th, 1962, the lifts began turning at Vail Mountain. What began as a dream in the late 1950s, grew rapidly to become one of America’s iconic ski resorts. A ski resort that is now half a century old.
Happy Birthday Vail.
New Lift One: The über Gondola
We came to Vail for the 50th Anniversary, motivated by the opportunity to ski the big mountain on a special day, and by the lineup of activities and concerts the resort put on for the celebration. Specifically, we went to ski, check out the new Leitner-Poma gondola and dance to Wilco at Gerald Ford Park.
Vail’s birthday dawned gray and snowy, which was a blessing. New snow fell overnight and through the previous week, so we knew the skiing would be good. But we were also concerned that this blessing might be a curse: a curse in the form of long lines at the base.
When we arrived in the Village, we headed straight for the new gondola, simply known as Lift One. Announced with great fanfare last year, the gondola is huge, easily seating 10 people with floor to ceiling windows, WiFi on the towers and a seat that heats as it goes through the base loading area. While I am not convinced that WiFi availability is a necessary enhancement to my ski day, my sports score crazy son and husband loved it.
As for lines, not only does each gondola car swallow up a lot of people, but it loads quickly in two positions so that at least four cars can be loaded once. The gondola is the fastest in North America, taking only 7.5 minutes to reach Mid-Vail with an increase in uphill capacity of 40%.
Lines? What lines?
“Just” 950 Acres?
We don’t ski Vail very often, so we met up with a friend who knows Vail inside and out. He had to drop his kids off at Devo, and when we called him from the gondola, he laughingly directed us to “choose one of the 10 runs that are open” and he’d meet us there.
When I think of early season conditions and limited terrain, I think that being able to choose from ten runs is pretty good. Of course, this is Vail, where everything is bigger than anywhere else. We knew our friend was joking about only 10 runs being open, but it made us think.
Vail had “only” 950 acres open that day. 950 acres? That’s bigger than Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and the same size as Arapahoe Basin, each of these a mountain which can keep you skiing happily all day. While 950 acres is less than 20% of Vail’s skiable terrain, it offered more than enough choices.
The Heart of the Mountain
We started by skiing some laps on Chair 4, the Mountaintop Express, which goes from Mid-Vail up to ski patrol HQ at the top of the mountain. The runs were soft and fluffy and wholly blue: a great place to warm up. From there, we met our friend and skied Chair 11, the Northwoods Express lift.
The Northwoods area has always been one of my favorite spots on Vail Mountain. Long runs intersperse short bursts of moguls with rolling relief. There are fast blue cruisers and nice short glades. The pitches are relatively forgiving. It’s a good spot.
Later in the day, we went over to Game Creek Bowl, which had just opened, and then worked our way back to the top for a long Riva Ridge finale.
America’s Best Run?
In 1966, Sports Illustrated called Riva Ridge “full of humps, hollows and one tender trap” the best single ski run in the United States. As rhapsodized by Sports Illustrated writer Bob Ottum,
It starts high on a backbone of the Rockies — at 11, 250 feet– and drops off in gentle giant steps, 3,050 vertical feet and roughly four miles into the village. Through all this it swings easily, in silence and clean air, and there may not be a more scenic spot in the country to test all your skeletal structures.
No, the Back Bowls were not open. Nor was Blue Sky Basin, which opened in 2000, is the newest part of Vail. But that was okay, because on the resort’s 50th birthday, it was only fitting that we ski the historical runs, at the heart of the mountain, the Vail created in 1962.
Vail, At Fifty
Vail was Colorado’s first purpose-built resort community. More than a ski hill carved out of a mountain, Vail was a concept, a showcase, a test. In its success, Vail defined the resort experience.
“I think the interesting thing about Vail is that from the very beginning, there was a culture of innovation,” shares Andy Daly, President of Vail Resorts from 1989 – 2002, and the current Mayor of Vail.
“Vail installed the first gondola in Colorado and placed tremendous importance on grooming. Adventure Ridge at the top of Lion’s Head was the first major venue for alternative on-mountain activities. The environmental work we did getting approval for Blue Sky Basin was innovative, as was the Eagle Bahn gondola. Couple this with an ongoing commitment to guest service and Vail is simply extraordinary.”
This focus on innovation hasn’t always made the various owners and manager of the resort popular. As with any venture, there are detractors and opponents, just as there are boosters and supporters.
But throughout it all, throughout the last 50 years, one thing hasn’t changed: The mountain. It’s still as fun as ever, broad and expansive, challenging and welcoming, crazy busy in some places with pockets of solitude in others. Vail skis as well at 50 as it did as 25.
Not everyone can say that.
New For Kids
One of the most popular ski resorts in the world, you don’t need me to tell you that Vail is a great mountain for families. New this season for kids are two new Adventure Zones in the Gold Peak area.
Bearclaw Glade is a fun introductory tree run and good place to practice powder turns. The other new Adventure Zone, Pony Express, offers an intermediate tree experience. Adventure Zones are found across the mountain. Look for carved animals, banked corners and ski-through features!
Adventure continues after dark at Adventure Ridge with snowbiking, tubing, snowmobiles and more. When it’s time to for a break, try dinner at Bistro 14, which offers at $10 multi-course kids’ menu and plenty of delicious options for mom and dad, too.
A new recreational racing program kicks off at the Vail Resorts this winter. An alternative to NASTAR, EpicMix Racing is keyed off of the RFID lift passes, so signing up, paying, racing and getting your results are automatic once you’ve registered. Top racers from each of the Vail Resorts can participate in the Lindsey Vonn Race Series Finale at Beaver Creek in April.
A Word About EpicMix
In addition to racing, EpicMix also allows everyone to log in with their pass or ticket number and see where they skied, when they skied, their total vertical feet for the day and more. Again, all of this is tied to the RFID pass.
EpicMix launched two seasons ago and I will admit that I was skeptical – mostly of the pins that could be posted on Facebook. Really, I thought? That’s weird.
At lunch on our second day of skiing, my older son logged in. With little effort, he retrieved data from our previous day, as well as information about the current ski day. Later we stopped and had a photo taken. Sure enough, by that evening, we were online in all of our shivering glory. We even earned some pins.
I’ve tested several other skiing apps during the past year, and EpicMix is the best. The information is interesting, timely, easy to access and accurate. I’m sold. I even like my pins.
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