Does the world really need another article about Vail?
Probably not. But after an eye-opening three-day visit in early January, I can’t help myself.
As everyone on the planet knows, Vail is one of the biggest, most famous resorts in the world. To some, Vail conjures up happy memories of sun-drenched days exploring the 3,000 acre Back Bowls, along with bashing bumps and ripping cruisers on the front side.
To others, Vail is synonymous with the resort’s parent company, Vail Resorts, either the savior of the ski industry (if you like cheap season passes) or the embodiment of the industry’s dark side (if you bemoan the corporatization of skiing).
For us, skiers who live on Colorado’s lonely side, Vail is a bit of puzzle. Although the resort is as close to our home as Aspen, Vail has pretty much ignored those of us living west of Eagle, instead focusing on the easy pickings in the Denver metro area. So much so that when our son was eligible for a free School of Shred pass (5th and 6th grade), we had to drive 3 hours (and past Vail) to get it.
Thankfully, times have changed. And in November, we virtually lined up and bought Epic Passes online.
Now we’re putting them to good use.
Here are some of the lessons we learned during our three-day skiing extravaganza.
Choose Your Aspect Wisely In the Back Bowls
The Back Bowls can be either heaven or hell. If the snow is sunbaked and refrozen, they are hell. If the air is chilled and the winds are light, the snow stays soft and they are heaven.
And then, of course, there are powder days.
We had each of these conditions in January. And we learned right away to ski smart, reading the terrain and choosing the right aspect.
South facing slopes the morning after a warm sunny day? No thanks.
East facing slopes in deep mid-winter? Oh yeah.
Wind-loaded slopes after a storm? You can find ‘em.
Just calibrate your internal compass, bring your sense of adventure and think before you leap.
Oh yeah, and don’t go back there when the visibility is poor. With few trees in some areas, there’s no relief and the white-on-white is blinding.
Other tips: Avoid the ultra-slow Poma lift to Mongolia Bowl when there is a line. Ski Siberia Bowl instead. Avoid the Teacup Bowl lift when the crowds come down from Blue Sky Basin at 2:30 p.m. (3:00 p.m. after February 13).
Blue Sky Basin and Brats (You know, Sausages)
Blue Sky Basin was controversial when it opened, with concerns about wildlife habitat. Fifteen years later, this area is closed in spring and summer to protect elk calving habitat and the controversy is gone.
Our family enjoys Blue Sky Basin for the open, ego-building tree shots, like Champagne Glade, and the short steeps at Lover’s Leap. And while we’re told there is also groomed intermediate terrain, we didn’t ski it (but it’s out there!)
In addition to the skiing, we were impressed with the huge views from Belle’s Camp and the public grills where you can bring your own dogs and brats and grill an outdoor lunch.
Back to Basics: The Front Side
When Vail opened it 1962, it was an early purpose-built ski community. The resort’s founders searched the central Colorado Rockies looking for the right terrain to realize their vision. And they found it in this large loaf of a mountain rising from the Eagle River valley.
Vail’s front side is where you’ll find 1,627 acres of traditional ski resort bliss. Although we didn’t spend a lot of time on the front, what we did ski was fun and notable.
Starting on the far east side, there’s Highline, a classic, steady-as-she-blows legburner of a mogul run, that’s a must do.
Moving west you’ll find the Northwoods Express, one of the most popular lifts on the mountain, for good reason. If you think Colorado doesn’t have many steep pitches, check out the chutes above this lift, beginning with North Rim.
And then there is the heart of the mountain, a boundless menu of blue, green and black terrain. It would take weeks to properly ski it all.
And if you don’t have weeks? Turn on your Epic Mix guide, and let this pocket pro give you a mountain tour.
When You Go…
Of course, everything above is just our family’s opinions. Many people ski Vail frequently and can give you better advice.
Still, here are a few more tips.
*Careful on the Catwalks. There are a lot of catwalks at Vail and they get crowded. Check your speed and if you can, dump speed without weaving back and forth. The near-misses we saw, were almost always caused by someone practicing “S” turns on the walks.
*Bide Your Time. The end-of-the-day rush is real. Everyone is trying to get off the mountain at the same time. Skip the rush. Stop in a lodge for fifteen minutes and relax. Let the crowds pass, and then head down. Also after February 13th, the lifts are open an additional half hour. That means the frontside lifts don’t close until 4:00 p.m.
*Take the Bus. Vail has an extensive free bus system. It’s easy to use, if you know where to pick it up at the end of the day. Lionshead has two stops – west and east, while busses from the Village depart the transportation center. Knowing where you are going eliminates lots of trudging in ski boots.
As I said, these are just some of the runs we enjoyed and lessons we learned while at Vail in early January. What are your tips for skiing and riding Vail?
- The Ski Racing World is Coming to Vail. You Should Come, Too. January 14, 2015.
- Happy Birthday Vail! January 9, 2013.
- Let Epic Mix Be Your Mountain Ski Guide, Plus Keep Your Phone Alive in the Cold, January 26, 2015.
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