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Sol Vista: Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sol Vista, which translates from the Spanish to English as “Sun View,” is more than just a misnomer. A more apropos name might be Condo Vista, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue and conjure up images of snow and sun-splashed slopes that way Sol Vista does.

But Condo Vista it was. I hadn’t put too much enthusiasm into the day’s outing, knowing that half of Coloradoans who call themselves winter sports enthusiasts (especially the weekend warriors along the Front Range) have never even heard of Sol Vista because of its lack of challenging terrain and because of its closer, more popular neighbor, Winter Park.

Sol Vista is located  about 25 miles north of Winter Park, where the famed Mary Jane sits in defiant silence, challenging even the experts with its many mogul runs. Mary Jane aficionados who need to brag stick the “No Pain, No Jane” bumper sticker to their Toyota 4Runners like an earned merit badge.

As far as I know, Sol Vista offers no bumper stickers. All it offers is a family-friendly ski hill, few challenges, and cheap plentiful housing along its base.

What it offered B and me, with our trusty Colorado Gems cards, was a free day on the hill in January. So we went for it.

We arrived just after 10AM, parked and walked the 50 yards to the ticket window, and hit the slopes. Condos clutter up the base of Sol Vista, which gives the resort the right to say “we’re a ski-in ski-out resort.” And like ski resort second homes everywhere, the condos at the base of Sol Vista were selling at a reduced rate, some for as little as $200K (boasted the big banner).

Over the past twenty years, ski areas have trended toward offering its customers an experience rather than skiing. This experience includes nearby housing, lattes, and kid-friendly slopes. But sometimes the skiing is forgotten.

Knowing all of this, I came to Sol Vista not only prepared to only work on my technique, but also prepared to carve down its slope in a cocoon of self-righteousness. Sol Vista looked like Vail Lite without the ridiculous acreage (5000!) and early season obstacles.

The coverage was bad (as little as 16 inches in spots), and winter grasses and baby pines dotted the intermediate trails off the Quick Draw Express lift. Most of the snow felt manmade, a bit heavier than the fluffy white stuff that Colorado is so famous for and I’ve become accustomed to.

There was powder along the trees of the High Roller trail, and no sooner did I look back at B and grin “ego snow,” that I sunk into the powder. The snow, full of water, hardened around my board, making extricating myself difficult. I swung my body around and dragged  myself to the dirty spots of undercoverage along the trail.

At the top of the Quick Draw lift is a Members Only warming hut, so we didn’t bother. B skied in and out of the kids’ section, with its Hollywood movie set-style cushioned Western facades along the green runs on skier’s left from the top of the lift. The signs said “No adults unless accompanied by a child,” and the door openings were flanked on either side by padding. Still, I passed and tried to avoid the dirty undercoverage all along the trail.

When we were sufficiently warmed up, we headed to the west side of the resort and the Conquest lift, which serves the intermediate and expert terrain at Sol Vista Basin at Granby Ranch (its official name). I hadn’t yet hit any blacks this season, but since Sol Vista’s blues reminded me of Loveland’s greens, I imagined Sol Vista’s blacks would resemble blues elsewhere. I was right.

We enjoyed the tight skiing along the South Forty trail and after having scoped out the run directly underneath the lift, set our sights on Desperado, a tightly groomed black. Most folks shy away from skiing the run directly under the lift, but there were a total of five other people on the Conquest lift that day. The lift op was even reading a Harry Potter book inside his warming hut, coming out only to help us load.

Desperado, the run below the lift, was nicely groomed, tight in spots, and had a double fall line. In other words, it was inviting and challenging. The double fall line begins at the start of the run, turning the first pole into a magnet and you into an iron filing. I fixated a bit too much on the steel pole that held the lift up, and I was invariably drawn to it.

Because of the double fall line, I picked up the kind of speed that made me wish I’d worn by helmet. The trees loomed near, and I tried to connect my turns. Then, I hit beautiful corduroy.  With the sound of kwrisssshhhhh in my ears, I went from muscling to gliding through the turns in an instant. That’s what a well-groomed trail will do for you. That’s why folks will insist on getting to the chair lifts when they open. They do it for the kwrissshhhhhhhing sound.

The last 50 yards of Desperado were steeper than anything I’ve boarded in quite a few years. I waited for B at the whale hump in the middle of the run, and then thigh-burned down the bottom, floated past the unopened half pipe, and looked forward to my next run down Desperado.

With each new pass down the run, my confidence began to build. That ski lift pole that would have crushed my skull on impact became an obstacle around which I finessed; the speed I picked up along the double-fall means now meant I was carving through the beautiful corduroy; and the black-steep last fifty yards that had kicked me down was now the crowning achievement of the run. I began playing on the mountain instead of just surviving.

Best part? We never shared the run with another person.

After almost four hours on the hill (most of it on Desperado), we drove away from the ski club with the little hill that could.

Although the condos obscured the ticket window, and although, as non-members of the condo association (or whatever it was) we couldn’t enter certain warming huts, the elitist, money-drenching vibe that is so common at other resorts was conspicuously absent.

Sol Vista was a refreshing surprise and a great follow-up to my last outing at Loveland. A great place for teens and families who don’t feel the need to be extreme and cool on the ski hill.

And the price was right.

FREE lift ticket

FREE Parking

B and I decided this was the year we were going to take our mountain backyard more seriously. Within an hour of Denver sit a dozen ski areas at our binding-strapped feet, and this year we were going to play as much as possible for as little cash as possible.

Both of us are blessed with unorthodox work schedules, so we can play during the week. Such a setup is critical to really enjoying Colorado’s mountains. Driving the I-70 corridor on weekends through mountains with tens of thousands of other people is not only a time-waster, it’s treacherous. Interstate 70 looks like an SUV convention, and overconfident drivers, convinced that their four-wheel drive is failsafe, fly by around tight mountain curves (sometimes not lined with guardrails): sometimes in the middle of a snowstorm, sometimes with a couple of cocktails in their bellies, and sometimes both.

The amount of stress associated with just driving to the mountains on the weekends is too much for this East Coaster. I’m used to traffic. I’m used to black ice. I’m used to aggressive drivers. But take all three and toss in a weary day at the hill, and all of the sudden the myriad of benefits from the day’s activities of carving turns and boarding through glades hardly seem worth it. I arrive at home now not just physically exhausted, but mentally drained and wired all at once.

Years ago I dabbled with different season passes – midweek at Loveland, A Basin, and Winter Park. The problem is, between five and ten years ago folks either bought the five-mountain pass (now known under a different nomenclature that includes A Basin, Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek) OR the Superpass (Winter Park and Copper). Both of the passes allowed the user unlimited access (with the exception of Vail and Beaver Creek – there one only got ten days) to any of these mountains. These passes have risen in price over the past ten years, from $200 to $429-$459.

Now, with lift tickets at many of the aforementioned resorts going for almost $100, one can see why a blue-competent, ten-times-a-year snowboarder like myself might shop around. I like variety and even when I spent that glorious season 2005-06 going to the Mary Jane section of Winter Park every other Friday, I still found myself looking for variety. I wanted more out of my boarding experience than the even the magnificent glade skiing toward the base of Parsenn Bowl at Mary Jane.

I wanted different scenery, different people, different terrain, and a different vibe.
So this year I bought the Colorado Gems Pass, offfered by Colorado Ski Country. For $10, one has access to discounts at many of Colorado’s smaller resorts: A Basin, Echo Mountain, Eldora, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Cooper, Sol Vista, and Sunlight. Some of the discounts include a free day, a two-for-one deal, or $10 off the lift ticket. Many of the twofers are good only on weekdays, which perfectly matches my schedule.

I have tried taking advantage of the Gems card in years past only to be unmotivated by the lack of a playmate to make the drives with me up to the mountains. The reason the $400-plus multi-mountain passes are so successful is because they encourage car-pooling and group outings; folks spend much of their Thursday and Friday coordinating their weekend ski trips to the mountains.

This year I’ve got a playmate, B, and a sincere desire to become a more confident, more competent, and more graceful snowboarder. And I’m going to reach these heightened levels of confidence, competence, and grace as inexpensively as possible.

In the coming weeks and months at SheSpoke, I’ll be reporting on my progress as a snowboarder and on my varied experiences with some of Colorado’s lesser-known ski resorts.

Watch me carve!