Opening Day at Wolf Creek

At least six inches of powder was up for shusshing along all day long at Wolf Creek. Today was opening day at Wolf Creek, the earliest it’s ever opened. Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, in its zeal to be the first resort to open in North America for the 2011-12 season, started running its lifts at 7:30AM. But I bet it looked nothing like this:

Blue and white! My favorite winter colors!

We Interrupt this Series…to Bring You Vail

Vail: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Under normal circumstances this post would be the next installment in the Skiing and Boarding on the Cheap in Colorado series. The problem is, there is very little that is cheap about Vail.

Vail is the haughtiest of ski resorts in Colorado except for maybe its younger sister, Beaver Creek. Vail proudly prices its lift tickets at $98 and makes no apologies for its $25 parking garage spaces. (To put this into perspective, substitute teachers in Denver make less than $98 a day.)

To be fair, discount lift tickets can be purchased for $59 by your friend with a five-mountain pass. That amount is comparable with regular lift ticket prices as places like Loveland and A-Basin (where I usually pay less than $30. Whatever.)

That Vail is expensive is not a newsflash. The mountain, which encompasses over 5,2oo acres, is actually three areas: the front side, the back bowls, and the newest, Blue Sky Basin. S, the aforementioned passholder, and I ventured out last Wednesday to Vail, the holy grail of Colorado skiing.

Even if you’ve never been to Vail or have never even considered strapping a plank or two to your legs and carving downhill, you’ve probably heard of Vail. The word carries some mystical elitism to it, much like “Moab” does to the mountain biking crowd and “North Shore” does to the surfing crowd. The words Vail, Moab, and the North Shore float out of the speaker’s mouth and in a tone of austere self-righteousness pronounce to anyone who’s listening: “I’ve have been to Vail/Moab/North Shore recently and you have not. Therefore, for the next 20 minutes I am going to tell you how epic it was. If you’re cool enough to have been there, we can trade stories. If you are not, I am going to make you jealous.”

These meccas of sport almost always live up to their hype. And Vail, as much as I did not want it to be true, looked hype straight in the eye and dared, “Bring it on.”

S and I got to Vail a little later than we wanted, but signs promised five more hours of lift operation, so we were just fine. Home base was the Golden Peak Lodge, where we rented a medium-size locker for the day for $6 (they took credit cards). From there, we took the Riva Bahn Express lift, which allows for excellent views of future Olympians playing about in the terrain park. Although an Express Lift, the Riva Bahn ride was looooooong. From there, we hopped on to the Northwoods Express Lift.

Now, I’d been at Vail for almost 40 minutes and I hadn’t gotten a run in yet (too much time at the locker, at the ticket window, and on these lifts). But S had a plan – we were heading to Blue Sky Basin, and we weren’t going to tarry with silly little blue bowls. We were going for powder and blacks, in that order.

Now, S knows my abilities: very comfortable on blues and a bit shaky and shy on blacks. So, even as I looked wistfully at the blue bowls and their wonderful gladed areas on our way to Blue Sky, we pressed on.

My first black of the season and at Vail was Campbell’s, which was adjacent to Milt’s Face. Anything with the word Face in it means, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to fall on your face,” so I’m glad we avoided that run. Campbell’s offered us some untracked powder, slight bumps too undefined to be called moguls, and some steep terrain. I had plenty of room to turn in, with nary another person around – that’s the beauty of Vail – so I fared fairly well.

Next up, another lift, the Sun Up, was a short ride. From there we headed down Genghis Khan – any run named after a conquering barbarian is kinda badass – which funnels into this high traffic area near the base of the Orient Express Lift.

By this time my legs and lungs were wondering about all the punishment, and I looked over at S, who offered no explanation. S is a skier and is always mindful of my boarding status, letting me know well ahead of time exactly when and where I’m going to have to keep my speed up. Such was the case out on the Silk Road, which then ducked into a more tree-y area, Rasputin’s Revenge. Now, I paid attention in European History in high school, and I know that just as you do not mess with Genghis Khan, you do not mess with crazy Russian monks either.

We dropped into Rasputin’s Revenge. (You know you’ve arrived on the ski hill when you drop in instead of take a run.) Rasputin’s Revenge was pretty hard core. Larger mogul-ly bumps, with lotsa powder (6 inches in some spots) helped me keep my speed down, but when the powder ran out, more-defined moguls braved their round, icy faces, and my calves began to mutiny just as my resolve began to plummet.

S had told me to meet him at the bottom of the Skyline Express lift, which would take us to the famed Basin of the Blue Sky. We’d gone the circuitous route to the Basin, but this is the route S had assured me would have the most powder stashes, and he was right.

But my lungs, quads, calves, and toes had raised their own white flags (they’re all important in snowboarding, so they each get their own flag), and we hadn’t even got to Blue Sky Basin yet. But, I’m tough, so I sucked it up (“it” referring to all the air I could muster at 10,000 feet), and we headed up to Belle Camp to eat lunch.

Props to Vail for trying to make Blue Sky Basin as environmentally friendly as possible. (Maybe they felt like they had to?) Toilets are of the composting kind, and the food offerings are limited to Gatorade, water, hot chocolate, and some kind of sandwich that would set you back $9.75. S and I had carried our own bratwurts and fancy mustard with us, which he cooked on the outdoor grill. I thankfully sat inside the Camp, near the stone fireplace, breathing and drinking as many fluids as my body would let me.

It was now nearing 2PM, and the Blue Sky Basin lifts close at 2:30pm, to give everyone time to get back to to the base by 4pm. But before heading back, we were going to enjoy what we came here for.

The Basin part of Vail is very rustic – an elegant post-and-beam approach touches everything from the primitive restrooms to the cozy Belle’s Camp to the ski run signs. Very homey, and very well done. I hand it to Vail. Begrudingly.

We avoided Lover’s Leap, as there were obstacle poles lining the area just under the lip and we headed, as I kept my speed up, into the trees. I was a little hesitant, because the spaces between the trees looked tight.

S assured me I was capable.

Off we went swishing through yards of untracked powder, surrounded by majestic pines, and laughing with glee at our good fortune and the unbelievable conditions. S was displacing snow puffs in his wake and making poooshing sounds, right out of a Warren Miller film. Eager to join in the fun and forgetting about my body’s white flags, I joined him on this, the most surreal and epic run of my life, lactic acid be damned.

We each fell, overenthused or overmatched by the terrain, and it didn’t matter. We were exhausted and happy.

And we were at Vail. And that’s exactly what Vail, the might epic of ski resorts, is like. Trust me.

Believe the hype and their trademarked motto: Like nothing on earth.

Lift ticket: $59 with one of the six buddy passes available to five-mountain pass owners

Parking: FREE, but not without some effort and finger-crossing that we wouldn’t get a ticket

Necessary locker at Golden Peak: $6

At $65, I could have skied Loveland twice. But Vail is something every planker and snowbiker should experience at least once.

Read about SheSpoke snowboarding at Loveland.