St. Patrick’s Day in Vail
By George F. Karioris
While I am about as Irish as a glass of Ouzo in Athens, the saying goes that “on St. Patrick’s’ Day everyone is Irish.” So, for a day – a beautiful day – I’d be Irish in Vail Colorado. This was my first day back to Vail in several years and truthfully, I was a bit apprehensive. I had turned 60 the previous summer and was leaning a wee bit on the Luck O’ the Irish to get my skis under me. Spoiler alert: the day turned out to be one of the most fantastic and glorious days of my life on skis!
My weather app told me that this was going to be a clear and relatively warm day at Vail. And having come through a Polar-Vortex weather system this winter in Wisconsin, damn near anything would seem warm. A short bus ride from our rented condo in West Vail brought us quickly to Lionshead Village. There the line for the gondola at Lionshead was long but through efficiency and cooperation, the time to reach the actual gondola car was pretty short. After a brisk step into the gondola, the automatic doors closed, and I was being whisked away up the mountain. As the gondola set into motion I was reminded of the first time I had come to Vail. This was the 25th anniversary of the first time I had first skied here. In those years the original gondola (there was only one) was a tiny affair that skiers squeezed into which had a main support pole running vertically through the center. The logistical improvements in 25 years have been amazing. I reflected on my good fortune and luck, wondering if I might run into a Leprechaun or others wearing the green of the holiday.
Lunch at Belle's Camp
Clicking into my bindings at the top of Eagles Nest and breathing in the cool clear air, I was ready to start my day. The morning sun was low in the sky when I first pointed my skies downhill and the shadows reached long against the snow’s newly groomed corduroy surface. It’s great to get onto the mountain early and fun to cut the first tracks of the day. To say that Vail is a big place is certainly an understatement, and I knew I had to cover a lot of ground to see it all. My objective was to get to Blue Sky Basin by lunchtime, I knew I needed to get some miles under my skis if that was going to happen.
People are creatures of habit even when a long time has elapsed in between activities. One of my favorite runs at Vail has always been Avanti, and I wanted to spend some time warming up there. The early morning hour at the Avanti Express lift had almost no lift lines and I was up to the top quickly. That lift services a bunch of great runs and I spent some time getting to know the mountain on beautiful groomers like Avanti, Lodgepole, and Pickeroon. Although the corduroy was still a bit crunchy from the overnight freeze, all the surfaces held nicely to edges and ran fast when I let the skis run. The clear skies (and my weather app) told me that it would be warming up soon, the sun somehow makes every day more energized. After several runs off the Avanti lift I moved east on the Mid-Vail Express run toward the Mountain Top Express lift.
Often the Mountain Top and Wildwood Express lifts can experience clogging lift lines. That seems to occur more in the early afternoon when people are starting their post-lunch afternoons from the huge Mid-Vail building. But hey! Not today – not now at this hour anyway. There was a short wait to mount the lift of only a few minutes. I’m not sure if my confidence had returned after a year-long hiatus or I was just oxygen deprived at this high altitude, but in any case, I was feeling strong and spunky (maybe a bit too soon). In my head I imagined myself swooshing and racing down the mountain with ski-heroes of my youth Jean Claude Keely and Billy Kidd (whom I had the pleasure to meet and ski with a few years ago at Steamboat). Plus, I had that Irish luck going for me full-force, right? That was… until I decided to turn left and descend the blue run called Christmas. Christmas is the longest of the runs servicing the shoulder overlooking Mid-Vail and certainly not the steepest. The views from here are beautiful and I’ve skied here in the past many times and truly enjoyed it. The amazing and thorough terrain grooming team at Vail had chosen to leave this run au-natural for the past several days and I found it to be a bit more challenging and bumpy than I expected. (Note to self: they post nice “Groomed” signs near the name of the run when it’s groomed. Duh.) While I generally like a challenge, here was a quarter-mile of moguls still a bit firm from the night’s cold and crusty, and me a bit rusty. Well, as my ski-buddies say, “there’s only one way to go… Downhill”. I made my way clunkily over and through the icy bumps providing some onlookers with a grin with one small and ungracious fall. A misjudged cut into the bottom of a mogul gully popped my left-front binding from beneath me and sent me tumbling ass-over-teakettle. Humility is good for the soul, or so they say. It can also leave a bruise on your rump. Remind me again, how good am I really? Merry Christmas.
Even in the morning, the March sun was starting to warm us and the snow on the mountain. There’s something intangible and yet palpable about being in the sunshine and breathing clear mountain air. It’s absolutely invigorating. Of course, it helps that the surrounding mountain views are so fantastic. I’ve been coming to Colorado for many years and I marvel to myself that the scenery never gets old. There is a plus+ factor too; virtually every person at Vail that day was in a positive mood, how could they not be? The place was full of sun, fun, endorphins, and Irish goodwill for the day. I was keeping my eyes open for some Irish Faerie people – the Leprechauns, but I only spotted some folks with the occasional “kiss me I’m Irish” buttons or green Mardi-Gras beads.
Back to the top of Wildwood Express we made our way over the back to Northwoods and NorthStar. A couple more of my favorite runs, they were groomed overnight and tracking fast and firm. In truth, I was enjoying myself so much that I could probably have stayed here all day. The Northwoods Express lift had almost no lift lines and there were so many choices of downhill routes to choose. There are two short black headwall segments to NorthStar that provide enough adrenaline generating grades alternating between the curvy blue pieces to always keep it interesting. In quick succession we bagged three runs from here alternatively making pretty turns and looking steeply into the drop sections. It was nice to have confident footing return after my earlier “Christmas present”.
Back in the 90’s when I first skied Vail, the mountain was big. Vail’s footprint became huge when in 2000 Vail opened the area that is now known as Blue Sky Basin. It’s now serviced by several high-speed express lifts and is easy to get to – although admittedly it is a long way to get there if one starts their day at the Cascade lift or Lionshead village. In this writer’s opinion it is always worth the trip. While this area offers truly expert skiers some steep, and even cliffy runs, I am absolutely hooked on the blue runs there. Could-9, Big Rock Park, Grand Review, and The Star fall into the category of my “happy places”. It’s also a great place to eat lunch seemingly at the top of the world. The small building called Belle’s Camp offers some food items for purchase, but locals, foodies, iron chef wanna-bees, and cheapskates generally bring their own lunch. There are several propane grills on site free for use, and the scents of roasting burgers, brats, steaks, and chicken often fill the air at lunchtime. Our group of Wisconsinites (falling solidly into the cheapskate category) had pre-packed lunches of sandwiches, trail mix, and Snickers bars. After a full morning skiing each food item had been contorted into shapes that looked like zip-lock bags with unidentified road-kill. Oddly we seem to relish the morphed sandwiches & candy bars. In retrospect, I suppose that we should have had corned beef, cabbage and a pint of Guinness – but we weren’t really quite that prepared for St. Patrick’s day. Eating outside at picnic tables near the grills in the bright sunshine, overlooking the mountain peaks, and chatting with other ski fanatics is always fun.
After lunch I found myself zig-zagging through the tree filled routes of the Grand Review serviced by Pete’s Express Lift in Blue Sky. We had cycled up and down several times cutting and carving our way down in the warmth of the afternoon sunshine. And then… and then I finally saw what I had been watching for. There they were, just on the right side of the run. Leprechauns! All gathered together smiling and laughing, celebrating the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. Well, maybe they weren’t as magic as I had hoped for, but it was certainly enough magic to make me smile. And as for luck, skiing at Vail on a bluebird clear day in March is about as lucky as I could get.
Leprechauns at Vail…?
Well, pretty close anyway!