Sunshine on Vail
By George F. Karioris
The ancient Norsemen believed that if they lived an honorable and heroic life they would be rewarded with eternal live in Valhalla after they died. Since I’m only a Nordic wannabe, and certainly not dead yet, I chose another form of Nordic heaven. This piece of the sky is the ski paradise called Vail, Colorado. Oh, sure some day I’ll pass on beyond the physical bonds of this life, but when I do, I hope that my Valhalla looks (and skis) like Vail.
Vail is the largest single-mountain ski area in North America, offering guests 5,289 acres of skiable terrain. With unique skiing features such as its legendary Back Bowls and the new Blue Sky Basin, which offers an adventure skiing experience unlike anything else on the mountain, Vail has something for every type of skier and snowboarder.
When the ski day is done, Vail continues to deliver with unlimited non-skiing activities, dining and nightlife that’s rated among the best in ski country. Adventure Ridge at the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola has Thrill Sledding, lift-served tubing, ski-biking, snowmobiling, laser tag and more. The Vail Valley also delivers everything from the casual to haute cuisine with its more than 111 restaurants. And the vacation experience continues with live music, dancing, cigar bars and more found in both Lionshead and Vail Village.
This season, Vail continues to redefine the standard of a winter vacation experience with additional terrain, easy online booking, lodging renovations and more. $12 million in on-mountain capital improvements. Of that total amount, nearly half will be spent adding 125 acres of primarily intermediate terrain and a new high-speed quad servicing the Pete’s Bowl area of Vail’s new Blue Sky Basin. Vail opened Blue Sky Basin on Jan. 6, 2000, with 520 acres of intermediate to advanced terrain. This season, skiers and snowboarders will be able to experience approximately 80 percent of the total adventure skiing experience available in Blue Sky Basin. Adventure Ridge, Vail’s on-mountain activity center, is one of only a few places in ski country where guests will be able to take a Thrill Sled adventure tour. The new sledding device was tested at the resort last year and will be widely available to the public during the 2000-2001 season. Guests can find out what it’s like to go from the top to the bottom of the mountain head first on this new sledding device.
Although lift tickets are somewhat pricey ($61/day) the money spent seems like a good investment after a day on the slopes. There are multi-day tickets which allow for a reduced daily price, and a membership discount program called “Peaks”. That program allows skiers to use a plastic ID card to charge lift tickets to their Visa or Mastercard, and also accumulate Peaks-points. Each day lift pass charged through a Peaks Card earns skiers 1000 points. When enough Peaks-points are earned (10,000), Vail will issue a certificate good for a day lift pass (wahoo!). The varied terrain ranges from groomed corduroy greens and blues to knee slamming bumpy, gnarly blacks. During my week in the Vail valley our group of guys had great pleasure enjoying Colorado’s diverse weather conditions. We had several nights of overcast skies which deposited 4 – 6 inches of ultra light marshmallow fluff. The daytime temperatures were pleasant cruising up to about 30o each day. We call our group “No-Wimps” but are willing to take any of our friends (even some non-skiers!) along on these trips. This February’s trip was our 7th annual outing and we had 7 guys along. A website for the group can be found at _ HYPERLINK “http://www.geocities.com/gfk58” _www.geocities.com/gfk58_ visit us there for more information on the group.
I arrived in Denver on Saturday and after renting a Van and a car at the airport we drove to the “King Super” grocery store to load up for the week. There’s a great liqueur store called “Apple Jack’s” nearby where a variety of beers and spirits found their way into our carts. On Sunday we got our first day of skiing in the high Rockies. A quick breakfast of bacon & eggs in the condo then we were off to catch the first lift of the day. The snow was soft and forgiving, a nice frosting of 4 inches, what the locals there call “Ego Snow”. There was enough powder to give a great smooth ride, but not so much that Midwesterners (like me) struggled. By midday the powder had pretty much been pushed around but the base underneath remained soft enough. From a Wisconsinite’s standpoint anything besides glare ice is considered cushy. We seemed to have a case of the “whoopsies” for a while, though. While futzing with his camera, my photographer, John, managed to drop one of his ski poles from the Vista Bahn lift (just below pole # 28, if anybody cares). While we wouldn’t have normally taken the run called Spruce Chute, we did snake our way down this steep, bumpy, rutted path; down we went on the hunt to get the errant pole back. Skiing directly underneath any lift has the added pressure of an airborne audience, so we tried to keep our best form as we slid and skidded down. In the afternoon John and I had worked our way over to Blue Sky Basin. The terrain was terrific! There were runs through the trees and some that slalomed through huge rock fields. One really cool run that was particularly fun was Big Rock Park. It had some of everything, trees, rocks, jumps, narrows, bumps and furrows. I thought that this was like an amusement park for skiers, my overall opinion: “This is just too much fun!”
Sunday evening Anne, a friend of mine from Milwaukee… now transplanted in Denver, came to visit for dinner. Since it was her XXth birthday (undisclosed age, don’t ask!) we had to go out for a couple drinks after dinner. So, to downtown Vail we went, stopping first at the 2nd floor “Tap Room” overlooking Vail village. After a couple drinks, we switched venues just across the street to “The Club”. Far and away this is my favorite watering hole in all of Vail. Many visitors and lots of locals hang out there to drink, dance and listen to the music of Scott Muns. Well yes, he makes music… but he also has the most colorful words (read blue, read dirty) to recognizable melodies. Somehow I managed to mention to Scott that it was Anne’s birthday, so he brought her up on stage for a shot of tequila and created one of his “custom” songs for the occasion. I certainly cannot repeat any of it here in print. One of the other allures at “The Club” is the ubiquitous foosball table, often the center of great competition. Anne & I played that night and managed to keep most challengers at bay. On other nights there we met people from all over the country. By the way, if you’re a guy going to Vail looking for women, be aware of this very important demographic: the ratio of men to women is 7 to 1. On a count of women in the packed bar one of my guys counted a total of 8 women, which included a waitress! A pretty crummy ratio if you’re a single guy looking for companionship. The women in Vail, on occasion, refer to the male skewed environment as a “Man buffet.” Bon Appetite, ladies.
Anne met us for a day of skiing on Monday, and showed us what can become of a flatlander after living in the mountains for a couple years. We had another great day of skiing except that some of us (I promised not to name names) couldn’t keep up with Anne. We cruised down a long black run with bumps where there was powder still smattered on over about 50% of the run. Not Volkswagen size moguls, but a half mile of buried lawn-chairs, 27″ TVs, and garbage cans. Lots of fun. A couple great runs over near Whiskey Jack put us up at Two Elk Lodge for lunch. Lots of groomed and bumpy blues and blacks took us to the end of our second day. Tradition dictates that at least one après ski drink is had in Lionshead at Garfinkel’s bar. I believe that Captain’s & Coke was the drink (perhaps 2 or 3) of the day. It’s a great place to meet tired, sweaty people in nylon and spandex. Another great place to go is the Blue Moon Bar located at the top of the Eagle Bahn gondola. After 3:00 P.M. the gondola ride up (and down) is free. An evening stop at “The Moon” is fun, and the staff is always ready to serve. If you like an Aussie accent, you’ll really like the waitresses. As an added plus, the gondola ride provides great views of the Vail valley.
On our third day in Colorado we diverted from skiing. I know, I know, this is an article in a ski publication, but this is worth the print, so stay with me. A drive west from Vail on I-70 of about an hour will bring you to Glenwood Canyon, and further to the city of Glenwood Springs. The canyons itself is beautiful, red cliffs speckled with pines and firs towering over the roaring Colorado River. Just east of Glenwood Springs in the depths of the canyon is a pull-off from the highway which will take you to the Hanging Lake trailhead. If the weather is pleasant and sunny and the canyon isn’t too full of snow you can make the hike. Hanging Lake is located about 1.5 miles up from the river, and climbs over 1000 vertical feet. The 1.5 acre lake is suspended high within the canyon, and is fed by a waterfall. The waterfall is fed from a stream of water issuing from the center of a vertical face of solid rock 100 feet high, called Spouting Rock. I’ve been there in the summer, but its winter personality is ethereal and mystical. The spouting water had formed an unusual open cylinder of ice suspended on a Romanesque arch straddling the subsequent water flowage. The hike up had taken us quite a while due to the steep, slippery, and ice covered rock pathway. But there we were as if on a foreign planet’s surface admiring an artwork that no human artist could have created. We were the only people there, and felt like true adventurers. (Aren’t you glad you read on?). The hike back took us down the same rocky slit in the canyon that we had ascended earlier. Although we made better time on the way down, there were several slips and falls, which hurt only our egos and our butts.
The city of Glenwood Springs has been known since the 1800 for its therapeutic hot mineral spring pools. So, where better to purge the evils from our blood streams than the “the waters” where such famous folk as Buffalo Bill Cody and President Teddy Roosevelt had soaked so many years before? A good time marinating in the minerals followed by a high-flying cannonball contest at the diving boards put a new flow in our blood. Valhalla certainly never smelled quite like this; the hot sulfur vapors were much more reminiscent of Vulcan’s furnace or Dante’s inferno. Fun, perhaps, but maybe not the ending place for eternity.
Wednesday found us back on the slopes, this day we strapped on our skis at Beaver Creek resort. Only 6 short miles from Vail, BC has a newer, and new-money feel to it. The runs are reminiscent of Hilton Head’s golf courses; fabulous sport and lined with multi-million dollar homes. It was snowing when we arrived in the morning but cleared later in the day. I found more groomed runs than Vail, which was good for me and provided some steep, but not treacherous skiing. John liked a run called “Loco”, which I thought was appropriate for him. My friend Mike spent the day at Beaver Creek’s McCoy Park (also called Strawberry Park). It is a fabulous recreational area designed for snowshoe, XC skiing, and ski skating. Mike was on snowshoes for the day and had managed to get himself pleasantly stuck in some waist deep snow while “brush busting” his way between the groomed trails. He was pretty pooped when we found him in a rocking chair at the Rendezvous Bar. At the end of the afternoon relaxing there, Chuck & Mike looked like they were having a drink in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains instead of the Rockies.
Thursday was my last day to ski on the trip so we all ended up back at Vail mountain. John & Chuck took snowboard lessons for the day, and I skied mostly by myself. The day was snowy and occasionally cloudy in the extreme! There were times during the day when I couldn’t see more that 20 yards in front of me. I stayed on familiar runs and had a great time. I caught up with Steve later in the day and we skied together until our wheels fell off. Another great day, another great trip. Friday, sadly, we packed our gear… left all the remaining food in the condo for the cleaning staff… and turned our backs on the Vail Valley.
The mountains have a magnetism that is hard to explain. It’s not just the great skiing, it’s the very rarified atmosphere itself that permeates my psyche. I work for a living, but go to the mountains to live. Perhaps the Norsemen were correct and we’ll find paradise when we’re pushing up daisies. I choose to believe, however, that the mountains can provide an insight into that bliss while we’re still around. If you haven’t gotten to them yet, go now. Take a set of skis or a board, take the fastest lift up, point yourself downhill, and go! Valhalla.
Published March 2001