Vail Valley Winter
by George F. Karioris
The clear cobalt blue sky and the incredibly white powdery snow seemed to form an unrealistic theater set. But this was no theater, and I was surely not playing the lead in any Gilbert & Sullivan musical. I was perched atop a Volkswagen sized mogul on a black-diamond run called Wow high in the Rockies. Goggles askew, skis scattered, dusted head to toe with powder, and with one horseshoe shaped ski pole I slowly realized that this was a moment for contemplation. I sat up from my fall, feeling much like James Bond’s martini (shaken, not stirred) and thought with a smile “what a great place to be!” Here I was, in the heart of the White Mountains skiing the jewel of the Rockies, the Mecca of powder hounds world wide, Vail. I was in Vail’s world famous back bowls and I was on my butt.
Skiing Vail is a unique full-spectrum ski experience. A group of friends and I from Milwaukee headed for Vail’s renowned slopes and powder to escape the short rises and icy hillside skiing of the upper Midwest. It was mid-February, and we found the weekday crowds were light and access to the express lifts was quick and easy. From our condo’s thermometer we could see that the morning temperature hovered around Zero in the early morning hours. But as we prepared for the day’s ski adventure, the sun rose into Vail valley warming it quickly. By noon on some days we saw temperatures into the 30’s. An easy (in good weather) 2-hour drive from Denver put us at a homey condo about a mile west of the Lionshead gondola. But we left our van at the condo each day and got ourselves to one of the many bus stops on the West Vail loop. The ingenious free city buses make approach to mountain pain-free by removing mundane parking trials & tribulations. The daily lift ticket isn’t cheap, but by the end of a day’s skiing at Vail it seemed worth every penny. Slightly discounted lift tickets are available for multi-day skiers.
I realized that my predicament needed almost immediate attention. My friend, Randy, yelled down from above to see if I had lived through my world-class wipeout. I was OK, and had only slightly bruised my shoulder and my pride. I began to gather the goods from my recent yard sale and put myself back together. Randy waited for me, but we lost the rest of our group. The two of us skied the rest of the day and covered what seemed to be 100 miles of trails. We moved to the front side of the mountain and found an abundance of deserted blue and green runs. A quick jump off from Two Elk Lodge we ran into Whiskey Jack. No, Jack is not some drunken ski bum, but a curvy blue run that, this day, had been so meticulously groomed that it’s surface seemed synthetic. We flew down Jack’s slope virtually unimpeded by any other skiers. After my morning shakeup I was ready for a little ego-skiing so we glided, carved, smiled and laughed our way down the mountain. Later that day we moved back to the Mid-Vail area and skied some of the prettiest runs on the mountain. Expresso & Cappuccino are both serviced by the Northwoods and Mountain Top express lifts. They’re punctuated heavily with pines and spruces forcing turns, making each skier aware that this is a place carved out of nature. On that day Expresso was heavily mogulled, while Cappuccino had been groomed several days before, and was just now undergoing the metamorphosis from groomed to lightly mogulled. Both were delightful to ski. After a brief stop at Mid-Vail for lunch and lots of much needed water we were back on the snow for an ecstatic afternoon.
The day couldn’t have been better, sunny skies, perfect snow, and almost no lift lines. With thighs burning, and the sun beginning to set, we headed down Born Free’s blue and green grades toward Lionshead village. For an apres-ski drink and some rejuvenation from the day, the place to be, right at the bottom of the gondola, is Garfinkel’s. The Bar’s famous cartoon moose mascot is ubiquitous in this landmark, adorning everything from the beer mugs and shot glasses to the uniforms of the exceptionally attractive waitresses. Garfinkel’s provides entertainment each day for the apres-ski patrons, and on this day there was a karioke DJ with his sound system. Proving that people from Wisconsin will do just about anything for a free t-shirt and a drink, this cheesehead clunked to the sound stage in his black ski boots for a song. Well, Garth Brooks’ ears might have been wounded by my version of “The River”, but I got the t-shirt anyway. For a fun evening’s drink on a different day we drifted up to the Blue Moon Restaurant & Bar at the Eagle’s Nest (top of the gondola.) The gondola ride is free every evening servicing the Blue Moon and other activities at Eagle’s Nest which include ice skating, snowmobile tours, and tubing. The Bar features Blue Moon Belgian Ale which is the perfect nightcap to end a fantastic day at Vail.
We spent almost a week in the Vail valley and found that the variety of activities is almost endless. While skiing and boarding is obvious the first on anyone’s must-do list, there’s lots more. Snowmobiling, snowshoe treks, and dog sledding are just a few. Just a short drive west of Vail is the town of Glenwood Springs. Here the gigantic historic hot pool has naturally heated mineral water that’s reputedly good for healing all kinds of ailments. My particular bruising recovered completely in those waters. We found that the people we met on our Colorado adventure, were, without exception, knowledgeable, friendly, and very helpful. Ski lift operators, waitresses, lifeguards, snowmobile guides, and everyone else we met were wonderful. We’ll be back to the Vail valley. I can’t wait.
Published March 2000