GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 26, 2013

Outdoors: Vail's soft powder slopes

Outdoors
Dave Sartwell

---- — Dick, Frank, Carolyn and I slipped off the Highline Express and turned left. The soft powder snow that had fallen on Vail all night continued to fill the air, piling new inches upon an already shin-deep blanket. The Blue Ox had been groomed the night before so we knew we would have a smooth run underneath the new powder for our first ride of the day.

This black diamond of delight located on the extreme left side of the front face is a long steady continuous drop that is a cruisers dream. We tightened our boots, gripped our poles and shoved off into the day. As with every first run it took a few turns to catch the rhythm. Not seeing your skis beneath the snow, getting onto the sweet spot, and just relaxing your upper body while your ankles do the work takes a bit of effort at first. But soon I was just cruising, whooping it up with friends as we dropped down the mountain.

With our warm-up over, Dick lead us back up the Highline Express, then a quick run down Tin Pants to get us up the Sourdough Express. Pushing across the ridgeline past the Two Elks Lodge we dropped over into the famous back bowls of Vail. The top half has no trees. Just a huge bowl of fresh snow awaited us. Pick a drop, wave to your friends, and go play. It is not really that steep, but is down and continuous. And, it gets you to the lift that takes you to a pleasure palace called the Shangri-La Glade.

Dick and Carolyn dropped into an open run called the Poppyfields while Frank and I headed into the trees. As with most high elevation woods in the west, the trees are relatively spread apart. There are plenty of avenues between them that just beg to be explored. Frank was not waiting for anyone. With graceful ease he simply melted into the greenery. What was I to do? I had to follow to make sure he was all right!

The new untracked snow gave no clues. We were on our own to find our way through. Just look for a doorway and hope that another would open up after this one. The trees flew by as we curled this way and that, the slope steep enough to keep your attention. We broke out into a small clearing and stopped. To our right we caught the whole panorama of this magnificent masterpiece for skiing. Others were now peeling over the ridge and diving into this crystal-laden ballroom.

Once again Frank led the way, moving off to my left and disappearing from view. I set my poles and pushed off, dropping down into the waiting trees. Every once in a while I could hear him whoop in pleasure and I hollered back. Although we couldn’t see each other, we were sharing the joy. As we neared the bottom, the trees got closer together as if to tell us that they were not going to let us out without a challenge. I slowed down just a bit and got really active, trying not to become one with a trunk.

For the rest of the week we just wandered over the mountain. It snowed at night almost every night and by the end of our stay we were able to find incredible stashes almost anywhere we looked. From double diamond mogul runs like Prima to the easy blues Born Free and Cappuccino.

Vail is the largest ski resort in the United states. It offers almost any ski experience you desire. There are 5, 289 skiable acres within it’s confines with 193 named runs. Of course the back bowls have 3017 acres of downhill fields and glades that, although named in a general sense, often have no defined trails. The base elevation is at 8,120 feet rising up to 11,570 feet for a vertical drop of 3,450 feet. The longest run of about four miles is luxurious wide black diamond named Riva Ridge after the battle fought by the 10th Mountain Division in World War II.

There are long, steep mogul runs that have you sweating in ten turns. Roughly fifty percent of the trails are beginner and intermediate slopes that are groomed to perfection, some with a few trees to give you a bit of a challenge. There are the famous back bowls that are relatively steep playgrounds where fresh powder can make heroes of us all. The average annual snowfall is 366 inches.

There are several terrain parks around the mountain. They include the Golden Peak Park featuring a snowboard learning area, an 18 foot superpipe and a pro slope-style run. In addition, at the top of the Gondola there are the Pride and Bwana Parks designed for freestyle progression with a combination of small and medium hits.

There are also a myriad of other activities on the mountain. A wonderful tubing run, ski biking, ski jacks, and the Black Forest Race Arena offering a dual NASTAR run.

No review of Vail would be complete without mentioning the quality of the off-hill offerings of the Vail Village and nearby Beaver Creek. We attended a piano concert at the Vilar Center which brings a wide variety of high quality entertainment to the valley. The many restaurants offer you everything from gourmet dining to a wonderful sandwiches, crepes, and pizza. The outside art work around the village is worth a tour by itself. There are museums, art studios and free live performances in the street at night. This is a high-end resort that is a bit on the pricey side, but it does offer a high quality product.