Vail, Co.— I slipped along the catwalk on the backside of Vail, heading toward Inner Mongolia. The heavens had opened up the night before and dropped about seven inches of soft fluffy powder, covering the back bowls with new playing material. It had taken me three chairs, a Poma lift and a long glide on the Silk Road to get up to 11,455 feet, but the work was worth it. I had passed up the Tea Cup, China and Siberia Bowls to get here, but I wanted to be one of the first to cut up this virgin powder.
I buckled my boots down tight, tucked my hat in my pocket (I love to feel the wind on my scalp!), and pitched over the edge. Although I was not skiing with powder skis, my Volkl Supersport 175"s have a 116 tip with a 70 waist and a 101 tail, wide enough to give me all the support I needed in the calf-deep new snow.
Down I dropped, at first struggling to get the right center point in my stance. We don't get this kind of snow often in the East, so it took me a few turns to find that sweet spot. I sat back just a bit and let the front third of my skis find the right depth under the snow. It is totally cool to look down and just see the tops of your boots veeing through the white crystals.
It was steep. but the resistance of the deep snow kept the speed under control. The way to turn in this stuff is not the same technique you would use on New England hardpack. Here you get into an up-and-down rhythm. On the up motion you use your ankles and turn a bit and then push own as you enter the turn. Nothing exaggerated, nothing edgy, just a smooth up-and-down stroke.
My companions around me shouted and yodeled, just sounds of pure joy as we dropped through the trees. Of course the voices also allowed us to keep track of each other as we often disappeared into the trees, only to reappear in the next opening. Although none of this terrain was double-diamond, ledge-filled chutes of terror, it was steep enough to keep you moving at a pretty good clip. The trees were there, but there was enough spacing to allow you to maneuver through them .
We finally hit the long run out to the Orient Express, took the lift back to the top of the China Bowl. I went to the right off the lift and took the same cat walk as before. This time, however, I chose to flit through trees called the Shangri-la Glade. Knowing you should not go into the woods alone, I hooked up with two young fellows from New Zealand who had never been down through this drop before either. We took a peak at the trail map, saw nothing that looked dangerous, and headed on in to the trees.
The powder was untouched. No one had been in this section yet. We just worked our way to the left, caught the downslope and screamed through. the woods, ducking left and right to avoid the limbs yet still maintaining a full head of steam. It was exhilarating to be forced to turn, to just miss the grabbing branches, all the while looking ahead to the next quick challenge.
Good skiers can handle any groomed trail or even open powdered steeps. The hard part is to ski where the mountain tells you when to turn, when it gives you no choice, when you have to be pure reaction. Letting your mind stop thinking and relying on subconscious flow is a freeing experience. It's hard to trust yourself, but the more you do it, the more you just rely on instinct, the better skier you become.
Left, right, left and then left again. Hard turns, rolling ankles, a quick shift...down, ever down. Ducking through the fir trees, flashes of the jackets through the dark brown trunks, the smell of the needles, shafts of light where the sun streams through the canopy, sweat, thundering heart beat, lungs trying to suck in enough oxygen in the high altitude air. The sweet release in a place where only the moment matters.
Vail is one of those huge western ski areas that 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 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. There are numerous 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. It should be pointed out that the snow fall this season has been way below average, as with most of the country, but this last week it snowed almost every day.
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 two concerts at the Vilar Center which brings 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.
For more information go online to m.vail.com or call them at 970-SKI-VAIL.