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By G. D. Maxwell

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After a couple of trips to Vail, I’m still at a loss to explain it in rational terms. I don’t know where things are, don’t usually know where I am, don’t know for certain how to get from one part of it to another and I swear, large swaths of it just seem to vanish if I look for them too hard.

But it really doesn’t matter. Vail is big. Big and open. Big and open and confusing. And frankly, I don’t generally care where I am on the mountain. Once I’m over the ridge and into the bowls on the back side, it’s all good. Vail is a big, wide-open, bowl skiing extravaganza. One I’ll probably never ski enough to say I understand but one I’ll never tire of being lost in.

Truth be told, depending on your comfort level with being, well, if not lost then at least temporally confused, there are really only two good strategies for skiing Vail. The most efficient, or seemingly efficient, is with a guide. Someone who knows the mountain will be able to show you as much of Vail, ski you through as many of the seven bowls, lead you to the faraway lands where powder lingers longest, and maybe, just maybe get you back to the base you started from before the whole thing shuts down at day’s end.

The other strategy is to toss the trail map you picked up — you’ll never figure it out anyway — and just go for it. You might not know where you are, you’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers and the strangeness of lifties to warn you when it’s time to head back to the front side, you’ll never be able to answer your friend’s inquiry about whether you skied Blue Sky Basin with any certainty, but you’ll have the time of your life in open fields, steep bowlsides, genteelly-spaced tree runs and the occasional transportation corridor. And chances are you’ll never get too far out of your comfort zone if you’re an accomplished intermediate skier because you really have to go out of your way to get to any “Yikes!” terrain on Vail.

There are two Vails — front side and back side. Front side Vail is awash with people, or so it seems. Spread along the I-70 corridor for several miles, the front side looks like a capillary schematic of one of your body’s extremities. Runs explode in all directions from atop each lift. Unless you’re a people person, the only really good reason to spend much time on the front side is to ski the groomers, get back to whichever of the three bases you started at — give yourself some time; it can take almost an hour to get from, say, Two-Elk Lodge to Lionshead — or to mess around at Adventure Ridge. You can tube, snowbike, skate, etc., until 10pm at Adventure Ridge so that really only leaves skiing the groomers… of which there are many.


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