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Conquering Coloradophobia

A Colorado virgin overcomes puritan warnings, his own trepidation and learns to enjoy the big CO

By G.D. Maxwell

A journey of a thousand turns begins with a single step. For the journey I was about to embark on, the first step was getting over my Coloradophobia.

Growing up south of Colorado was not the source of my phobia. In fact, growing up in New Mexico, Colorado was a place held in high esteem, a place, even, of both inspiration and aspiration. After all, we had Texas to hate; we didn’t need Colorado for that. If anything, we were envious of Colorado. It had beautiful people, iconic ski resorts, a string of 14,000 foot peaks in the San Juan’s and, of course, the Rockies running riot over the state. By comparison, New Mexico seemed, as Aldous Huxley wrote, a savage, wild place. Other than Coors beer, there wasn’t really anything I could find to hate about Colorado.

My Coloradophobia traces exclusively to the years I’ve lived in Whistler. Like most phobias, it is real — in an imaginary sense — and it is rooted in groundless misconceptions, fear of things that go bump in the night, and a healthy dose of chauvinism. After all, in the them-and-us wars for ski resort supremacy, Colorado is most assuredly “them.”

And lest we overlook the obvious, Colorado is home to Aspen and, as all Whistlerites know, Aspen is home to all those things we DON’T WANT TO BECOME! Not too many years ago, we sent our elected officials and top staff people on a fact-finding trip to Colorado to observe first hand all the mistakes made there by those other ski towns. We made sure they paid special attention to Aspen because we were worried to distraction we might be headed down the road to Aspenization, a less virulent strain of Disneyfication but something, nonetheless, to be avoided if at all possible.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation I prepared to embark on my Virgin Tour of Colorado’s great ski resorts. Not all of them, just the Big Two: Vail and Aspen. Mentally, I felt a special kind of kinship with ignorant sailors of old who charted courses to the ends of the flat Earth, the land marked “There be monsters here.” I didn’t know what I’d find other than, I assumed, good skiing, overly fashion conscious people, celebrity dilettantes, overpriced real estate, underhoused employees and the ghost of Hunter Thompson. The irony of that list sounding very much like what I find in Whistler — less the ghost of Hunter Thompson — was not lost on me.

The trip was organized and, I feel compelled to say, underwritten by the very nice people at Destination Resorts. Destination Resorts operates — and were kind enough to lodge me in — places so luxurious I felt like as though at any moment I’d be discovered for the interloper I was and asked to leave. In Vail, Snowmass and Aspen, I stayed and was warmly welcomed in places I’d normally feel more at home being kicked out of, so lavish were the appointments, so comfy were the suites. I really can’t say enough nice things about Destination Resorts… so I’ll just stop now hoping I’ve adequately held up my part of the bargain.

While not trying to delay the inevitable, I would just like to express a few thoughts on actually getting to Vail from the Denver airport. For some years now I’ve been made to feel wholly inadequate by the ribbon of highway linking Vancouver to Whistler. It admittedly has its faults, not the least of which is the fact that a succession of people running Vancouver have thought it was a good joke to make every car, bus and transport truck running between the airport and the north shore traverse the middle of downtown and the laughably undersized Lions Gate Bridge.

That having been said, I would rather walk the Sea to Sky Highway barefoot in a snowstorm than drive the Interstate over Berthold Pass on a Sunday evening… in a snowstorm. Harrowing is far too mild a word and I bestow lavish praise on Jim the Kiwi who was not only driving our van but keeping up a good-natured patter with my fellow white-knuckled travelers. The trip could have been worse. We could have been headed back to Denver along with, well, virtually the entire population of that overgrown city who were lined up bumper to bumper and side by side across six lanes of imperceptibly moving traffic.

I will never apologize for the Sea-to-Sky highway again.

And, just to be fair, I will not lightly dismiss the abundant delights of either Vail or Aspen. Both were surprisingly wonderful places to ski and quite unexpectedly, Aspen was a delightful town that left me wistful for some of the things Whistler will simply never have.

 

Vail

I arrived at Vail shaken, not stirred, my faith in Jim the Kiwi having been bolstered by judicious internal application of single-malt medicine the entire, harrowing ride from Denver to my comfy, cozy Landmark condo. Noting the hot tub was scheduled to close in 15 minutes, I staked my claim to a bubbling corner and settled in to wash away the kinks of air travel in the warm water.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim glow of night, I became aware of a growing sense of emptiness… gravity. On the other side of the fence surrounding the pool area, between the condo and the mountain, a gaping hole where a village should be dominated the landscape with negative space. Punctuated by a rising spine of concrete, what would be Vail’s largest village renewal project, a base development of impressive proportions, was but a hole in the ground, a promise of things to come.

In the light of morning, such as it was, the hole was a foreboding barrier between me and the mountain, a detour of hoarding and blind-alley walkways. It wasn’t until I looked at the map that I realized just how spread out Vail is. Where I was staying turned out to be Lionshead Village. Don’t bother remembering that name; when they’ve filled the hole in the ground with an ersatz Old European Village with, predictably, high-end residences, spas, a hotel, retail, galleries, restaurants all in a quaintly authentic courtyard design, the name will be changed to Vail Square.

I guess they could have called it Vail Village but that name’s already taken by the locus of lifts, lodging and activity a free shuttlebus ride east of where I was. The layout of Vail, much like the layout of the mountain itself, is long and linear, lying tight between the endless lanes of traffic on I-70 and the mountain’s rise. About as far west as Vail Village was east is a third outpost — Cascade Village. The resulting gestalt is one of either isolation or exploration, depending on your energy level and nesting coefficient.

But frankly, I wasn’t in Vail to do Vail. The shops, restaurants, galleries, spas and the rest of the usual ski area suspects — as nice and prosaic as I’m certain they are — would have to wait for another trip or someone more interested in the sizzle. I was here for the steak, the skiing.

I’d spent some quality time with Vail’s mountain map the evening before. Here’s what I learned. Base elevation: 8,120’; Peak elevation: 11,570’; Acreage: 5,289; Terrain: 18 per cent easiest, 29 per cent more difficult, 53 per cent most difficult! 53 per cent most difficult? How, I wondered, could a resort with over half of its terrain rated most difficult be consistently rated the top ski area in the U.S.?

Here’s how. ’Tain’t true. ’Tain’t even close. If half of Vail is most difficult, 80 per cent of Whistler is impossible. Half of Vail is most difficult in the same way XXL sweatshirts at American Eagle are marked “Medium”. It’s a feel-good, better-than-you-are marketing spin. Either that or it’s a paranoid fear of litigation.

While I salivated over the flipside of the map, the side that highlighted the back bowls and Blue Sky Basin, a teasing landscape of black diamonds, the reality on the ground was true blue. The bowls were beautiful and the snow was copious and still falling but the overall terrain had more in common with Sun Peaks than Sun Bowl. It was a panorama of hero blacks, braggin’ blacks, blacks in name only.

Turns out, anything that doesn’t get groomed — and Vail boasts more groomed acreage than any other resort — gets tagged black diamond. Virtually nothing in the back bowls gets groomed. Ergo, all men are Socrates. So much for the theory that diamonds are a hedge against inflation.

Nonetheless… skiing Vail’s hinterlands was an absolute, unapologetic blast. With snow falling at the rate of perhaps two inches an hour, and with knee-deep amounts deposited by the storm we’d driven through the evening before, the skiing was remarkable. Remarkable for its overall ease, remarkable for its lack of crowds, remarkable for its lack of hair-raising pitches, remarkably fun.

Off-piste runs back in Sun Down Bowl, Sun Up Bowl, China Bowl and Siberia Bowl meandered over gently-rolling terrain, through widely-spaced trees, around outcrops and into — occasionally — tight, short chutes. With gusting winds and horsetails of spindrift curling off the tops of ridges, the ride up Earl’s Express at the far edge of Blue Sky Basin dished up solitary gladed skiing through the long, sidehill slope of Champagne Glades where we lost sight of each other in the fog and blasted our way through wind-driven, waist-deep drifts.

For two long, bell-to-bell days, we wove our way in and out of back bowls, skiing runs with untracked powder in the lull of late January, wondering where the throngs of locals were to cut it all to ribbons, grateful they seemed to be somewhere else. It was all a bit disconcerting. There seemed to be people visiting Vail. Two-Elk Lodge atop the frontside ridge was full at lunch. Adventure Ridge was full of people trying their hand at tubing, snowbiking and assorted other diversions. And the front side groomers were crowded at day’s end.

But nobody tracked out the back bowls. Black-diamond inflation seems to work in this part of the world.

 

Aspen

Hmmm… not a fur coat, cowboy hat or rhinestone-studded pair of shades anywhere in sight. Guess the glitterati don’t come to this part of town much.

On the other hand, this part of town is a knife-edge ridge winding its way up to the top of Highland Bowl on Aspen Highlands . Highlands is one of the four shuttle-bus-ride-away mountains that make up what is generally referred to as Aspen. The guys who run Snowmass wish we’d all call it Aspen Snowmass but, well, it’s just all so Whistler Blackcomb, isn’t it?

Aspen Mountain, with its access smack in the centre of town, is the smallest of the mountains that actually count. Its 673 acres and 3,267 vertical are spread out over a confusin’ profusion of runs, aspects, sidehills and bifurcating ridges. Aspen is one of those mountains it takes a local to know like the back of his or her hand. For a visitor, it’s confusing as hell but has enough hidden sweet spots to make time spent understanding it well worthwhile. Fortunately the locals — whatever that term means around here — are pretty friendly and it isn’t too hard for an out-of-town ski bum to latch onto someone keen to show him a good time.

Snowmass is largest at 3,128 acres and 4,406 vertical. It’s replete with wide-open cruisers that extend above treeline and above a big burn, appropriately named Big Burn. The name owes more to a forest fire that ravaged the area than what it does to your thighs but Snowmass has some outstanding steeps in a bowl called Cirque Headwall and another, Hanging Valley Wall. The light at day’s end atop the mountain is magic and the magic performed by Doc Eason several nights a week at the Artisan restaurant’s bar in the Stonebridge Inn is entertainment worth finding.

Buttermilk is a tiny learn-to-ski mountain and home to the X-Games. Any mountain that allows snowmobile events — even made-for-TV ones — to take place on its slopes isn’t worth writing about.

But back to the knife edge. The Colorado Virgin Ski Trip, having been hosted, was generally guided. The constraints of mountain guides coupled with my travel companion, a true-blue editor who does not favour any sentence that includes the words extreme and skiing in close proximity to references to himself, had left me itching for that warm, familiar fear-with-adrenaline-chaser feeling. Skiing alone, it seemed like more challenging terrain was in order.

I wasn’t planning on the most challenging terrain being uphill but the Chilcoot Pass-like line up the bowl’s spine was too inviting to miss. Besides, the weather was making me homesick. I don’t know exactly where the Colorado myth of snowy nights and sunny days comes from but what I’d been experiencing since Vail was the kind of weather that makes a Whistler guy homesick. Foggy, windy, snowy, the holy trinity of good skiing.

Climbing the bowl — 12,382’ — wasn’t quite hallucinogenic but the sense of profound lightheadedness was not entirely unwelcome. The wind, ripping up the out-of-bounds side on the other hand, was. Notwithstanding a fallaway slope of perhaps 40°, the wind roaring uphill forced me to lean into it to keep from being blown over.

Fifteen minutes into the hike, I pondered an entrance to the bowl. There was still too much altitude ahead of me to tuck tail now and begin to descend… but the thought did cross my mind. It vanished when I heard a voice from behind say, “It’s way better up at the top.”

Tom, of, it turned out, Sarah, Mark and Tom, were locals skiing Highlands because their Snowmass passes had been suspended for, what else, skiing an out-of-bounds, closed area. “The perfect people to follow,” I thought to myself.

When we finally got as high as we were going to get without risking the same fate at Highlands, I felt a comforting sense of déjà vu. With wind roaring at my back I peered into absolute, total, impenetrable whiteness. Cloud and fog, the consistency of foggy cloud, left me vertiginously standing with my heels on crumbling edge and ski tips suspended into space.

“How steep is the top of this bowl?” I asked.

“What bowl,” came the smartass reply.

Operating on the what-you-can’t-see-can’t-hurt-you theory, I launched. The freefall was about twice as far as the depth into which I sunk. The snow — several stormy days accumulation — was deep, soft, loose and full of bomb debris. A dozen thigh-deep turns and the cloud thinned, revealing a sweeping arc of bowl the further half of which was roped off but tempting. On a clear day, it’s easy to see why this terrain makes Highlands the local’s ski hill.

With the new, last season, Deep Temerity chair, Highlands added 200 acres of steeps and wonderfully tight tree skiing and reduced lap times back up to the bowl’s bootpack ridge from Loge Peak by half.

Warmed by the rush of the best run of the trip, I skied down to the base of Highlands to catch a free Roaring Forks Transit shuttle back to town. Waiting there, pondering the roots of my Coloradophobia, I couldn’t help noticing how unpopulated the commercial strip at the bottom of the mountain seemed. A broad walkway lined with souvenir shops, galleries, cafes and bars, the place had a very Mirabel Airport feel to it.

“Where are the beautiful people?” I wondered.

A few minutes later, walking the seven blocks from the central bus station to my luxe digs at The Gant, my wandering attention was further distracted by a familiar distraction — a bar with a ski rack outside. Seemed counterculture enough to merit a look.

At first glance, the Cooper Street Bar and Restaurant struck me as a Tapley’s doppelganger, right down to the shuffleboard game. I ordered a beer at the crowded bar and forced myself into the conversation of the people standing next to me. “Hey,” I interrupted, “Where are all the beautiful people I keep hearing Aspen drips with?”

“You’re three weeks too late,” answered a guy referred to by his friends as Weed, or maybe Wede. “No one here but us ski bums.” He went on to opine, bitch really, about how Aspen was a different town four weeks out of the year when the “invasion” descended and how, the remaining 48, it was a “pretty laid-back place.” Parroting words I’ve used myself to describe Whistler to people who’ve bought into the PR hype — of which I’ve contributed shamelessly — he went on to say once you’ve broken the housing nut, gotten over the “vacuous glitzy element” and found the “real community” that still lives and thrives in town, it “ain’t such a bad place.”

Hell, he even bought me a relatively cheap beer in a decidedly unglitzy ski bar.

So yeah, sure, Aspen’s got its shortcomings. But for every Terrace Room at The Little Nell, there’s a Cooper Street Bar; for every members-only Caribou Club there’s a Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant & Bar with meatloaf featured proudly on the menu; for every overhyped, overpriced Prada shop there’s a Pitkin Country Dry Goods store.

And there are a few absolute gems. The Crystal Palace, celebrating its 50 th anniversary last year, was a find that left me sadly wishing for someplace nearly as entertaining in my hometown. A dinner theater — don’t be too quick to judge — with good food, talented waitstaff and some of the wittiest political satire song-and-dance numbers this side of Broadway, the Crystal Palace was a marvelous evening’s entertainment for a politically incorrect expat American.

So I left my cherry in Aspen, partially got over my Coloradophobia, skied some awesome runs in wonderfully nasty weather, and beat it back home in time to catch the last of January’s bountiful powder. It isn’t a place I’d want to live — at least not during the Bush Epoch — but Aspen, and to a lesser extent Vail, certainly aren’t the avoid-at-any-costs kind of places they’re sometimes made out to be… at least around here.




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