Matches Made in the Heavens

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

Matches Made in the Heavens

No matter what your alpine aptitude, a guide to finding that resort of your dreams
By Ron C. Judd

Fellow skiers, it's time to take stock. Park yourself in a chair, rub that sore knee, and admit the truth: For years, you've been wandering aimlessly from one resort to the next, searching for nothing less than true mountain love.

It has, of course, been fun--mingling with moguls across the country, never skiing the same place twice. But these mountain blind dates have been hit and miss: One was too easy, another confused, still another too cold and unforgiving. None of them was it.

Let the dabbling be done. Whether your skiing label reads expert, advanced, or intermediate, prepare to be charmed by one of these legendary downhill haunts, judged to be the best in their categories on one criterion alone: terrain. We're not promising great nightlife. There may be no place to get a decent apricot facial. You may not even get the chance to eat a $25 free-range chicken breast just one table over from a Hollywood hunk. But odds are your perfect mountain awaits within these pages, ready to sweep you off your feet.

Jackson Hole Ski Resort, Wyoming
When it comes to steep skiing, North American resorts fall into two distinct subcategories: Jackson Hole and everywhere else.

With one of the largest vertical drops (4,139 feet) in the United States, more than half of Jackson's 2,500 acres are marked by at least one black diamond. In fact, the area is so steep that a radical mental trail-rating adjustment is necessary--a blue at Jackson may well be the equivalent of a double diamond at your home hill.

Much of Jackson's vaunted expert terrain is packed onto 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain, where the tram takes you up and only sheer guile gets you back down. Early in the day, when snow and legs are fresh, take the full plunge: Follow the Rendezvous Trail down to the frightfully steep faces of The Hobacks or lay it all on the line with the legendary, poster-air drop into Corbet's Couloir. Afternoons are well spent (and the tram line avoided) skiing the slightly more forgiving north-facing chutes beneath the new Thunder quad chair.

Jackson's lift system--one tram and seven fixed chairs--is simple but effective, and the resort's owners have vowed to beef it up in coming years. Heli-skiing is also available locally ($465 per day; 307-733-3274), and just a short bus ride away is Grand Targhee, a magnificent powder oasis where an entire peak is reserved solely for Sno-Cat-accessed powder skiing. The town of Jackson, 12 miles away, has a full selection of lodging, but right in Teton Village, at the base of the ski area, the Alpenhof Hotel (doubles, $138; 800-732-3244) provides a much cozier option.

Squaw Valley USA, California
The ghosts of Olympic downhillers lurk in the sheer chutes and improbable fall lines of Squaw Valley, and if you can just relax and let yourself go, one of them might temporarily occupy your legs. Pray, however, that the ghost is buffed: With six High Sierra peaks literally surrounding you with steeps, Squaw is as raw as it comes. But unlike most wild-terrain venues, it's easy to get from one side of this black-diamond mine to the other: A gondola, a 150-passenger cable car, four high-speed quads, and an impressive 22 fixed chairs keep skiers panting across a remarkable 4,200 acres of sunlit snow.

For a quick test of mettle, ride the new KT-22 Express quad, tighten your buckles before you get off, and step right into the punishingly steep West Face. The bumps are four feet deep, the slope is 40 degrees, the vertical is 1,000 feet, and your skis are only six feet long--you do the math. Still game? Then you're ready to try the Palisades chute above Siberia Bowl. Pass that test and you're ready for anything else on the mountain; if you flunk, consider signing up for a three-day stint with Squaw's noted Advanced Skiing Clinic ($415, including lifts and lunches; call 916-583-6985).

Thanks to a recent sprucing-up campaign, amenities at Squaw are now worthy of the terrain. Lunch breaks are a treat at the spectacular High Camp Bath and Tennis Club, home to a cafeteria, several sit-down eateries, an ice rink, and even a heated outdoor swimming pool. On-mountain lodging runs the range from bunks at the Squaw Valley Hostel ($25 per person per night) to a suite at the posh new Resort at Squaw Creek ($248 per night for up to four people). For reservations, call 800-545-4350.

Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Resort, Utah
Skiers who have never been to Alta dream about Alta. For the unbridled powder hound, this is the way skiing was meant to be: unbelievable steeps and deeps, free from ruination by groomers, snowboarders, or any other so-called advancements.

Above all else, the draw is snow, with more than 500 inches of supernaturally light powder settling into the head of Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon every winter. Untracked fluff is easy to find, thanks to Alta's chugging, mechanical backbone: eight fixed chairlifts that keep the slopes uncrowded by dropping off skiers in steady, controlled dollops rather than high-speed gondola lumps.

High atop 10,600-foot Alta, expert skiers savor an embarrassment of wintry riches. On powder days, head straight for the Germania lift and follow the High Traverse to a classic gut check, Alf's High Rustler. Feel free to shiver as you peer down at the main lodge, suddenly occupied by ants and Matchbox cars. Lesser maniacs can plunge into the nose-deep powder of Greeley Bowl, while elevator-shaft aficionados congregate on the steep glades of Westward Ho and even scarier chutes off Wildcat Ridge.

But when Alta's lack of modernity translates into interminable lift lines--an increasing headache on weekends--you have the option of switching to the powder paradise next door. Snowbird, which shares a boundary with Alta, has the same kind of snow and similar steeps, plus all the people-moving capacity of a thoroughly modern ski resort. Here you'll find a 125-person tram, body-devouring bump runs, and enough pure vertical (3,240 feet) to tucker most skiers in a single top-to-bottom run off 11,000-foot Hidden Peak. (Steeps freaks take note: Do not miss the 40-plus-degree Upper Peruvian Cirque.)

For survivors, inexpensive lodging is plentiful in nearby Salt Lake City, about 45 minutes away, but for a more convenient splurge try the rustic, family-friendly Alta Lodge (doubles, $267, including breakfast and dinner; 801-742-3500) or the appropriately modern-hotel-like Cliff Lodge (doubles, $189; 800-453-3000) at Snowbird. For more information, call 801-742-3333 (Alta) or 801-742-2222 (Snowbird).

Expert honorable mention: Taos, New Mexico; Bridger Bowl, Montana; Arapahoe Basin, Colorado; Mad River Glen, Vermont

Stowe Mountain Resort, Vermont
The longtime standard-bearer for Northeast skiing, Stowe recently adopted the catamount as its mascot, saying the creature is making a comeback in the woods around Mount Mansfield. And you thought all that howling was merely the plaintive shrieks of those eastern hot dogs making the fatal but all-too-common mistake of underestimating Stowe's steeps.

Stowe is small and shy, with a respectable 2,300-foot vertical drop but only 480 skiable acres. Longtime Stowe skiers will remind you, however, that the only acre that matters is the one in front of you. And on the sheer flanks of Mount Mansfield, much of the acreage is not for the timid.

It doesn't take long to learn the intricacies of Stowe's lift system--a gondola, one high-speed quad, and nine fixed chairs--so advanced skiers should have no trouble finding suitable glades, tree runs, and flat-out steeps. Start with a lower-mountain show-off favorite like Centerline, and then head up-mountain to spend some time solving top-to-bottom black diamonds Nosedive and Chin Clip. When you're ready to move your game up a notch, ride the Forerunner Quad to the summit, where a plungefest convenes at your ski tips. Take your pick of the noted Front Four--Starr, Goat, National, and Liftline--marvelous testaments to New England's puritanical, dodge-the-bumps-ignore-the-ice-and-hang-on-tight philosophy. Start with the recently resculpted Liftline, now the least bumpy and most consistently snow-covered, and proceed to National. Consult your knees before continuing to the appallingly steep Starr and, finally, the notorious, skinny-topped Goat, so named because it will eat just about anything--or anyone.

Lodging (central reservations, 800-247-8693) consists of three dozen hotels and cozy New England style inns, most of which lie along the seven-mile Mountain Road between the base area and the town of Stowe. The only slopeside resort is the 34-room Inn at the Mountain ($135-$170 per night; 800-253-4754), also home to one-, two-, and three-bedroom condos ($200, $300, and $450 per night, respectively), and another notable Stowe haunt, the Broken Ski Tavern.

Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia
More of everything. That's the allure of Whistler-Blackcomb, the sprawling glacial paradise 75 miles northwest of Vancouver. For advanced skiers, the areas' lusty mix of open bowls, steep but not suicidal glacier runs, and proving-ground bump fields, along with an unparalleled, ever-expanding lift system, is impossible to match.

The sheer diversity of these side-by-side mountains will spoil you. The terrain is overwhelming: 5,280 vertical feet and nearly 7,000 acres, accessed by two high-speed gondolas, ten express quads, seven fixed chairs, and eight high-mountain surface lifts. The only caveat has to do with the weather. The mountains' slushy snowstorms and clammy, blinding fog are the stuff of occasional bad-ski-vacation legends.

But with this much vertical, it's often possible to climb above the gray layer. In fact, the snow on Whistler-Blackcomb's lower slopes is often wet, so the strategy is simple: Go high. The uppermost 2,500 feet are enough to keep even the most gung ho advanced kick-turner busy for a week. On clear days, ride the Whistler Peak Chair, drink in the heart-stopping view, and pick a side--any side--of the 7,160-foot-high mountain for a semicontrolled descent back into the real world. Progress to one of the five wide-open bowls reached by Whistler's new Harmony Express quad; then, near the end of your trip, try making the leap up to expert status by dropping in on the double-diamond haunts of Blackcomb's Glacier Express--Ruby, Garnet, and Diamond Bowls--each of which plunges a healthy 2,500 feet at a 25-degree pitch.

Lodging in Whistler is plentiful--and often pricey--but the exchange rate is favorable to American skiers (one U.S. dollar buys about $1.30 Canadian). One call to Whistler Central Reservations (800-944-7853) will leave you pampered at the swanky C. P. Chateau Whistler Hotel (doubles, $292) or bunked slopeside at a utilitarian but thoroughly modern place such as the Glacier Hotel (doubles, $112). Most are centrally located near both the lifts and the chic, sanitary village, an internationally flavored resort that has come to be frequented as much by European and Japanese downhillers as by B.C. and Pacific Northwest locals.

Finally, some planning advice: Despite its massive vertical, Whistler-Blackcomb's base elevation is only about 2,200 feet, which makes fringe-season vacations risky. If you want to ski the entire mountains, rather than just the tops, go after New Year's Day and before the end of March. For more information, call 604-932-3434 (Whistler) or 604-932-3141 (Blackcomb).

Telluride Ski Area, Colorado
Nestled in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains, at the head of a box canyon between jaw-dropping 14,000-foot peaks, Telluride seems taller than it is wide, with a 3,522-foot drop and a lofty 12,247-foot top elevation. But beyond the vertical, the mountain has earned its place in the advanced skier's pantheon as the ultimate proving ground for would-be mogul masters.

Start your visit with the ski school's renowned mogul clinic, a two-and-a-half-hour crash course (sorry) appropriately named Bumps, Bumps, Bumps ($35). Don't be put off when your instructor starts you out on the machine-carved moguls of the Butterfly Bumps intermediate slope: The philosophy is to give you a thorough grounding in the fundamentals before taking you up to the Front Face and its infamous thigh-burners, such as Spiral Stairs and The Plunge, the latter of which is usually split-groomed to allow an easy escape from the bumps when your legs get overloaded.

On a clear day here, the views are unforgettable. Steep, unimproved terrain dominates, and most of it is easily reached via the mountain's modest but efficient ten-lift system. At the top, lovers of wild terrain--as well as those who've graduated magna cum laude from mogul school--can enter their own nirvana: 400 acres of chutes and gullies on Gold Hill.

Amenities in this classic Old West town-turned-resort aren't bad, either. Lodging (central reservations, 800-525-3455) is clustered in Telluride itself and slopeside at Mountain Village. In town, try the 104-year-old, recently renovated New Sheridan Hotel (doubles, $140, including breakfast; 970-728-4351). For more information, call 970-728-6900.

Advanced honorable mention: Aspen, Colorado; Kirkwood, California; Solitude, Utah; Killington, Vermont; Sugarloaf/USA, Maine

Big Sky Resort, Montana
To most skiers, Big Sky is a big mystery. Which is exactly what makes it one of the best intermediate mountains in the universe. Perched beneath spectacular Lone Mountain in Bozeman's backyard, Big Sky is a country-and-western song of a ski area: rough around the edges, smooth and soulful at heart. The place is so high (11,166 feet), so big (3,500 skiable acres), and so lonesome, it's easy to lose your companions--and yourself--in the splendor.

Founded by late NBC News anchorman Chet Huntley, Big Sky climbed onto a pedestal above other good intermediate ski areas by providing two things midlevel skiers crave most: elbow room and a natural growth curve. Lift lines are something Big Sky regulars only read about. Intermediates feast on a bounty of big, look-out-below downhill runs like Elk Park Ridge and Tippy's Tumble--with virtually nobody on them--but there is also a good supply of truly intermediate-level powder and bump skiing here to lure apprehensive cruisers off the corduroy and into the wilds. After a week progressing from training trails such as Madison Avenue and Lobo to more hard-core offerings such as The Bowl, most skiers find themselves a full rung higher on the skill ladder.

Temperatures occasionally dip below zero, but the mountain is usually sun-splashed--answering another of the intermediate's prayers, no fog--and two four-passenger gondolas make trips to the top fully bearable. The old top, that is: This summer Big Sky built a new tram to the magnificent summit of Lone Mountain, ballooning the resort's vertical drop by 1,150 feet--and thus leapfrogging Jackson Hole for the honor of biggest (4,180 feet), though not baddest, vertical in the country.

The new tram and other recent improvements, such as the addition of a high-speed triple chair that accesses beginner terrain, make Big Sky an ideal destination for skiers with children. Families rave about the Austrian-flavored ski school and general kid-friendly environment, and kids under ten even stay and ski free. Lodging is close-in and unpretentious, with the western-style Huntley Lodge (doubles, $135) and the Shoshone Condominium complex ($220 per night for up to four people) both within a half-dozen turns of the lifts. For more information or reservations, call 800-548-4486.

Mount Bachelor Resort, Oregon
The gods who created Mount Bachelor, a 9,065-foot high-desert cinder cone, must have been aggressive intermediates. How else could a mountain be so perfectly suited to midlevel skiers?

Bachelor is a hassle-free rarity that can leave you skied-out by lunch, thanks to 3,100 vertical feet and six express chairs. But here, running out of gas isn't an economic sin: Remaining chairlift "points" from your electronic lift ticket can be redeemed another day, for up to three years. In fact, everything about Mount Bachelor, from its 3,200 acres of consistently deep, dry snow to its helpful, decidedly unstiff staff, reeks of skier satisfaction. The full 360 degrees of the symmetrical mountain are skiable, and most runs are guaranteed upper-intermediate crowd pleasers.

Sixty percent of Bachelor's runs are rated intermediate, and nearly all of the mountain's ten lifts lead to smooth-and-steep cruisers. Cut between the rows of trees dividing any two of them to find caches of fine, moderately steep powder. When the skies are clear, midlevel skiers can and should ride the Summit Chair to take on the treeless, windswept upper slopes of the cinder cone. Of course, you may feel most at home on the mountain's bottom half, on long, groomed classics such as Ed's Garden or the Outback off the Pine Marten chair. But like Big Sky, Bachelor shines in its ability to nudge midlevel skiers toward new heights: Many an intermediate has made his or her first now-I-get-it powder turns above the treeline on Healy Heights or on lower front-side runs such as Grotto.

The mountain has no slopeside lodging, but roomy, comfortable accommodations are a 20-minute bus ride down the hill at the Inn of the Seventh Mountain (doubles, $59-$89; 800-452-6810) or the alpine-village-style Sunriver Lodge and Resort (doubles, $89; 800-547-3922). Many other affordable hotels are found in Bend, home to an active, outdoorsy population far more attuned to gear than glitz, where the popular Deschutes Brewery mends nagging pains and sagging souls with ample doses of Obsidian Stout. For further information about the ski area, call 800-829-2442.

Sunday River Ski Resort, Maine
Like many of its northeastern competitors, Sunday River attracts hordes of first-time skiers. Unlike most, it's challenging enough to make them stay. Thanks to a constant and aggressive expansion program, the Bethel-area ski complex offers a range of terrain that's difficult to find elsewhere in the region. That, coupled with its well-deserved reputation for quality teaching (the Perfect Turn instructional technique originated here), makes Sunday River an ideal transition between first wedge turns in the East and respectable GS carving in the West.

One look around explains why. Sunday River intermediates choose from no fewer than eight separate peaks, the newest of which, Oz, opens this year. The resort's 16 lifts (three express quads, 12 fixed chairs, and a surface lift) are the most updated in the region, its trails are wider, steeper, smoother, and more diverse than most in New England, and a hefty snowmaking system that covers 90 percent of the mountain makes Sunday ultrareliable.

For intermediates, the atmosphere is downright playful: Long runs off Jordan Bowl and Spruce Peak are cruisers' dreams, while fast, neatly groomed runs like Right Stuff, Northern Lights, and Sunday Punch are grand confidence builders. But Sunday River also offers great transitional terrain--such as American Express off Spruce Peak and Obsession off White Cap Peak--to move the upper-intermediates into the realm of the advanced.

Befitting its bigger-is-better philosophy, Sunday River has 5,400 slopeside beds, mostly in condos (central reservations, 800-543-2754). The Summit Hotel (doubles, $199) and the more utilitarian Snow Cap Inn (doubles, $150) are deservedly popular--and thus hard to get--mainstays, but the Rostay Motor Inn (doubles, $45-$65), four miles from the ski area, is an almost-as-nice alternative for the budget conscious. For additional information, call 207-824-3000.

Intermediate honorable mention: Vail, Colorado; Heavenly Valley, California; Sun Valley, Idaho; The Big Mountain, Montana; Sunshine Village, Alberta; Waterville Valley, New Hampshire

Ron C. Judd found his true mountain love in the waist-deep powder of Alf's High Rustler at Alta.

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