Let's Ski: Says Who?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1991

Let's Ski: Says Who?

Enough with the one-note wonders. Here's a case for the I've-only-got-a-week-to-ski monster resort.
By Donovan Webster

In the preceding pages you've read about midsize ski areas, the precious little places whose personalities--when you get right down to it--arise from the fact that they're not big. Not to knock those one-note wonders, but can they really match the larger resorts? You want terrain whose variety borders on the existential? You want lots of snow? You want fast chairlifts? Sure, you might find these things at a midsize area, but the question always remains: Are they guaranteed there? And if you're like me, a deskbound schlub who gets ten days or even--holy gee!-- two full weeks a winter on the slopes, you don't want any flimsy maybes attached to your skiing. You want places that won't leave you yearning for bump runs, neck gaiters, quesadillas, fresh snow, hot-tubbing and bar-hopping tales, and even a few Spectravision movies.

Take Vail. Lately a place that "serious" skiers have ditched for the cooler, steeper, more exclusive slopes of Telluride and Aspen, it's still America's largest ski area. With over 3,800 acres of exquisitely skiable mountain and an amazingly efficient network of 20 lifts, Vail gives skiers more runs on more different types of terrain than any other resort in the land. What kind of skiing do you want? Powder? Bumps? Cruisers? Bruisers? Vail has it all, in spades. Or maybe you need some lessons? Just flag down one of Vail's 800-plus full-time instructors.

Still, no ski area is devoid of liabilities, and Vail has one: the town of Vail itself, which is a heaping plateful of faux-Tirol inflexibility. No other American resort so zealously honors conformist, Ike-era social norms. What kind of ski town, for instance, traps and impounds unleashed dogs?

Park City, Utah, on the other hand, is a ski town I can warm right up to. "Are you crazy?" I hear you say. "It's in Utah." Yes, I know, but Park City has a kicked-back après-ski feel that glows through despite Utah's infamous blue laws. The restaurants and bars along historic Main Street are rife with green chili sauce, cold beer, and pool tables, and because Park City entertains no illusions of being Party Central, it doesn't carry the attitudinal baggage that certain other ski towns do. It's comfortable and friendly like a midsize resort, but not to the point that you'll be snoring in your Wasatch Ale by 8 p.m.

I'm also fond of the Park City skiing, and with 83 runs to choose from, there's more than enough of it to go around. While many of the area's trails are studiously groomed, the black-diamond scrawls across the mountain's face--runs such as Crescent, Silver Skis, and Silver King--are lengthy, mogul-strewn dares to any skier's competence. And then there's the famed Utah snow, which is rarely in short supply at Park City. Last spring, a friend and I skied one of the mountain's most remote basins, Scotts Bowl, in waist-deep powder. I'll admit to falling a few times (OK, so I was packing down the slope with my face), but the steepness of the bowl and the depth of the fresh, fluffy snow had us filling the valley with hoots and howls.

Mother Nature occasionally drops the ball, however, which is why God created snowmaking technology. And while smaller ski areas may employ a few wheezing, rinky-dink snow-blowers, the big places do it right. Consider Sun Valley. For the past few years, weather patterns have conspired to keep portions of Bald Mountain living up to its name. This summer, however, the resort has installed $8.1 million worth of snowmaking equipment, making Sun Valley the largest automated snow-producing area in North America.

And there's plenty of excellent, skiable terrain at Sun Valley to keep covered. The ski area sprawls across three mountain summits and three valleys, and sports a full 3,500 feet of vertical drop and more than 60 runs. With the exception of a few especially steep trails--Upper Greyhawk and Exhibition come to mind--easy bump runs and long cruising trails are the rule. And they're a rule that any skier--of any skill level--can happily live with.

Then, of course, there's the famous Sun Valley nightlife, which is overrated. Though the town of Ketchum has been able to retain its authentic western flavor, the bars and restaurants are slowly evolving from their dusty, cowboy origins into a string of frightful, resort-like fun factories. As I watched the crowds on the dance floor at Whiskey Jacques one night last winter, for instance, it struck me that most of the people wouldn't have recognized fun if it showed up at their house with a six pack and a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee.

But fun is a relative commodity, and in my book, the bigger the mountain, the more fun it is. So with all due respect to Mr. Seth Masia, his beloved June Mountain is still a yawn compared with its neighbor, Mammoth, a mountain so huge and diverse that you could ski it for days without taking the same run twice.

Stand, for example, at the top of Cornice Bowl along the Mammoth summit, and the question of where to ski next balloons to dizzying proportions. Below you stretch 31 chairlifts, 132 runs, and snow conditions that generally range from upper-altitude powder to lower-mountain hardpack. There may be 20,000 escapees from L.A. buzzing about, but you'd never know it to look around. The above-treeline slopes and bowls of Mammoth are mammoth enough to accommodate all of them.

Drop over the edge of Cornice and work your way down: It's steep, so you'll need to cut smooth, tight turns against the slope's angle. Seven hundred vertical feet below you, a second, slightly more crowded bowl called St. Anton drops another 400 feet. From there, you know the route: past the midstation chairlift, over a timbered headwall, and down into the steep, bumpy maw of the run called Blue Ox. By the time you've emerged from that one, blowing onto the lower-elevation runs, it will be a full quarter-hour since you stepped off the lip at Cornice Bowl.

That kind of skiing, that kind of bigness, you just can't find it at the smaller ski areas. And, fortunately, big ski areas aren't found only in the West. There's always Vermont's own Killington, which gives me an annual reason to ski on the East Coast. Like Mammoth, it's a monster; and lest there be any argument about this, let me add that Killington is home to a trail called Juggernaut that drops slowly through the woods for ten miles. Killington is also home to Bear Mountain, the steepest of the area's six peaks and the one with four killer, expert-only slopes on it. Wildfire, Bear Claw, Devil's Fiddle, and the notorious Outer Limits drop away from the Bear Mountain summit with the straight-down purposefulness of cinder blocks tossed from an airplane. Any snobby Rocky Mountain skier who gets too full of himself can rediscover humility by trying Outer Limits during a January thaw, when warm days and numbing nights convert the slope's surface into a single sheet of ice.

Sometimes, though, not even Killington or Mammoth is enough to satisfy your correspondent's colossal needs. And on those occasions, there's only one place to go: Aspen. You want classic skiing? The runs across Aspen's four mountains read like a name dropper's crib sheet. When it snows, try the Big Burn or Hanging Valley Glades at Snowmass; you won't be alone, but both places hold more than enough fresh snow to go around. Or if you want to be alone, take a long, cold ride on Chair 5 up Bell Mountain at Aspen, then ski down on the steep, deep-snow pitches called Face of Bell or Back of Bell #2. Or for cruisers, head back to Snowmass and try the runs off the Campground chair; my favorite is Bear Claw, a rolling, interstate-size trail with more speedy pitches than Nolan Ryan.

But I'll be honest: Like many who visit Aspen, I also go because when the lifts shut down it becomes the best ski town on earth. (If you don't go to Aspen for a little nightlife, you should go to Jackson Hole.) Sure, there may be some movie stars and business tycoons around, but nothing seems to rattle the town's here-have-a-beer, block-party mood. I think my friend John encapsulated the nonchalance of Aspen nightlife perfectly a few years back. We were hanging out at the bar at the Little Nell, watching celebrities clomp past in their Nordicas, when John smiled, shook his head, and noted, "Hey, I guess they've got to be somewhere, right?"

Copyright 1991, Outside magazine

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