No Seaweed Body Wraps Here

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, 1999 Annual Travel Guide

No Seaweed Body Wraps Here

It's not the foofy frills that matter — it's the mountain
By Peter Shelton

Fuggeddaboudit. some mountains got the goods, and some sidestep their insufficiencies with theme parks and Pisten Bullys, halfpipes and hoses blowing artificial winter. Smoke and mirrors. Skiing as competition for the cruise industry.
Base-lodge trend: Minimalism
When Boyne USA took over Washington's Crystal Mountain recently, the first thing the new owners did was to map a plan to improve the mountain's ski runs — and reduce the gag factor of its kitschy Swiss-themed base area. Lodge colors were muted, as were more than a few cheesy Euro-influenced architectural touches. We can only hope other mountains follow suit and declare themselves "alpen-" "der-" and "stube-" free zones. — R.J.C.
You want to slide down big, god-given shapes with legends behind the names: Alf's High Rustler, Palivacinni, Stauffenberg. Steep pitches plastered with snow from heaven. You want to check out these five mountains where the term "unimproved skiing" carries near-spiritual meaning. And everything else — the hotels, the hot tubs, the haute cuisine — while a nice bonus, is secondary to your day on sticks, to that soul-reinventing time spent sliding down a mountain.

Mad River Glen, Vermont
The bumper stickers say: Mad River Glen, Ski It If You Can. I always thought that sounded kind of snotty. But almost everybody who winds up the road to this Vermont minimalist icon — and can handle the raw terrain — falls in love with the place. Here's why: Time stands still. Mad River Glen is an island of stasis — skiing as it was 50 years ago — in a flood of what one MRG regular refers to as "commercial mountains."

The devout here are lifers, not vacation dilettantes. (Tradition forbids snowboarding even though it would increase the bottom line.) When curmudgeonly owner Betsy Pratt needed to sell the ski area a couple of years back, a co-op of 1,000 shareholders bought it, each chipping in $1,500. Last year, posters around the 50-year-old Basebox Lodge said: Ski it, Love it, Burn the Mortgage! Last March, they did.

Loyalty is sustained by the intriguing terrain. It looks as if someone poured maple syrup over the edge, and wherever it went, that's where they cut the trails. On hard-snow days, start out on the new Sunnyside double chair on rolling, east-facing runs like Quacky and Porky and Grand Canyon. North-facing glades and chutes off the Single Chair (yes, single!) preserve soft, winter-cold snow. Weekends, sneak off alone on Lower Antelope for miles of classic New England trail skiing with a wooden bridge and a modest (honest) Rockefeller family A-frame at the bottom.

At day's end, join the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd downing brews at General Stark's Pub at the Basebox Lodge, or slide down the road a ways to the Hyde Away Inn, where hard-core types toss darts and sip Trout River Red Ale. Rooms are cozy there, too. Or stay down in the town of Waitsfield or four miles south at The Sugarbush Inn in Warren. Wherever your pillow, Mad River will creep into your dreams. It's the way skiing in the future should be.

Alta Ski Area, Utah
Alta is probably the archetype of the no-frills ski hill. From the $31 lift ticket to the tiny lineup of lodges — five of them, each in a safe spot between avalanche paths — to the avowed policy of limiting uphill capacity in order to preserve the downhill experience, Alta, as they say, "is for skiers."

And only skiers. Sorry, shredders. One practical reason for the ban could be that so much of Alta's best powder skiing requires long traverses: out the High Traverse, under the Baldy Chutes, over to Devil's Castle. Sidestepping, boot climbing, working for your untracked — it's a big part of the Alta charm.

Everybody knows about the famous snow and the infamous avalanches that occasionally close the road from Salt Lake City, so if you can, try to stay up in the canyon, at the somewhat pricey Alta's Rustler Lodge, or at the less pricey Alta Peruvian Lodge, or (if you're traveling in a pack) at the Hellgate Condominiums. Then when it dumps, and the road is shut, you'll have it all to your delirious, powder-addled self.

Most days, the problem is in sharing. The Germania and Sugarloaf chairs are the most popular, and they plug up accordingly. Once the crowd has left the base, ski the Wildcat lift to Rock Gully and the tree shots striping Wildcat Face. Always keep a sharp eye out for the ski patrol turning signs, opening up areas like elephantine East Greeley or the 40-degree free-fall rush of Baldy Shoulder.

Hang out at the Goldminer's Daughter for a sunset beer, then haul your tired bones back to the lodge for dinner and bed. You won't believe all the skiing you did in one day. And you won't mind for a second the complete lack of nightlife.

Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
In Taos, too, the term "aprˆs-ski" means "go to sleep." Your mind may want to party, but your body is going to want to rest. No other trail map in America is so black, and nowhere else are the double diamonds so mind-alteringly steep. A sign at the top says: "Steep Slopes! You Must Know How to Self-Arrest." Self-arrest? At a ski area? Believe it.

Ernie Blake, Taos's Swiss-German patriarch, named a clutch of the most precipitous runs after WWII martyrs — Stauffenberg, for example, for the man who tried to blow Hitler away by stashing a bomb in his bunker. Blake also started the tradition of hiding martini-filled pitchers in the trees to resuscitate the occasional flagging will.

Tree line in New Mexico stretches all the way to 12,000 feet. Looming 500 feet above the last forest, Kachina Peak's naked dome beckons with huge wind- and rock-scarred gullies. If it's open, go. Sign out for the 40-minute walk at Patrol Headquarters. You'll feel the pull of the sacred (as well as brute gravity) while gazing down on Taos Pueblo in the sage desert at the foot of the peak.

If the peak isn't open, there are scores of equally demanding routes off the ridges. It takes the patrol a while to open the high lines, so, first thing on a new-snow morning, drop into the spacious trees on either side of Walkyries Chute. Then inch out onto the High Traverse to Stauffenberg and Zdarsky. Bring your nerve and your best short-swing turns. Don't bring your snowboard.

Not too many years ago, Ernie used to shut the lifts for lunch. Modernity (and missed vertical) put an end to that civilized notion.

But tradition holds elsewhere. The place to stop for a cold one is still the sunny deck of the Hotel St. Bernard. Stay there with host and ski school guru Jean Mayer, or next door at the homey Hotel Edelweiss. The newest and most elegant option is The Bavarian, the only on-mountain lodging in the valley, with a handful of romantic suites and a high-end restaurant. If the tight-knit, Euro-inflected Ski Village feels too cloistered, try lodging 20 minutes away in gallery-laden Taos proper. The Historic Taos Inn is big on charm and coziness, and the lobby bar, a local hangout, is the closest thing Taos has to nightlife.

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Colorado
Taos is high. Arapahoe Basin is higher — 13,050 feet on the spiny, hike-to summit. The most exciting way down from there is a Y-shaped couloir called North Pole. Winter at these elevations lasts from October to early July. Long after more temperate ski areas have closed, A-Basin regulars rage on Continental Divide corn (and, just as likely, spring powder), then party in the parking lot 'til the beer runs out. From Memorial Day on, the season is known as "Beachin' at the Basin."

Arapahoe is the most alpine of Colorado ski areas; a huge majority of the sliding here is unbounded, Euro-off-piste, go-anywhere terrain skiing. Wind-sculpted cornices and natural gully/pipes make for prime freeriding, whether the tool of choice is one plank or two.

For very steep bumps on a fearsome north-facing avalanche path, try the Palivacinni lift. Cruise over to the great central gut of the mountain (Norway and Lenawee lifts) for oceanic rollers. Slip through the gate onto the East Wall Traverse for gliding access to Corner Chute and The Falls. Wind and sun angles will determine the best exposures. Ski patrol permitting, hike the summit ridge to SFB (Shit For Brains), a Chamonix-style shot through claustrophobic rock ribs.

without-one-cranial-container: Outdoor Research's WindStopper Peruvian Hat, complete with cocker-spaniel earflaps and tie string
The windproof fleece is as soft as butter and warm as a campfire. They should issue them with poles and boots at your first ski lesson. In a pinch, it doubles as a mean-ass sling for slaying snowboard Goliaths in mortal snowball combat.
— R.J.C.
Expect to exercise an extreme mind-set. And don't plan on bunking at the base — there is no private land here, no condos, no shops, just a frozen parking lot and an A-frame cafeteria. Do your aprˆs-ski six miles down-highway at the anachronistic Snake River Saloon, and overnight at the Keystone Lodge or, for less coin, along the I-70 corridor in Dillon or Silverthorne. Ski midweek if you can; Arapahoe is perilously close to Denver's weekend warriors, and the Basin's awesome scale only seems to expand in the quiet.

Bear Valley Ski Area, California
Most people confuse Bear Valley, in the Sierra south of Lake Tahoe, with the town of Big Bear or Bear Mountain ski resort in the ranges ringing Los Angeles. Fine with me. I'd just as soon my Bear (founded in the 1960s by U.S. Ski Team downhiller Kyle Rasmussen's grandpa, Maury) remain undiscovered. It's a mini Squaw Valley with cliffs and waterfalls and shattered-granite bowls pounded by massive maritime storms, a permanent population under 300, and the heart of, well, a very large bear.

I taught skiing there in the 1970s, and even working instructors can get in a ton of skiing. To start with, the Day Lodge sits at midmountain, so you can jump into your boots and immediately head down the heart-stopping steeps of Hari Kari without ever setting cheek to chairlift seat.

The upper mountain has the big moguls (try National) and most of the trees (go to church amid cathedral-column pines in Yellow Submarine), but the Grizzly and Snow Valley lower-mountain cirques absolutely rule. Haleakala rears up like that wave in Deep Impact. And Strawberry Fields on a powder day goes forever. Boarders and skiers both snake the natural hits on Flying Serpent (no Pipe Dragon necessary), and everybody launches the fall-away gelunde jump halfway down Bronco.

The village, including The Lodge at Bear Valley, condos, and home rentals, is three miles away by car or shuttle bus (free), but on perfect days, especially in spring corn, you'll want to slide the Home Run from the top of Bear Chair down the sunny backside to town. This is where the famous nude-skiing poster was photographed one spring in the late 1960s. BV is an unadorned (and unabashed) throwback to those halcyon times. You still see the old bumper stickers here and there around northern California: Ski Bare! Right on.

Copyright 1998, Outside magazine

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