Winter Travel Guide 1996
No matter who you are, whom you know, or how liberally you tip, a really good seaweed wrap is tough to come by on Mount Baker. This glaring lapse in slopeside service at the remote North Cascades mountain might rattle certain ski vacationers who expect a resort to offer them the world--right down to its ocean shrubbery. Conversely, your chances of driving up to the front door at the Sun Valley Lodge to have the manager greet you by your first name are fairly slim--unless your first name is Demi, Whoopee, or Picabo, in which case the odds are 50-50. The questions arise: Does small-town amiability overcome unsoftened skin? Can a ski resort offer so much that it shines too little, or so little that it confines too much?
When ski-trip planning season rolls around, this quandary can weigh heavier than four boxfuls of glossy pamphlets. In the ski world, the gestalt of the mountain experience usually comes down to resort size. But size can't be defined by acreage, altitude, lift-ticket price, or furs-per-square-shoulder ratios. Resort size, like grunge, is a state of mind.
Case in point: alta. physically, huge. But on most skiers' mountain-experience scale? Dinky. The opposite also can be true. Big White in British Columbia is a long way from everything and only slightly above average in size. Doesn't look huge. Feels that way, though. Why? Big White is no Vail, but it wants to be. Since personal mountain-size preferences tend to change frequently, things get even trickier. Extenuating human factors--nixed relationships, bad tax returns, knee surgery--cause skiers to don the Vail one year, seek Purgatory the next. All of which renders any size-based resort groupings hopelessly subjective. But some general trends hold true:
Bump-skiing party hounds who upgrade skis and significant others more than once a year should settle for no less than a Mountain Maximus--the Vails, Squaw Valleys, Killingtons, and Whistler-Blackcombs. Indoors and out, the big mountain is the total strobe-light experience: more quad lifts, bump runs, and condos than you could fall off, crash on, or crash in over a year's time, let alone a week.
Middle-of-the-road drivers who like a little of everything but not too much of anything (basic middle-management types, and you know who you are) usually seek the mythical Mountain Medium--a Mount Bachelor, Telluride, Sunday River, or Kirkwood kind of place. Like long-distance truckers, Mountain Medium skiers want a few hellish curves sprinkled among relaxing straightaways. But arriving at week's end with undamaged goods is the main priority.
Last and certainly least are the me-and-the-trees, pack-the-woollies-and-a-Kerouac-novel retro skiers who thirst for high-altitude deprivation. They're after the classic Mountain Minimal, the resort lite. These are the essentials-only resorts that time, thankfully, forgot: Mount Baker, Mad River Glen, Taos, Grand Targhee. The haunts of the skiing purist and/or the recently (or soon-to-be) divorced, these are flickering-candle retreats, high-mountain getaways where you can hear a car door slam a mile away--and not care whether it's yours.
Following are capsulized reviews of mountains in each of those size categories. Strap your ski-trip expectations across one and try it on for size this winter. You might not agree with the grouping, but you won't be able to deny that, when it comes to ski resorts, tow ropes, and the electoral college, size most definitely matters.
Filed To: Snow Sports