Author: Max Anderson
Photography: Andrew Rowat
The good-looking men with the owl eyes have killed it. They've
smashed it, murdered it. Riva Ridge is one of the longest ski runs
in the world, a six-click rocket ride down a Colorado mountain, and
the jubilant owl-men have survived to celebrate their conquest. "We
nailed it!" They snatch beers off the marble bar, their handsome
smiles as white as the goggle-marks on their snow-burned faces.
Instead of snow-burn, my face shows jetlag and, when the improbably attractive barmaid serves my beer, I fumble and mumble over her tip.
America is a tough world ruled by the gods of commerce, and skiing is how you celebrate your success within it. I, however, was born in England, a land where the language of triumph is no longer taught. It's a simple fact of my upbringing - and possibly a consequence of being short - that I'm very poor at high-fiving.
So as I eavesdrop on the owl-men, I'm conscious of admiring their easy bravura. And I harbour a slim hope that, even though I'm a stumble-bum who hasn't skied in 17 years, a little of America's self-confidence might rub off on me.
"My God, I've never seen so many people on crutches," I exclaim.
"You wanna know why that is?" asks John, a former ski patrol officer sharing my table in Vail's Larkspur restaurant.
"Because they're all lousy skiers?" I reply.
"No, it's because we have one of the best knee surgeons in the world here. People come here to have their knees done."
There's irony in this, but the Americans can't see it. And that's because they're too busy having fun. Vail is vast, with 193 kilometres of ski runs (second only in the US to Aspen's Snowmass, with 237 kilometres) and the world's largest acreage of groomed snow. If that's not enough white stuff, Vail Resorts owns and operates 10 other American ski resorts - and one ski pass fits all.
Through the cathedral-sized windows of my loft apartment, I watch snow groomers on their nightly shift, tiny yellow fireflies on immense flanks. Heavy snow has left the mountains discernible in the bluey darkness, like a pack of white coyotes baying at the moon.
The town of Vail is a splash of just over 5000 people hemmed in by peaks and ridges. And the word is out: fresh powder is coming. We're two hours' drive west of Denver, 14 hours from LA. By the time moist ocean air masses reach the highest slopes of Colorado's Rocky Mountains they're carrying only the driest, finest snow. If the town's 2500-metre elevation leaves me breathless, it leaves powder hounds panting. "Powder skiing is like three-dimensional skiing," they tell me. "You can float on the stuff, so you've got 'up' as well as 'across'. It's about as close as you can get to flying."
Reliable Champagne powder has kept the Vail Village growing since 1962. Like ski resorts the world over, it pays lip service to alpine skiing tropes, but it's been collagen-injected to satisfy America's love of plump, glossy leisure.
The gabled alpen lodgings are edifices of lofty apartments filled with cream carpets, chrome kitchens and big sofas. Lining the fairy-lit ice rink and heated (snow-free) streets are elegant retail spaces selling everything from fur coats to 150 million-year-old fossils. A darkened bowling alley has hardcore skiing action playing on cinema screens above the lanes. And when the village squares are buzzing with après-ski energy, they smell of popcorn and dishes like "tenderloin steak piled with applewood bacon and crab".
Next morning, with the cold breath of the slopes on my face, I walk to the lift area at the foot of the 3500-metre Vail Mountain. It's a hubbub of expectation, spiky with shouldered skis and stippled with lolly-coloured suits. But the cerulean skies are perfectly clear - no powder, not today.
At the hire shop a willing young crew uses a computer system to fit scores of feet with boots and skis. They do it in American time, which means no time flat. "Mountain's waitin' for ya. Have a good one."
How quickly it comes back. The fine line between pressure and pain when the levers snap shut on a ski boot. The layer-temperature conundrum of suiting up and the static-charged swish-swish of Gore-Tex pants. The endless groping for belongings when you have more pockets than a pool hall.
Lost lift tickets, however, are a thing of the past. Lift attendants point guns at me, electronically registering the Epic Pass around my neck. Wherever I am, the resort registers the chairs, trails and vertical feet I achieve - and I can access the data by phone.
Soon I'm rising elegantly above it all on Gondola One, suspended in a rumbling glass bubble with heated seats, free WiFi and maps showing the trademarked names of ski runs.
Among treetops of aspen and fir, my ski instructor Staffan points down at snow tracks. "Elk, fox and sometimes mooshe," he explains in his Swedish lilt. Another instructor sharing the gondola recalls how a bear got into her kitchen. "It spilled flour, sugar and oil, and tracked it all through the house."
"Do bears smell?" I ask.
"Oh, yeah! Smelt for days. It was just awful."
Vail employs more than 900 instructors who extend their particular brand of patience to 1.6 million skiers each year - more skiers than any other US resort.
The slopes should be chock-full, but the lift system branches like a tree, escalating skiers into higher, more remote ridges, peaks and bowls - 193 trails means there's a lot of Vail to go around.
Staffan takes me to a run of pristine corduroy snow with views over American peaks in spangled blue.
It deserves a score by Gershwin.
"Okay, let's shee how you do."
During a long and exhilarating run I'm surprised to find myself edging and shifting my weight to create turns. Some 500 metres later I'm standing, blinking, before the instructor.
"You're doing parallelsh!" he exclaims. "You can shki!"
"I don't think my abilities have improved," I pant, "but the technology has." I tap the short, curved Salomon blades with my stocks. "These things turn themselves."
Over two days I'm escalated onto steeper runs with bigger views. The clock is marked not by hours but by chair rides, vertical feet and rest stops in warm timbered huts - and at these cheerful respites I get the measure of Vail's diversity of clientele.
At Belle's Camp restaurant, a sunny deck is filled with noisy groups barbecuing alien foodstuffs such as cheesy brats and swigging cans of Colorado-brewed Fat Tire beer. One bunch of guys has matching shirts in lumo-green reading "Team Let's Get Wasted".
The perfect inverse is The 10th restaurant, named for the Mountain Division veterans who opened the ski fields. It's a vaulted space of hushed tones and good manners, serving truffle fries with chicken and pheasant pot pie. Best of all, one exchanges one's ski boots for luxuriantly furred slippers that look greatly like marmots.
Eventually, I ski well enough to join May, a skier of astonishing grace and epic ability. "Just follow me," she says. This I can do because she wears bright red pants, and the more I focus on her pants, the less I worry about technique and the more naturally I ski. "Stick to my tracks," she says, "and we'll do Riva."
"Riva Ridge? Isn't that a black run?" I ask.
"Yep. And halfway down is Tourist Trap. You wanna do Tourist Trap as well?"
"What's Tourist Trap?"
"Tourists get to the top of it and basically s*** themselves - then they take their skis off and walk."
I ski Riva and the Trap - all 6.4 kilometres - following the red pants as they emblazon beautiful signatures across the slopes.
"You murdered it!" exclaims May. I'm just as stoked. She leans on her skis to proffer a high five. I somehow manage to pat the edge of her palm.
Beaver Creek: Rich
The gated Beaver Creek resort - 20 minutes' drive west of Vail - is branded with the slogan "Not exactly roughing it".
I do not rough it.
I sit on a sofa beside an ice rink, warmed by a cauldron that bursts into flame at the push of a button. I stand on sections of travelator footpath so I don't have to remove my skis, nor indeed move my legs at all. And I drink Fat Tires in steaming hot tubs while looking up at mountains and vast log cabins (one of them once owned by Gerald Ford).
Perhaps most un-rough of all is the way my hotel, The Osprey, has a vestibule with an express lift that practically takes me from the hotel bar into the wild mountain. As for the fresh powder - well, it still hasn't come, at least not in any significant amount. But I really don't care because this is mountain-man country of steep forests slashed through with trails. It's built for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing.
And going hell for leather.
The trails are groomed, packed and fast, and I work them hard for two days. May's red pants are in front, always upping the tempo - "Stay in my tracks!" - until I'm mogulling through forests, brushing tree trunks scored with bear claws.
I speed down village-to-village trails, one of them leading to Bachelor Gulch, where I perform a rakish stop right in front of the Ritz-Carlton. I throw a small net of diamonds into the air in front of elegant hotel guests listening to a bluegrass band. I raise my goggles, snap out of my skis and walk into the vast timbered lounge.
I think to myself: "Now, that's an arrival."
"We've had a tonne of snow - 13 inches before 8am."
In the mountain ops room, two dozen ski patrol officers listen to safety supervisor Will. They're in red ski suits bearing white crosses; two of the élite skiers have Labradors at their sides. "We got warm thick snow on the bottom and dry powder on the top - which gives us a storm slab."
The snow dump has come.
Instructor Patrick leads our group to Peak 7. The ridges feel open and raw, scoured by biting snow that frequently closes in like thick fog. On a far slope, I can hear an avalanche squad using explosives - crump! crump! The group is wound up like a spring, hanging to carve up the virgin powder. "Ya ready?" shouts Patrick.
"Yeah!" comes the enthusiastic reply.
But something is wrong. My thigh muscles are hot slugs of jelly that won't do what I want. My goggles keep misting, obscuring what little view I have through the snowfall. I find myself with a new skiing companion - fear - and I stumble after the group on the black run.
Then my skis cross and I realise exactly what powder is all about. It's the barest adhesion of air and water molecules, so fey it's almost not there; and when you're face down in it, there's a sense of panic that has something to do with drowning.
Patrick works hard to re-establish my rhythm, but neither he nor May's red pants can overcome the fact I'm not a latent Franz Klammer, but a newborn Bambi trying to stand on ice.
Soon, I'm spoiling it for the group, so I scuttle off the mountain and fall gratefully into the arms of the 1850s town of Breckenridge.
"Hell on wheels" - that's how the town was described. When prospectors in the 1930s realised they could force the valleys to surrender more gold if they blasted them with hydraulic hoses, Breckenridge's name became mud - a place of squalid vice and slurry-filled streets.
In the past 20 years, however, Breck has been given a lot of love. Main Street is a string of candy-coloured timber stores serving Americana in all its forms: cigars, burgers and souvenir T-shirts (including one bearing an image of Che Guevara in goggles and the slogan "Powder to the People"). The old brothel is a pizza parlour called Fatty's; another former cathouse is a restaurant called Hearthstone that does exquisite Colorado striped bass.
But the town still has plenty of Wild West under its hat. I spend cosy hours in Gold Pan Saloon with its swing doors and elk heads (the last gunfight happened here in 1965), watching shopkeepers carving hasty channels through snow that piles waist-high on the footpaths.
I visit a beautiful cabin that houses the Edwin Carter museum. Carter was a prospector who realised his industry was threatening mountain fauna so, using curious logic, he decided to preserve carcasses for posterity, and set about shooting and stuffing more than 3000 species. And in the "dispensary" I meet the new Wild West, embodied by Sean, who asks for my ID before introducing himself as my "budtender". Since 1 January he's been legally selling various flavours of marijuana at $33 a gram.
"That's more than gold!" I point out.
"Sure is," says Sean, "but it's taxed at 38 per cent."
On my last day I decide to get high: I rejoin the group on Peak 8, at nearly 4000 metres. The windy ridge and blizzards feel even more overwhelming but it daunts no one. May's red pants are on fire; the skiers are a downhill rush of muffled whoops and exclamations blasting through drifts and sending up chin-high explosions of powder.
I give chase, flubbing and fussing in their wake, still feeling blind, still on legs of jelly. A huge descent opens up and I succumb to my terror, desperately trying to turn. I spin like a top, lose both skis and find myself tumbling through the white drifts, powder filling my mask, my ears, my trousers…
A man peers down at me, his goggles pushed up onto his black beanie. He has owl eyes.
"I'm, I'm done," I croak. "I can't get it… it's all gone. I'm not even sure I can get down the mountain."
He takes a breath. "Y'know," he says, "you've got all this stuff in your head about technique. But sometimes you gotta point yourself down the hill - and just smile."
He puts out his hand towards my sprawled form and I slam mine firmly into his. Low fives I can do.
Qantas has double daily flights from Sydney to LA, daily from Melbourne and Brisbane, with connections on codeshare partner American Airlines to Denver.
United Airlines flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to LA and San Francisco, with connections to Denver.
In peak ski season, 19 December to 5 April, American Airlines flies daily from LAX to Vail/Eagle County Airport, 45km from Beaver Creek and 56km from Vail, with connections that maximise ski time. Transfers from Denver and Vail airports are available in private 4WDs and shuttles with Colorado Mountain Express, +1 800 525 6363.
Vail Resorts' Epic Pass allows unlimited skiing at 11 US resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge, for an entire season, costing $775 for adults, $403 for children aged five to 12; it pays for itself in six days' skiing. Private lessons cost from $287 per day; competent skiers can join the Breck Guides Program and listen to the ski patrol conduct their morning briefing then explore wild terrain with a mountain guide. The half-day program costs $480 for up to six people, the full-day, $720.
Solaris Residences, Vail
A chic residential-style mountain resort with hotel facilities, restaurants, ice rink and bowling alley. Studio rooms from $585 per night. 141 East Meadow Dr, Vail, +1 970 476 9000.
The Osprey at Beaver
A modest-sized contemporary hotel with the (priceless) Strawberry Park express lift at its back door. Rooms from $348 per night. 10 Elk Track Rd, Beaver Creek, +1 888 605 3405.
Mountain Thunder Lodge, Breckenridge
Comfortable lodge a short walk from the centre of historic Breck and the Breck Connect Gondola. Rooms from $258 per night. 50 Mountain Thunder Dr, Breckenridge, +1 970 547 5650.
These prices are for a January visit, which is usually the best month for snow and smaller crowds, being after the US holiday season. Independent bookings can work out to be expensive; for package deals try Australian ski specialists Travelplan (1300 754 754) and SkiMax (1300 136 997).
EAT AND DRINK
At the base of Look Ma ski run, this mid-mountain restaurant is a cultured respite from all that adrenalin. +1 970 754 1010.
One of five in the world owned by the (Nobu) Matsuhisa family, this fusion restaurant is the place to be sushi-ed, sashimi-ed and seen. Solaris Vail, 141 East Meadow Dr, +1 970 476 6628.
Fine dining in relaxed surroundings. Go the veal scaloppine. 458 Vail Valley Dr, +1 970 754 8050.
Popular and relaxed Italian restaurant with a penchant for truffle. 100 East Meadow Dr, +1 970 476 0280.
You'll be tempted to sit at the cocktail bar, but head back of house for the big-screen bowling alley. 141 East Meadow Dr, +1 970 476 5300.
A 500-seat cavern of self-serve ski-fuel at the base ski lifts 9, 10 and 11. +1 970 754 5530
A day's-end tradition when freshly baked biscuits are given out to skiers at the chair lifts.
Take the snowcat-pulled sleigh to this lovely log cabin for fine mountain dining - elk chops ahoy? 42 Avondale Ln, +1 970 754 3463.
Colorado game, meat and fish served in stylish surrounds. 130 South Ridge St, +1 970 453 1148.
Gold Pan Saloon
An 1879 saloon with swing doors, rough edges and large jugs of beer. Yee-haw! 103 North Main St, +1 970 453 5499.