Forget about the thoughts running through the guests’ heads. Working at Beaver Creek is, to cop Vail Resorts’ catchphrase, the true experience of a lifetime. Where else is the motto of a training ground for a sport that people associate with high speeds and gravity-defying stunts “Not exactly roughing it”? Where else can you get lobster tacos for lunch–and that’s just at one of the cafeteria-style dining establishments? And delicious lobster tacos, I might add. I’m not sure which dark gods Spruce Saddle’s chefs sacrifice to, but it must be an effective one to keep the source meat fresh and tasty in spite of Colorado not having possessed any beachfront property for the past few hundred million years.
But there are times when I miss the flavors associated with the bare-bones, no-nonsense sort of atmosphere that still lingers around Colorado’s oldest ski areas, even if the rope tows have been replaced with chairlifts. Okay, so the chairlifts in question are other ski areas’ sloppy seconds and were old enough to merit replacement at their home resorts, but that’s beside the point. There ain’t no lobster tacos for lunch here. Hell, even regular chicken or beef tacos merit the designation of “Special!” with perhaps an extra exclamation mark or two for emphasis.
I’m talking specifically about lovely Loveland. Which is why I was eager to flash my Professional Ski Instructors of America card for a lift-ticket discount last Thursday under the pretext of taking pictures for a ski area guide I’m writing. The true reason for my ascension to the Great Divide was the opening of Chair 8, with its promises of snow yet untouched this season. Because attending Chair 8’s opening last year went so smoothly.
But let it not be said that a few electrical issues with the lift are enough to stop the intrepid heart of a powder hound. I waited patiently for Ski Patrol to drop the rope at 9:30, and I blazed ahead as the front of the pack when the anointed half-hour arrived. My breath froze in my lungs, although not literally–the sun gleamed through the blue sky and warmed the glistening snow, promising one of those powder days that even we residents of the true Sunshine State (fuck you, Florida. We don’t have hurricanes, so there) can only fantasize about. As I got off the top of the lift, feet itching to feel silky softness beneath them, I bit my lip to quell my squeals of anticipation. I flew down the groomed track. Unable to resist the call of untracked, ungroomed snow, I darted off to the side as soon as the rope would allow, my body surging triumphantly into the brilliant whiteness.
* * *
Maybe I should simply stop trying for first tracks, I thought woefully as I removed my head from the snow in much the same way an ostrich would remove hers from sand, or a Warner Bros. cartoon character his from solid rock. After all, my last attempt to chart seasonally new territory hadn’t gone so well, either. This time, however, I placed solid blame on conditions rather than operator error. I’d been in a forward-leaning athletic stance, a position from which to attack the hill, just like my trainers at Beaver Creek had pushed. They emphasize this stance because it works on 99.9% of all terrain you will encounter.
Chair 8’s snow, whipped by gusts which create an effect not unlike day-old cake frosting spread across sand dunes, was solidly among that 0.01%. Lunging forward in my boots caused the front of my foot to break through the cake frosting and go straight down into the snow below, sending my head and torso over the tip of my ski and straight into the ground. It was less a faceplant than a headplant, and as I looked up to make sure I’d dumped all the snow out of my goggles, I noticed it had garnered an audience of about one-third of the now-packed chairlift.
Well, I thought cheerily as I retrieved my ski, at least it’s all downhill from here!
* * *
In spite of Loveland not fucking around when they posted signs advertising “Variable Conditions,” the next run went better. So did the run after that. I dared to think I was learning what to do on the cake-frosting-sand-dunes, and I knew I was having one of the best times I’d had all year. After all, first tracks! Even if they were pretty wobbly!
And I’d also forgotten how friendly people are at Loveland. Granted, it’s the Colorado way to strike up conversations with perfect strangers on a trail or chairlift, but there are occasional times when your chair partner is heavily engrossed in music or in engaged with his buddy in a contest to see who can say “dude” the most times in a single sentence.
Not so here. I found out a little backstory on everyone I rode up the chair with, including, to my delight, a snowboard instructor at the Luv.
“Yeah, snow’s not as soft as I was expecting,” he said mournfully after we talked shop a bit.
“Tell me about it. My first turn in the powder resulted in my head getting stuck in the snow.”
“That was you?!” he yelped. “I saw that! Hell, I think the whole lift saw that!”
Seeking some snappy first aid for my bruised reputation, I quickly cobbled together my theory about there being some times where you need to sit back and let your skis do all the work, using enough references to joint flexion to automatically win a contest for who can cram the most PSIA terms into one sentence. Thankfully, this led us back to talking shop. I reassured him that working at Beaver Creek was pretty legendary (did I mention the lobster tacos?!), and he reassured me that all conditions, even the ones we were seeing today, were much more easily managed on a board. It was with a bit of sadness that I got off at the top.
“Have a good run, Beaver Creek!” he shouted as he headed fearlessly for a grove of trees. I waved back and went in search of more variable conditions of my own.
It took more traversing than honest searching to find some. As I paused at the top of a small pitch, looking into its not-particularly significant depths in search of the smoothest route, a snowboarder cut smugly into the snow to my right.
“Hit it, Beaver Creek!” my fellow instructor called out. “This is one of my favorite pitches back here!”
My bluff called, I shot down after him. My fearlessness guided me through three sharp turns so even and so shapely that even Warren Miller would turn the color of the blinding snow with sheer envy.
A pity it was a four-turn pitch. At the top of my grand finale, still in view of the Loveland instructor and still with something to prove, my foot sank through the snow and I found myself neck-deep in snow for the second time that day. Alas, just like the first time around, “neck-deep” was top-down rather than bottom-up.
I’ll say the snow was really deep where I was skiing, I told myself as I shook snow out of my hat, goggles, collar, pants, and bra. Nevertheless, I sternly lectured myself, I’m done trying to prove anything to anybody on this hill. Let them come to Beaver Creek and experience the, uh, experience of a lifetime for themselves under my steady guidance!
I made another two runs back there. And wouldn’t you know it, given the conditions back there, they were the most impressive sets of turns I made all year. I only wish I’d been close enough to the lift or that snowboard instructor for someone besides myself to take note.
At least I got some good pictures. And the pork green chili served by a man who called me “hon” and was short-staffed because he’d sent all his employees for a lunchtime run or two was just as well-deserved and tasty as any lobster tacos.
The snow’s kinda sucked this year. After so much promise dangled in front of our collective, fleece-encased faces when Loveland and A-Basin revved up their first chairs in mid-October, the Frost Giants looked at all our eager faces, pointed, and shrieked with laughter.
That finally changed two weeks ago when the Rockies started getting some love from the storms boiling in from the Pacific. 24-hour snow totals topped eight inches at my beloved Loveland several times, and Vail Resorts even put out a Tweet boasting that it was “puking snow” at Breckenridge. The image brought back more Sunday-morning college hangovers than joyful memories of cutting first tracks in champagne pow, which might’ve helped push me to bypass the Vail Conglomerate for Loveland. I’m just saying that if there are any Vail Resorts employees who agree that one of the world’s most successful ski resort management companies could use a new social media coordinator, I humbly submit my resume. Like most skiers, I will work for a ski pass and a chili stipend.
At any rate, the snow finally inspired Loveland to open up some real terrain, and on Saturday, Ethan and I went up Chair 8 to check out the ski area cut off from the ski area. Seriously, I’ve heard this chair and its terrain described as being like having your own private ski area, and it’s so remote, the analogy works. One of the methods of returning to the main ski area involves walking through a tunnel under the interstate.
The main advantage to coming back here, however, was that once the initial fuss died down and people trickled back to the main base for lunch, it was like having a mountain all to ourselves. And this was a real boon, because there was powder in them thar hills! A bit of traversing across the main black runs and into some widely spaced trees, and we were able to make fresh tracks, our skis swishing softly through feet of velvety snow. For runs on end, the snow gleamed pristinely in our field of vision, yielding smoothly as we cut turns into it and stopped to admire our footwork as well as how clearly we could view that work.
Of course, as the Grateful Dead cheerily point out, every silver lining has a touch of grey, and on this day, that came in the form of Chair 8 itself. It’s never reassuring when the chair lurches to a dead stop feet short of the top and you hear the liftie shouting into his radio, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I’m just gonna run it anyway!” This is the sort of thing that makes one liable to burn rubber (or whatever they’re using to wax skis these days) as soon as your feet touch snow again.
The frequent stops and starts get even more interesting when at least one member of your group gets vertigo and starts breathing audibly through his facemask. It’s even worse when you’ve ridden up so many chairlifts with your vertiginous father prior to this that your own learned reaction to a stopped chair at least twenty feet above the ground is to hyperventilate and feel a bit queasy yourself. This is further not helped when you look up at one point to discover an electrician sitting atop a tower, fiddling with wires, and then hearing him say on his radio, “Hmm, I just put the blue wire back in place here. I’m not sure if it’s connected to the main power source, though.”
But if you ask me, the snow back there is totally worth being a human guinea pig while the staff figures out what’s wrong with a chairlift that’s racked up a few years. I’ve heard that putting lavender oil in your garments helps push down symptoms of vertigo. I plan to soak Ethan’s facemask in it. Even if he does sneeze himself off the chair, the snow beneath it should be soft enough.