Still in Colorado, Pingu pays a visit to one of the state's most popular resorts. Illustrations by Kieron Black.There are a bunch of guys that I knew at university – with whom I have downed beers, arm-wrestled, sung dumb songs very badly and puked up chicken balti – who have now gone on to become high-powered corporate folk and upstanding pillars of the community.
When I see them, in the scant moments that we spend together now that weddings and stag do’s no longer see us coalescing as a matter of course, they look slightly baffled - confused at what their lives have become and discomforted by all the clutter that their existence has accumulated. Their wives’ expensive haircuts, the school fees, the payments on the Range Rover and the gardening bills swirl around them like Dementors, draining them of life force.
"Vail is an incredible resort, trapped in a world that it has created for itself"
Their situation reminds me of when pseudo crypto-stuntman David Blaine placed himself in a Perspex box, hanging above the river Thames. He was trapped, for all the world to see, but the longer he stayed inside that box, the greater his feat of self denial was considered by all the passers-by. Conflicted, I can see my old mates’ desire to escape the box is outweighed by the allure of the rewards afforded to them by staying inside the box, and so the life continues.
But when the guard is down, when happenstance or a beer too many creates those moments where honesty prevails, to a man they all crave the simplicity of the life they once had. Wake up, do fun stuff, go to bed. Alas with the provision of money comes expectation, obligation, and ultimately control.
This is how Vail finds itself in 2015. An incredible resort, trapped in a world that it has created for itself, in the pursuit of a clientele from whom it can make the most money.
The Pow and the Pistes
Vail is, first and foremost, an epic mountain resort. It is not only vast, with roughly 5,300 acres of rideable area, but that vastness is matched by the nature of the terrain - steep (where needed), undulating, winding, peppered with tree runs and - most notably - high alpine bowls.
Whilst there are bigger resorts in North America (Whistler and Big Sky, and from next year the combined resort of Park City and Canyons), and the interlinked ski areas of Europe (such as the Trois Vallees or the Portes du Soleil) would technically dwarf Vail, as a single resort it feels massive.
The densely pisted front side of Vail, which is what I would call the “normal" part of the resort, at 1600 acres, is actually fairly small - but still has some great piste-based bezzing to offer (check out Game Creek Bowl and the runs down into Lionshead). But the 3600 acres of back bowls - which are largely “off-piste" in Euro parlance - are mind-boggling.
"Vail has definitely got the highest number of 50+ year old shredders of any resort I have been to"
When the snow comes down (as it often does in Colorado), these areas light up, and all the old cliches about kids in candy stores apply (ideally with imported Cadbury’s, not Hersheys). On the couple of occasions that it dumped during our stay, we had lines from first lift to last, and given that we were just common-or-garden punters without any local knowledge, it is clear that there would have been many more epic areas to be accessed by those who were more familiar with their surroundings.
Importantly for those with kids, the back bowl terrain is never nappy-filling scary. Whilst it is steep enough to handle deep powder, our groms were hitting the double black diamonds without any ensuing tears or meltdowns, and with only minimal amounts of bribery needed. That isn't a thinly-veiled parental boast, just an observation that in Vail a double black diamond isn't necessarily as gnarly as it sounds, and thanks to the well thought-out topology of the resort, you won’t find yourself needing to abseil your kids over a cliff or busting out the ice axe and crampons unless something goes really badly wrong. Benefitting from the US-style in-bounds / out-of-bounds resort set up (i.e. everything within the resort boundary is theoretically safe and controlled) - we just followed our noses and enjoyed the pow.
The main park in Vail runs from the mid-point of the Riva Bahn lift down to the base of Golden Peak, and comprises everything from extra small through to large features.
Except it doesn’t.
Having arrived in Vail following a stint in Breckenridge, it is pretty obvious that even the large features in Vail wouldn't make it into the medium-sized park in Breck - which is surprising for a resort that hosts the Original and Best(TM) snowboard contest, the US Open. The juxtaposition with Breck actually makes Vail’s park look pretty tame.
Now, this is both good and bad.
"Incremental progression is much more tangible here than in Breck, because nothing in the park is frightening"
It is in many ways the perfect park for a family - because you can all get the same lift, take different lines down depending on your ability, then meet at the bottom, high five, hand out some chocolate and repeat. Which is what we did, again and again, and loved it. Incremental progression is much more tangible here than in Breck, because nothing in the park is frightening - even for a nine-year-old (my daughter was able to step up from the small to the medium hits after a week).
So whilst I had enjoyed the endorphin rush of the sphincter-twitching high-speed major wu-tang booters in Breck, here in Vail I was actually able to learn some new tricks on the “large" kickers, and - for the first time in over a decade, and against my better judgment, hit some rails.
Most of the rails in Breck involved overcoming a 90% mental likelihood of impaling yourself like a shred-kebab, whereas here in Vail even the “large" features allowed me to ride-on 50-50 like a pussy (which I am when it comes to sliding on metal).
Rails are like Peach Schnapps for me - I once had a terrible experience (which involved my mate puking all over me in a small tent in the Peak District - that was the Schnapps by the way), but I miraculously managed to overcome my decade long hoodoo thanks to Vail’s user-friendly park.
But despite that supportive pat-on-the-bottom of progression, I would still protest that the large hits in the Vail park lack a little “Wu", and thus deny the rider that sweet moment of weightlessness at the zenith of your air. Less scary, but in the long run the flatter hits of Vail would hinder the top end of progression - which is why you don't see many 900s being thrown here, unlike Breck where they are two-a-penny.
The guys who set up Vail were legends.
Earl Eaton was the son of a local Vail logger, and loved to ski. Pete Seibert had been part of an elite alpine military squadron that had trained in Colorado, and fought in the European Mountains during WW2. They got together (along with a few other members of the alpine squadron) and decided to build a ski resort in the beautiful Vail valley and its surrounding mountains.
Once they had scrabbled together enough of other peoples’ money (a $10K investment in the initial Vail resort back in the early 1960s bought you a condo in the village and a lift pass for life - suffice to say that will have been one of the best investments anyone will have made who didn't buy shares in Apple just after Steve Jobs returned), they somehow managed to build a functioning resort over the course of a single (short) summer.
Incredible. Inspiring. Even if they did (as became common parlance in the 60s and 70s) create something of a “Plastic Bavaria" which apes the European resorts of which the founders were so fond, but suffers by comparison.
"Vail's passion is inevitably moderated by the overbearing corporate feel... and on occasion drowned out by grumpy fat business guys on chairlifts"
These founders were passionate skiers first and foremost, and their simple love of making turns in powder bundles out of the museum here in Vail, and from the literature and videos that have captured the resort’s history over the subsequent 50 years.
This passion is still very much present in Vail; you’ll hear it in the hollers emanating from the back-bowls on a powder day, or from the fist-bumps between groms landing new tricks in the park, or in the belly laughs of those enjoying a few beers at the bottom of the hill at the end of the day…
But this passion is inevitably moderated by the overbearing corporate feel to the newer parts of the village (e.g Lionshead), muffled by the furs which are draped around the shoulders of the bored wives who amble from boutique to boutique because they never really like skiing anyway, hidden behind the expensive artworks that are being shipped from Vail’s galleries to the living rooms of its visitors across all four corners of the globe, and on occasion drowned out by grumpy fat business guys on chairlifts, shouting orders down the phone back to their grunts in the office.
But Vail has struck its deal, as we all have to, with those who provide the money. That money is what fuels an incredible resort, the new lifts, the grooming, the heated pavements which mean my kids won’t slip on any ice, the extensive on-mountain dining facilities…but it has forced Vail into a subservient relationship, a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses arms race to provide ever swankier experiences for an expectant clientele, which I dearly hope (as I am sure do those who hold Vail close to their hearts) will not strip away the passion of those incredible guys who built the resort in the first place.
"I particularly loved seeing the cougars stumbling out of the bars in their ski boots and leopard print pants at 9pm, their starched husbands angrily ushering them along"
The predominant punter vibe in Vail is definitely well-heeled baby-boomers enjoying their pension annuity coupled with expensive families taking time out from getting stressed about school plays and games of soccer, to get stressed about their kids’ ski lessons. We were also in Vail during “spring break", which brings with it a bunch of dumb-ass on-hill antics that you usually only see on BUSC trips (nudity, onesies, beer hats, attention-seeking shouting in the lift queue). But perhaps the most notable subset of the populous that are surprisingly common here in Vail are the “Greys on Trays".
Vail has definitely got the highest number of 50+ year old shredders of any resort I have been to. Old dudes who will have started riding most likely in their 30s, and who have managed to stick with the sport despite sciatica, mockery from their more sensible peers and hip replacements. Most of them look and talk like they really should be skiers (imagine Victor Meldrew covered himself in glue and stumbled into a Patagonia store, and you get the look), but they give us all hope that the onset of age need not precipitate a descent from the high ground of sideways slipping to the bottom-feeding common-or-garden two planked front-facing snow slipping.
"Vail remains an amazing place to shred, especially if you are with kids"
Given the slightly older population, you also hear quite a lot of moaning. But I suppose if you have been on the planet for approaching 60 years (and spent your winters in Colorado), you will have seen a whole bunch of powder days. So when the snow is less than perfect, it is understandable that you grumble a bit. Suffice to say they would be really fucking grumpy if they had to ski in France every year.
Finally, Vail doesn't have the same cutting-edge feel to its snowboarding community, unlike Breck where you feel that you could see a 14-year-old bust out a triple cork, or pioneer some obtuse new fashion that no-one else has caught onto yet. I guess as a young-buck freestyle-thinking shred head, you wouldn't base yourself here out of choice (given the cost of living, the prevailing grownup vibe and moderate park), so most of the young riders are likely to be the sons and daughters of condo-owners or holiday-makers, and consequently, well… less radical.
Notwithstanding my anti-corporate gripe above, Vail remains an amazing place to shred, especially if you are with kids. I loved the fact that the lifties are always smiling, and go out of their way to help the groms onto the lift, all day, every day. I love the fact that my children were able to really progress their freestyle riding in a sensibly proportioned park. I loved just disappearing off into a bowl full of powder knowing that my progeny could make it down behind me without any dramas. I also particularly loved seeing the cougars stumbling out of the bars in their ski boots and leopard print pants at 9pm, their starched husbands angrily ushering them along.
In summary, if you are in your middle age, like me, you’ll find plenty to accommodate your lifestage in Vail, but If you are looking for the cutting edge of snowboarding performance and culture, get off the Interstate 70 at Breck instead.