Friday, January 11, 2008

Skiing in Colorado

We left Illinois on the morning of January 2. Destination for the day: Motel 6 in Lincoln, Nebraska. We hit some snow in Illinois, and then as we drove through Iowa, we saw dozens of cars in the median or in the ditch on the right side of the road. The weather was fine for us, but apparently they’d had some nasty snow a few days earlier and there had been so many accidents that they hadn’t gotten all of the cars towed out yet. It was kind of eerie – I-80 was like a car graveyard.

The rest of the drive to Lincoln was pretty uneventful. We got to the highway exit for our motel, and lo and behold, it wasn’t just any old Motel 6… This was a Motel 6 with a 24-hour lingerie shop next door! We were in luck! We checked in, parked our car in a well-lit area in full view of the motel’s front desk, removed our valuables, and headed to our room, where we promptly forgot about the bounty of satin and lace next door and instead watched “Wife Swap” on TV, which was incredibly trashy but oddly captivating.

After a good night’s sleep, we got up in the morning, took advantage of the Motel 6 breakfast buffet (that is, we drank some coffee out of Styrofoam cups), and headed out. By afternoon, we’d made it to Boulder, where we met our friend Mark and freed up space in his garage by taking back two sets of skis, two snowboards, two pairs of snowshoes, six pairs of boots, two helmets, five pairs of goggles, shovel, and a few other items that we’d left there in October. Only problem: Our car was already full. We’d added a snowboard from one of Sarah’s sisters and assorted Christmas presents. Where was all the snow gear going to go? After much fine maneuvering and some brute force, all that was left to sit in Sarah’s lap in the passenger seat were a helmet, a pair of boots, the laptop, and maybe a few other things. She couldn’t move, but hey, it’s only a little under two hours from Boulder to Breckenridge. We could have gone a little out of our way to get on I-70 sooner, but Sarah wanted to make things hard on herself, so she directed Brian down Highway 6, which is a windy road down a narrow canyon. It was a beautiful, somewhat uncomfortable drive.

Eventually we got to Frisco, the next town over from Breckenridge. We decided that we should get some staples, so we bought a couple of gallons of milk and a gallon of orange juice, which filled up some of the last remaining free space in the front of the car. Then we drove to Breckenridge, to the house that would be our home for the next three months. The house was empty when we got there, which was just as well, as we carried load after load of stuff from the car into our room. We discovered that Sparky, the family dog, had decided to welcome us by decorating our carpet with a few droppings. No sooner had we cleaned that up than Sarah discovered that the bottom of one of her socks was yellow – what we had thought was a puddle of melted snow was, in fact, not. Gross! A Wal-Mart trip to acquire carpet cleaner was in order.

Aside from occasional run-ins with Sparky, though, our living situation is great. We’re living with a woman named Rachel and her three kids. Rachel loves to cook, so she made dinner for us the first two nights we were here. She has wireless internet, so we can continue to update our blog. We have cable TV in our room, and Rachel even gave us a hotplate so we can make our coffee first thing in the morning. We live on Peak 7, which is the northernmost of the four mountains that comprise the Breckenridge ski area. To get to the slopes, we just drive down to the base of Peak 7 and park in a free lot there, then take a bus to the gondola. Breck has all sorts of things to do – it has the typical ski village stuff (including great happy-hour specials), but it’s also a town with a real year-round population.

The next day was Friday, our first ski day of the winter! We headed to Breck and skied all day, mostly on blue stuff to start getting our skiing muscles in shape. We spent a while on Peak 7 and then moved over to Peak 9. In the Berghoff restaurant, a guy introduced himself and asked if we were interested in learning about an opportunity to purchase a timeshare. We said no, but then he sweetened the deal with an offer of a $200 spa treatment, and Sarah was hooked on the idea of a massage. We signed up for a two-hour-long timeshare presentation on Sunday after skiing, after which we would get our spa vouchers.

Saturday we went to Keystone. We had a great day of skiing until Brian got a splitting headache, presumably from the altitude. When you’re used to being at sea level, exertion at 12,000 feet takes a lot out of you! We’d been drinking a lot of water, knowing that that helps combat altitude sickness, but it was still too much for Brian. So we ended our ski day a little early and headed back home to Breck.

We have the Colorado Pass, which lets you ski all winter at Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin, with ten days that you can use at Vail or Beaver Creek. All of that costs $439 ($339 without the Vail / Beaver Creek days), so we figure we’re spending $4 each per day for the opportunity to ski, or $14 a day for Vail and Beaver Creek. We find that our mentality is a lot different with a season’s pass. When we’re paying $86 for a day of skiing, we want to get our money’s worth, so we go, go, go from when the slopes open to when they close. We even try to get on the last chair right before it closes so that we can get one last run in to end the day. When you’re paying $4 a day, though, and skiing all winter, you can take your time. We still try to get to the lifts when they first open, particularly on powder days, to get the best conditions. But we may ski for a couple of hours and then go into a lodge to take a long break and warm up. Then we come back out for a few more runs, and then head back in. Also, we may find ourselves becoming fair-weather skiers – if the weather’s not ideal, we’re much less likely to force ourselves to stay outside to get our runs in.

On Sunday we checked the morning snow report and saw that Breck had a couple inches of new snow, so we headed out with our snowboards. Brian decided to try riding goofy all day to see if he could get the hang of it, since the powder would cushion any falls. We spent the whole day on Peak 9 at Breck – Breck has so much terrain that you can literally spend an entire day on just one of the four peaks and not get bored. By the end of the day, Sarah was feeling pretty good about her snowboarding, and Brian’s spectacular falls were coming with less frequency. At one point Sarah fell victim to the altitude headache, so we hung out in the Beaver Run lodge watching football. But all in all, it was a fantastic day.

After our day of snowboarding, we headed to Grand Timber Lodge for our timeshare sales pitch. A salesman took us back to his cubicle at the appointed time and talked about skiing for five or ten minutes, then asked if we had any questions. We fumbled to come up with some intelligent-sounding questions, surprised that he didn’t have a sales pitch or a slideshow or something. After we asked a few questions, he tried to sell us for a few minutes on the investment properties of a timeshare, saying that he was so glad that he’d taken all of his money out of the stock market in 2001 and put it into timeshares. When he could see that that pitch wasn’t going anywhere, he confessed that he had other pitches to use on other people – for instance, if we had kids, he’d tell us how time with our kids is so short, and we needed to make the absolute most of our vacation time together by spending it in a timeshare. But based on the questionnaire we’d filled out (staying with a friend in Breck, have no kids, etc.), the only reason why we’d want a timeshare is as an investment. We were dismissed within 25 minutes, and with our $200 in spa vouchers in hand, we headed for happy hour at the Grand Timber Lodge bar, where we watched more football and drank Sam Adams and a tasty fruity rum drink. What a deal -- $200 in massages to chat with a guy for 25 minutes!

Monday was another powder day – six inches of new snow at Breck! So we headed out again with our snowboards and got to the mountain 15 minutes before the lifts opened. We were the first ones to ride the Rocky Mountain Express that day and made fresh tracks. This was our best day yet – the feeling of floating in powder on a snowboard is unbeatable. Over time, the snow got tracked up, but the riding was still fantastic with so much snow on the mountain.

That night, we went to the Colorado Mountain College, where a traveling version of the Telluride Mountainfilm festival was showing. Mountainfilm is a festival of short films about the spirit of mountains, and this show consisted of nine films from past festivals. The film themes ranged form an orphan boy’s struggle to find family in Uganda to climbing the cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to spoofing the materialistic lifestyle of the wealthy occupants of Telluride via a fake anthropological investigation into the deserted mountain village. One of the best films was about Martin Litton’s role in saving the Grand Canyon from damming – Litton is a hilarious guy who’s run the Colorado River many times and used his platform as editor of the Los Angeles Times to build public support for keeping the Grand Canyon wild. The film is adventure, biography, environmental history, and comedy all rolled up together.

Tuesday we headed back to Keystone for another day of skiing. This was another powder day, but for the first time, we had clear blue skies and fantastic views all morning long. We’ve gotten storm after storm, which makes for great snow but sometimes limited visibility – not today. Brian got his ski bindings adjusted at the end of the day. They’d been set to 6, but the shop determined that they should be at 9.5. No wonder his skis were always popping off!

And on Wednesday, after five straight days of skiing and snowboarding, leading to many sore muscles, we rested. We made an appointment to use our spa gift certificate for a couples massage at 2:00 at the Grand Timber Lodge. We got there a little early to use the hot tub and pool, then headed to the couples’ massage room. Sarah had had one massage before, and Brian had never had one, but it’s something we definitely could get used to. We lay in side-by-side beds, with two massage therapists, one working on each of us. Muscles in Brian’s shoulders that he didn’t even know were tight were suddenly loosening up. The music was calming, the massage oil was soothing, and Brian almost fell asleep. When our hour was up, we didn’t even want to move.

Afterwards, we went to Windy City Pizza for happy hour -- $1.25 slices of pizza and PBR pints. What a deal, and for a little while we were the only ones there. Then we headed over to the park for the Ullympics. The Ullr festival is an annual festival for the Norse god of snow, and each day during the festival is a different event. Tonight’s was the Ullympics, a sporting competition. When we arrived, there weren’t many teams present and they were still taking entries, so we met a couple from Alabama and convinced them to sign up with us as a four-person team. We called ourselves the Procrastinators and were one of six teams in the competition.

The Ullympics consisted of three events. First was a group ski – the four team members had to get on a single pair of “skis” (really a pair of 2x4s with pieces of rope for bindings) and shuffle across a tennis court. We and another team volunteered to go first. Only problem: The tennis court was covered in thigh-deep powder, and four people on 2x4s don’t really float. We tried hard, but eventually ripped our bindings out, and our opponent split one of their skis in half, so we resorted to taunting and throwing snow at each other. You can see us in a video on the website of the local newspaper, the Summit Daily. After our race, the Ullympics organizers decided to change the competition to a simple running race, in which the four members of a team had to hold hands and run across the tennis court. For our struggles, we and our opponents got the top two rankings in this event.

The next event was the frying pan toss – toss cast-iron frying pans at a target. Many different strategies were attempted, from underhand heaves to Frisbee forehands and backhands. Plastic pint bottles of Bud Light (the major sponsor of the Ullympics) were handed out to all participants prior to the event, so while some of the tosses left something to be desired, the heckling was consistently strong.

And the third event was the retro ski race. One member of the team had to be dressed up in a retro uni ski suit and goggles, carry skis to one end of a field, then get in them and skate ski back to the starting point. Sarah was our volunteer and did a fine job despite Brian’s initial attempt to stuff both of her feet into one leg of her suit.

In the end, our team finished third, good enough to win a huge stack of prizes, including a full case of Bud Light (Brian’s drinking one as he writes this), a bottle of Ullr (apparently also a Norwegian schnapps, not just the god of snow), Bud pint glasses, a Bud Christmas mug, Ullr T-shirts, and more. All participants also got blue foam Viking horns, which we brought home to the kids and were a big hit. Having gone thinking we’d just watch, the Ullympics far surpassed our expectations – we had a great time.

On Thursday we woke up and saw that Vail had nine inches of new snow, so we rushed through breakfast and headed over. We parked in one of the free lots a few miles from the slopes and promptly got the car stuck in a foot of poorly-plowed (or perhaps not at all) snow. With some help from three other skiers, we dislodged the car, parked it, and got on our way to the bus stop to ride to Vail Village.

So far, every day had been better than the last, and this was no exception. We headed straight for the Back Bowls and plowed through powder, Brian on his snowboard and Sarah on skis. Bright blue sky afforded fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. It was a bit cold so we headed inside to warm up, then headed back out to Blue Sky Basin, the farthest part of the Vail ski area. There are some great black runs there, where you drop over the edge of a cliff, down five or six feet and then ski an open bowl briefly before heading into trees for gladed skiing. Sarah wasn’t sure she wanted to jump into a bowl where the initial drop was taller than she is, so Brian dove in and gave her no choice. On an icy day we’d probably do serious damage to ourselves on this run, but on a powder day, any lack of skill is forgiven by soft landings.

On Friday, we headed to Arapahoe Basin, where the new Montezuma Bowl would be opening for the first time at 11:00. This is a big deal – it’s 400 acres of new terrain, enough to expand A-Basin’s skiable terrain by 80%, and serviced by a quad lift. A-Basin had four inches of new snow and yet again, we found ourselves skiing in powder. The snow just keeps falling, every single day! We look outside from our windows and there it is, more snow. We get outside in the morning to our car and have to brush off two or three inches of new snow. It’s amazing!

The only problem with A-Basin was that it was cold, with very high winds. We had a few nice runs and then went inside to warm up before heading back out for the opening of the Montezuma Bowl. We got there a little late but still got to ski one of the first runs in the bowl. At one point, we found ourselves stuck in waist-deep powder and could barely get out! The lift line, naturally, was really long, so we just did the one run and headed back to the front side. We were cold and decided to cut our day of skiing short, but we decided to do one last run. After getting on the lift, Brian got his skis stuck in the snow and they popped off! There he was, riding up the lift in just his boots, not knowing what to do, until eventually word got passed back from chair to chair to the lift operator, who slowed the lift, retrieved the skis, and handed them to a skier about 10-15 chairs back from us. When we got to the top, a girl on the chair behind us offered the helpful suggestion that Brian could just ride down the lift and look like “a total dork”. Brian thanked her for the great idea but let her know that he was already a total dork, and besides, his skis were on their way up. This incident provided plenty of laughs and a good test for Brian’s newly adjusted bindings – apparently 9.5 is tight, but not so tight that you get dragged off the lift when your skis get stuck, thank goodness.

After that run, we headed home and hung out at the house for a while, catching up on our blog. No pictures in this entry, unfortunately – we refuse to take pictures on powder days. One of these days, the snow will let up, and we’ll have a sunny day without much new snow that’s great for taking pictures and less awesome for skiing. When that day arrives, we’ll take some pictures. Until then, we’ll be enjoying the powder.

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