Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Vail Days

On Wednesday, March 19, we headed to Vail. Our ski pass, the Colorado Pass, allows us to ski ten days at Vail or Beaver Creek. Early in the season, we did some hoarding of Vail days. With our ski season nearing its end, we were taking every opportunity to go to Vail to use up our ten days there. Vail is our favorite mountain. Even though it’s not really that far away (45 minutes to an hour if the roads are decent), it always seems further than it really is. That’s probably partially because Breckenridge practically in our backyard. Also, the roads on the way to Vail are often sketchy at best, making the ride nerve-wracking. Proving that the roads have been unusually bad, Vail Pass on I-70 has been closed 19 times this winter. Last year it was only closed three times all winter.

This was an unusual day where the snow at Vail wasn’t very good. There had been four inches of new snow overnight, but that wasn’t enough to cover the crunchy stuff underneath on the ungroomed runs. In one of the lift lines, we overheard someone refer to the conditions as “dust on crust,” which seemed pretty appropriate. Even Blue Sky Basin was crunchy. Every other time we’ve been to Vail, it was fantastic whether or not there was new snow. We took a few runs then hung out and snacked at the mid-Vail lodge for a while. We took some more runs, including trekking all the way out to the Outer Mongolia Bowl, then called it a day early. Around mid-afternoon we jumped on the bus to get back to our car which was parked in a free lot in East Vail.

We drove back to Vail Village and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around. First we checked out the Colorado Ski Museum. It had an assortment of displays showing the evolution of skiing and ski gear, ski fashion, and the history of the 10th Mountain Division, which trained in Colorado during World War II. Sarah’s favorite part was the ski fashion exhibit – there were some loud outfits, especially from the 1980s.

After the museum, we walked through the Vail Village shopping area. If you are in the market for a fur coat (we’re not), there were a least four different fur places. There was also the usual assortment of ski village gear places and clothing shops. It didn’t take us long to see it all. We saw a sign at Joe’s Famous Deli for ice cream and decided on that instead. We got a pint of Swiss chocolate almond ice cream and sat outside on a bench savoring it. Yum! It’s been a while since it’s been warm enough for ice cream to seem appealing.

Finally, it was time for the Street Beat concert that we’d come to see. Vail has a free concert series throughout the winter and, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, this week’s concert was an Irish rock band named the Young Dubliners. “Young” was a bit of a misnomer, as the band has been together for 18 years and most of the band members are approaching middle age. They were an energetic bunch, though, and a lot of fun to listen to as they played to the huge crowd that gathered in the street.

Thursday, we passed on skiing since there wasn’t any new snow and the conditions weren’t likely to be very good. Also, due to the big spring break week, the slopes had been more crowded than usual all week.

Friday, we went back to Vail. There was more new snow, and conditions were much better than they had been early in the week. As usual, we spent most of the day at Blue Sky Basin, taking multiple runs through the Champagne Glade, Lover’s Leap, and the Skree Field. For the last run of the day, we decided to go to Golden Peak. Golden Peak is off to the far side of the front of Vail and we’d never taken a run there before. We soon found out why. There were several runs to choose from. Two of the runs were double black diamonds and one was marked single black on the map but turned out to be marked double black on the trail signs. The top of it was easy enough, making us wonder why it was rated so difficult. We soon found out as the run became really steep glare ice. Yuck! We slowly worked our way down the mountain without doing major damage, but then there was a long and very flat traverse ahead of us to get the rest of the way down Golden Peak.

On the way home from Vail, we went to Copper Mountain for the monthly full-moon snowshoe hike. It was poorly scheduled, starting at 6 pm when it isn’t getting dark until 7:30 or so. It was dark before the hike finished, but the moon still hadn’t made it over the ridge of the Ten Mile Range. Even if it had, by that time it had clouded up again. Despite the lack of moon for the moonlight hike, it was an enjoyable jaunt.

There were six guides, which was almost as many as the number of people who’d signed up. One of the guides was particularly interesting. He spent a while in the music business and almost 20 years on Wall Street, and then moved to Summit County to get away from the scramble of the corporate world. He had lots of interesting, and very random, music trivia to entertain us at breaks. A second guide gave us some tips on telling the difference between firs, spruce, and pine. Pine needs are always in clusters, whereas spruce and fir needles are single needles on a branch. Spruce needles are square and the bark is scraggly. Fir needles are flat and “friendly” (i.e. soft).

The next day, there was more snow again and we got up early to get to Breckenridge for the first lift. The snow was great all day, but the big news of the day was that we finally climbed Peak 8! The ski resort spans four different peaks – from Peak 7 to Peak 10. Peak 8 has the highest chairlift in North America, the Imperial Chair, which goes up to 12,840’. From there, you can hike another 150’ to the top of Peak 8. We’d never gotten around to hiking because it looked like a lot of work and it is usually freezing and seriously windy up that high.

The hike consists of a very steep boot-pack path that took us about ten minutes of huffing and puffing – and we’re acclimated! There just isn’t much oxygen up that high. The wind, as usual, was howling. This turned the snowboards into sails so it was difficult even to stay upright at first. Luckily, there weren’t many people going up at the time. Sometimes, there are so many people ascending at once that it looks like a line of ants climbing to the top. Sarah was thankful for the lack of people because she had visions of a bad case of dominos if one person slipped. There was no way to pass, and each step had space for at best half of the bottom of a foot. Yikes.

The top was definitely worth the hike. It felt like standing on top of the world, with gorgeous 360 degree mountain views. It really was stunning. We hiked up twice, and the runs down were nice since there was a lot more untracked powder than you typically get skiing off the lift, but it was really the views that made it all worth it.

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