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Winter’s Back. I’m back. Here we go. 30 November 2012

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Switzerland (Or: Why you shouldn’t build your mansion in the mountains) 12 March 2012

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing, Travel.
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So here’s the thing about about Switzerland: sometimes, after too long spent traveling around only your own country, you’ll look at your bank account and say, “Huh, that seems like more than I usually have.” To which your frugal side will respond, “Yes, yes it is, and it’s the product of your hard work and diligence and it’ll pay for your child’s education and a downpayment and a nest egg and, and…” But then Switzerland will slink by with a  vest full of cheeses and Patek Philippes saying, “Betcha I can help you unload all that extra cash in a week.”

And of course, you’ll take Switzerland up on the offer because, well, the Alps.

For the geographically challenged, it’s a country about twice the size of New Jersey sitting pretty in the middle of Europe, between France, Italy, Germany and Austria. For the politically challenged, it’s also, you should note, not part of the EU. Why should that matter to you? Because Switzerland’s not on the Euro, and with the rest of the continent esploding and whatnot, this has made the historically safe Swiss Franc (CHF), a very, very expensive currency.

Expect to pay about $1.10 for every 1.00 CHF. That doesn’t sound bad, except everything in Switzerland costs about twice as much as it does in America to begin with. So plan on 200 CHF/night for a small hotel room, 25CHF/plate at dinner and 5 CHF/beer.

Once you get past the price, though, Switzerland is quite possibly one of the best, and certainly most beautiful, places on Earth. Folks from the Midwest tend to regard mountains as mountains. They’re big. They loom. Goats and people climb them. But spend any amount of time around rocky, pointy places and you’ll realize that not every range was created equal. The Sawatch in Colorado roll up to 14,000′ covered in talus–a fairly boring affair as mountains go. The San Juans offer a bit more relief: solid walls of rock a few thousand feet high, rugged terrain filled with lakes. And then there are the Alps, still dissected by glaciers and soaring 10,000′ above the valley floor where a cluster of chalets huddle together against  rockslides and avalanches.

The tallest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc (which is actually in France/Italy), breaks the 15,000′ barrier, higher than anything in the lower 48. And as its name implies, the glaciers smothering its summit leave it white year-round. No one will ever confuse Colorado for this place, no matter how much Telluride may protest to the contrary.

Anyway, faced with all that, we did what any sensible Coloradan would do: we skied it.

There’s more to that than you might image. Skiing in Europe is an affair unlike anything you’ll encounter in the US. There are no “resorts” in the American sense of the word, only “areas,” which generally seem to be run by their surrounding communities. The difference is this: so long as you’re in between the ropes at an American resort, you probably won’t die in an avalanche. In Switzerland, only the groomers benefit from avy control. And that partly explains why, in the 2009-2010 season, avalanches in Switzerland claimed 29 lives, seven of them in one slide alone. During that same period, 36 people died in all of America, where the population is roughly 40 times that of Switzerland.

I suspect to Europeans, this all contributes to the danger, and allure, of skiing. You might die. You might not. In practice, though, this seems to scare the bejeepers out of most skiers, who appear too timid to tackle evenest the tamest off-piste terrain. Of course, enough of them do that you can kinda sorta tell what’s safe an what isn’t based on their tracks, but for the most part, the day after a storm offers unlimited powder runs, which are exactly what we discovered in Grindelwald. Eight new inches, bluebird skies and the Eiger (which is German for ogre, evidently) keeping a close eye on everyone below.

This was skiing as it was meant to be. The Swiss should know; alpine skiing draws its name from these mountains. Yet the country predates the sport by several hundred years, meaning the ski villages typically appeared well before their lifts. You won’t find condo towers here, or mansions, just chalets perched on the hillside as if they’d grown right out of it, clustered together so a half dozen villages might inhabit a single valley. In some sense, these villages seem as much a part of the mountains as the boulders and the trees.

We could learn from that. It’s hard to overestimate the difference this makes in the overall experience. On the slopes, skiing is skiing and it’s easy to lose track of time and place. But wander the narrow alleys of Zinal as the last hints of alpenglow fade from the peaks and it takes you back a century or more. You pass a barn, an ornate carving on a chalet twice as old as anyone you’ve ever met. This place seems right, in a way that Vail with its Disneyland decorations and too-clean shutters can never match. This is the Swiss ski experience, not reliant upon the snow, which falls now and again in Tahoe-like dumps, but on a unique mixture of mountains, towns and the occasional ski lifts that all seem to draw meaning from one another.

Give America 800 years, and maybe we’ll get there, too. But right now, in our lifetimes, there’s only one place for it: Switzerland.

Aspen, in one video 10 February 2012

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing.
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Because, well, people in Aspen needed to meet a black person.

Echo Mountain — It’s a Place You Can Ski? 6 February 2012

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Reviews, Skiing.
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Echo Mountain‘s new tagline is “Let Traditions Begin.” This can only mean that the good folks who do Echo’s marketing have never actually experienced a tradition. Or maybe they’ve never been to Echo. Whatever the case, this is a hill best experienced for several hours. So why even give it a shot? Powder… powder in a snow-starved season.

This weekend’s storm dumped a foot and a half on Denver, maybe more on the plains. From six p.m. on Thursday through noon on Saturday, it took up residence over the Front Range. Grocery shelves emptied. People parked their cars halfway into intersections. And we’re in Denver. We’re supposed to be good at this sort of thing. But across the Continental Divide, another story was unfolding: only a few stray flakes had made it over the top. For Breck, Copper and the rest, it had been a shut out.

Figures. That’s been the story of the season.

Back on the Denver side of the divide, though, the storm had dropped an almost incomprehensible mount of snow. More than four feet in Coal Creek Canyon—and at Echo, nearly 60″. On Saturday, the folks at Eldora, the only other mountain east of the divide, were beside themselves. By 10:30, the place had sold out. You might think that it’s impossible for a ski resort to “sell out,” but Eldora proved otherwise. Turns out you can only sell lift tickets if you have enough room for people to park.

So, anyway, that’s a long way of saying the conditions I’m about to describe in my review of Echo are, um, rare—and phenomenal. In my ongoing, but not very serious, quest to ski all the Colorado resorts, I’d always imagined Echo would be last since I’d heard it was nothing more than a glorified terrain park. For the most part, that’s what it is: 85 acres, consisting of three “runs.” There’s a groomer, the park, and the glades. You don’t need to worry about anything other than the glades, which when visited offered a decent pitch and thigh-deep snow. Technically, I think they were closed, but in true Echo fashion, a patroller told us on the lift, “Sure, I think it’s closed but go in there. It’s good. If anyone asks you, just say someone from patrol told you to pack it down.” We obliged.

So for the next four hours, we lapped an empty chair and empty glades. Maybe a dozen other folks took turns through the trees that day, maybe. How was this even possible? 45 minutes from Denver we were experiencing some of the deepest powder we’d ever seen, sometimes so deep we couldn’t get the speed to ski it. After tracking out one area, we traversed and cut a new path, leading to more pristine snow and more perfectly-spaced trees. Except at Silverton, could another 30-something acres be so empty, or so fun?

Probably not. And that’s also why you’re not likely to start any traditions at Echo either, which is sorta too bad since it’s likable enough. We experienced near perfection, in the middle of a season that has been seriously unkind to the state’s major resorts, and it’s for that reason alone that we stopped by Echo. The novelty of night skiing can’t possibly add much. The terrain park pales in comparison to the nationally-ranked competition at Keystone and Breck. Weirdly, the mountain requires folks to sign a waiver just to buy a lift ticket. In the Midwest, all that might make Echo the envy of the region, but here, it’s overshadowed by nearly every other resort in the state.

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun this weekend—it was a blast–but if you’re thinking about Echo, sure, go for the 55″. Just don’t stick around for the traditions.

 

Where’s the Snow? 12 December 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing.
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So, you’re probably wondering where those three posts a week are. So am I. Rest assured, though, that’s it’s not my fault—you can blame it on the weather. Since December 1st, it’s snowed precisely four inches at Copper. Four inches. Now, granted, I shouldn’t be complaining that much because even with that meager amount of snow, the good folks on the snowmaking crews have opened up enough skiable terrain to make copper larger than all but the biggest eastern resorts. But I am; this is Colorado and we came here for the snow. Vermonters on the other hand, never left. No one moves to Vermont for the skiing unless he’s from New Hampshire.

At least we’re in better shape than Europe, where just a week ago, these intrepid young men had taken to skiing on rocks:

Note the reporter’s enthusiasm as he intones, “shredding some serious stone.” He must be a skier disappointed with this season, too.

All hope is not lost, though. Colorado powder guru Joel Gratz suggests that the current weather pattern may be coming to a close, which could mean the start of a snowier few weeks—if the weather cooperates of course. And even if it doesn’t Wolf Creek remains its usual snowy self, where 163″ have already fallen this season and all 1600 acres have opened for the year. At 4.5 hours from Denver, it’s a reasonable price to pay in travel time if you absolutely need your powder fix. And if you can wait a little longer then the storms will come as they always do. We’re still hungover from the endless untracked lines of 2010/11, unwilling to admit that this year might not compare.

It doesn’t have to. We’ll still be skiing.

Ski Review: Icelantic Keeper and Icelantic Nomad 29 November 2011

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Hope you folks had a happy Turkey Day, enjoyed the tradition of watching Detroit lose and managed to get some skiing in on either side of it. There’s been precious little snow out here in Colorado, relative to last year at least, but with all the new terrain opening anyway and the ski movies on tour, it’s hard to stay gloomy for more than a moment, especially when you’ve got new skis to demo.

Icelantic brought its entire line-up to Copper a couple weekends ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the company and live in the area, they’re worth checking out in person. Icelantic runs a First Friday event in conjunction with the rest of the galleries on Santa Fe that features boards and beer at their Battery 621 headquarters (6th and Kalamath). Take a look at the topsheet graphics and you’ll understand why this company feels okay showcasing products alongside area artists. And although Icelantic creates those graphics and designs the skis themselves, Never Summer, another Colorado company, does the construction, so you can be fairly certain the things will withstand a beating.

I’m reviewing Icelantic’s Keeper and the Nomad this time around, but you can also check out last year’s review of the Shaman. Conditions were the early season norm of hardpack, crust and some crusty lumps on their way to becoming moguls. Nothing special.

Icelantic Keeper 

As tested dimensions: 178 cm. 150/119/138. 16m radius.

I’m not even sure I should be reviewing these since powder is their purpose, but if I get them again on a Powder day, I’ll come back and add some thoughts. Anyway, the Keeper name, I think, is supposed to indicate that this is a ski you’ll always have around, but having it around doesn’t mean that it’s the ski you ought to select for an early season day. That said, for being this huge, these boards rip. For featuring an early rise tip, these boards rip. Come to think of it, they just rip, period.  You won’t be running gates with the ski teams at Copper, but you’ll definitely enjoy blah conditions on the Keepers more than you ever would with a pintail like the Pontoons.

Icelantic has been slow to get into the rocker game, and now that they have, they’ve stayed true to the idea that a ski ought to be fun—not just usable—anywhere on the mountain. So, yes, you can get these up on edge, though it takes a bit of work to get the tips to engage.  They’ll slide just where you want them through bumps. And they’re flexible enough that lazy skiing will still get you down the mountain. Just don’t expect expect a ski that will offer much feedback through any of that. But if you find yourself looking for a little more enjoyment as you take the groomers home from Vail’s back bowls, then the Keepers will do you right.

Icelantic Nomad

As tested dimensions: 178cm. 140/105/130. 20m radius.

Over the last couple years, I’ve gotten tired of all-mountain skis. Buy yourself a groomer-specific pair and something else for powder, and you’ll enjoy every day more, but if for whatever reason you have to buy just one ski, then I guess you’ve gotta do it right. Typically, my suggestion is the Volkl Mantra, but if you’re willing to give up some hard snow performance, you’d do well by the Nomads, too. In the all-mountain category, these are pretty playful skis, not really poppy enough to launch you out of turns but still happily willing to hang on to whatever radius you select. The Nomads had me feeling fairly comfortable at any speed and they’re damp enough that you won’t feel every change of surface condition. Your call on whether that’s a good thing. In many ways, these are the indie equivalent of the Dynastar Huge Troubles in my quiver, with a little extra sidecut thrown in for good measure.

Edge to edge, they’re considerably quicker than you’d expect for a ski that’s 105 under foot, something I recall enjoying on the even wider Shamans, but that’s the thing: given that the Shamans also appear in the Icelantic lineup, I’m not sure what to think of the Nomad. Maybe you can’t live without twin tips? Maybe you can’t stand the turtles on the Shamans’ top sheet? Maybe you’re all about backcountry jibbing? Near as I can tell, the Nomads are the closest thing Icelantic makes to a “normal” ski, and I just don’t think you can make the case for them in the face of the other options. Buy Icelantic, yes, but you’ll get more for your money by choosing the Shamans.

Posting will resume shortly… 17 November 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing, Writing.
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Sorry I’ve been MIA for the last week or so. I’ve been working on another article for Powder and it’s consumed much of my writing time outside work. That doesn’t really excuse going to trivia last night instead of blogging, but you’ll understand that a social life is important, too, won’t you?

Anyway, the wild and crazy world of ski journalism is actually more structured than I’d imagined it might be. On the one hand, I’d just been getting in touch with editors willy nilly, telling them I’d like to write stories for them. This has worked 100 percent of the time so far, but an e-mail arrived in my inbox the other day explaining to all Powder’s contributors that there is a process to be followed. And that if we fail to do so, they’ll print off our work in Comic Sans, call it all sorts of bad names and then send it to Self. Or they’ll just refuse it.

At any rate, in an industry where’d you expect everyone to play fast and loose, flouting the rules and doing shot-skis with ski bunnies, it’s actually kinda buttoned up. Who knew. But then there’s the actual skiing and writing about skiing, which makes up for any red tape. I could get used to that.

 

The Start of the Season 9 November 2011

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Of course we were wearing onesies. Of course. 

I think we can consider the season officially started, so long as you ignored the opening of Wolf Creek, Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, but no one really counts those since they’re not real mountains. The ski season hasn’t truly begun until some mountain owned by a publicly traded company or a private equity firm gets into the game. Those are the folks who know what skiing’s all about, so I’ve decided to write a season-opening haiku in their honor.

Keystone and Copper:

keeping investors happy.

How? More yard sales, please.

I spent too long on that.  In any case, Copper mountain and Keystone have both opened their white ribbons of death, so if you still haven’t bought a pass and want to base your decision purely on on the one run that’s open right now, get the five mountain from Vail Resorts. Keystone’s top-to-bottom runs, serviced by two lifts, will make it worth your while. After that, well, I don’t know. This is the first year I’ve held the Copper/Winter Park pass, so it’s tough to say where you’ll get the most value down the road. But you’re concerned about skiing Right Now, right?

In other news, it looks like Winter Park’s opening early; they say it’s because so many folks were asking them for it at, of all places, Denver’s Ski Expo last weekend. Plan on heading there this Saturday, Nov. 12 if you prefer crossing Berthoud, rather than Loveland, Pass to get to some mediocre skiing. On the other hand, maybe you ought to check out Wolf Creek, which received almost three feet of snow over the weekend.

And in still other news, if you haven’t bought a pass already or if you do have a pass and simply oodles of money to spend too, you should check out the Monarch season pass. Even if you’re not planning on skiing there, the $339 you’ll pay for it gets you three free days at a gaggle of ski resorts including… Revelstoke, Powderhorn, Sunlight, Loveland, Red River, Angel Fire and several more. You’ll also get a free unguided day at Silverton as well as half price skiing at Taos and Alta, two of the best mountains in America. The rep at the ski expo suggested that next year will feature even more deals, so check Monarch’s website in late spring/early summer next year to get the best deals.

That’s all for now, but if any of you have experience writing profile pieces for magazines, let me know. I’ve told Powder that’s the plan for Tuesday, but I’m not sure I have any idea what I’m doing.

Nothing Says Ski Season Like 90s John Denver 2 November 2011

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That pretty much sums it up. It’s snowing here in Denver and ski season starts in earnest on Saturday when Copper Mountain and Keystone welcome the Front Range hordes. So for all of you who can’t experience that, and even for those of you who will, here’s the Muppet man himself. Extra points for anyone who can tell me where this was filmed.

Snoooooooowww! 25 October 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing.
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So, uh, everything you thought about Denver was correct. That is, for all you folks who like to think we’re a perpetually snowed-in city of igloos and sled dogs (Rockies baseball notwithstanding), this is your moment to readjust your t-shirt, sip an autumn drink on the veranda and say “told you so.” That is your right. We set a record high of 80 yesterday, and by tomorrow evening the temperature will have dropped, get this, 62 degrees. There’s potentially a foot of snow involved, too, and after a weekend spent in Seattle, this comes as a shock to the system,

But of course, living in Denver, we’re okay with all that, or at least a lot of us are. We’re perhaps the only big city in America that looks forward to the start of winter weather because it also heralds the start of ski season, which for those of us on the Copper/WP pass, lies a little more than a week away. So now’s the time to finish all the waxing and sharpening in preparation for the white ribbon on death, that single run into which every soul from Denver is cheerily packed.

Some friends from work have suggested a climbing trip that weekend instead. Any sane person would choose amazing climbing over a crappy ski day. But then again, skiers aren’t exactly sane people. I’ll let you know how it works out.

 

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