Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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The other rockies

Leave it to Canadians to carve out affordable resorts in Colorado ski country

I come from a family of skiers. My dad took up the sport back in the era when lifts were nonexistent. My first skis were literally strapped to my feet soon after I started walking. Skiing is in my blood, and it's an experience I feel compelled to pass on to my son.

So when it came to find a winter holiday for the family, it wasn't a hard choice: the slopes beckoned. The only question was, which slopes?

They had to suit the abilities and desires of everyone in our party -- my beginner son, my ex-Quebec ski-team partner Geoff and me, an able skier as interested in pursuing new vistas as new challenges. Geoff and I grew up skiing Quebec's Eastern Townships and Laurentians as well as New England. I'd also tasted the Alps at Chamonix in France and Alberg, Austria, but a European trip was out of the question. Prohibitive travel costs aside, the jet lag is not worth it for a week.

We decided to try the Rockies. I jumped onto the Intrawest website to check out Whistler. Now if big is your thing, then Whistler-Blackcomb remains the ultimate ski destination. It's the largest in North America, with 3307 hectares of skiable terrain -- twice that of its closest competitor, Vail.

But as the mom of a seven-year-old, the thought of skiing North America's largest resort became a bit daunting. Clicking through to vacations and special deals, I found that former Canadian resort developer Intrawest had also moved into Colorado -- not just at one resort, but at two.

And it turns out that they had lift-and lodging rates starting at around $80 per person, per night. That was about the same price as at Whistler or Tremblant, even factoring in the exchange rate. These resorts seemed more manageable, while still offering a large ski terrain (around 1010 hectares), and each provided such different experiences.

Copper Mountain was first developed by a local in 1971, who negotiated to buy the land and work with the forest service to create guidelines for a ski area. Intrawest bought the site 10 years ago and now has three village areas. Everything you need can be found within its borders.

Winter Park is an entirely different story. First developed in the '40s, this bit of Denver parkland is a the area's oldest ski resort and a playground for locals -- not tourists.


South for the Winter
We booked our flights south. We arrived at Denver International Airport and drove into Winter Park, about 90 minutes away. Up a snowy village road, about two kilometres from the base of the mountain, we found our condo in Beaver Village, which is as old as the ski area and has a nice nostalgic feel.

Today, the Village offers everything from hotels to townhouse rentals to rooms in historic lodges, where you'll also find a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and laundry. In our condo, up the road from the main lodge in a beautiful forest setting, pictures of skiers in leather lace-up boots, stretchy pants and jackets were hung from wooden walls by a big brick fireplace. It's this passion for mountain air and exhilarating activity I was so eager for my son to acquire.

The three of us decided to go into the old town for dinner. A local pointed us in the direction of Mirasol Cantina, (78415 Highway 40, Winter Park, Colorado; tel: 970-726-0280; www.mirasolcantina.com) a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall. The location wasn't inspiring, but we noshed on the most authentic soft-shell tacos I'd had outside of Mexico. Plus, they had mac and cheese too! Any parent of a seven-year-old will appreciate this fact. I was in heaven.

The next morning wasn't quite as perfect. We stumbled out of our condo and were greeted by a mass of people waiting for the free resort bus to take them to the hill. This was March break at a popular Colorado resort, after all. A bus came with one or two remaining spots, then another, then another. Forty-five minutes passed and we were no closer to skiing.

We were also on a deadline to get Zak registered for ski school. So we slipped down the icy road past the other Beaver Village condos to the main thoroughfare, where there was another bus stop, which we hoped would provide better odds. A couple of buses later we finally got there and managed to get Zak into gear and then into ski school just in time. Thankfully the resort was wise enough to have a ski rental just for the ski school.

But crowds were also hoarding the ski rental shops -- our next stop. It took another 90 minutes to get our gear. By this time, I was tired, overheated and hungry. But Geoff would have none of it. With hours lost already, a lot of mountain to cover and only three days to ski, he was wasting no time on food. He shoved a power bar and juice box into my hands and we headed for the lift line.

Ah yes, the lift line at the base. That would be another 20 minutes to a half-hour for sure. But once we got through that first line on the Zephyr Express chair, it was clear skiing. With 24 lifts and five mountains to ski, the crowd soon dispersed into their respective green, blue, black and extreme trails. Size does matter when it comes to avoiding crowds.


Rocky Mountain High
Finally, we were skiing the Rockies. The views, even from the lifts, are awe-inspiring. The groomed runs, a little less so. We East Coasters are accustomed to the art of downhill skating, but we've grown up with the myth that the snow is deeper on the "other side" (of the continent). The runs were marginally longer than out East, but conditions on beginner and intermediate trails were pretty much the same.

They weren't icy, but they were hard packed, and we wanted powder as deep as we could get it. Of course that was just on Winter Park mountain. I was sure powder could be found, we just had to head to the right peaks.

Over the next three days we'd make all the tracks we could, crisscrossing the five mountains of the resort --Winter Park, Mary Jane, Parsenn Bowl, Vasquez Ridge and Vasquez Cirque -- in search of the best powder.

The topography of mountains naturally serves skiers of different abilities. Winter Park is at a lower altitude (3260 metres) and has predominantly beginner and intermediate groomed trails. It's also home to Discovery Park, the kids' ski-school area. Vasquez Ridge has predominantly blue and green trails; Mary Jane has blue and black trails and a great variety of chute, mogul and tree skiing.

Parsenn Bowl (3675 metres) and Cirque offered ungroomed, deep powder and above-the-tree-line extreme skiing. The skiing was great when the winds subsided enough to let you get there. The views are incredible. The air is thin, but after a few dizzy spells, I got used to it.

Our only complaint was that we found it difficult and time-consuming to navigate from one area to another. We loved skiing the extreme areas of Vasquez Cirque and Backside Parsenn, which had a beautiful mix of glade and tree skiing on deep virgin snow amid very little traffic.

But some of the routes in these areas meant that we wound up 45 minutes and three long lift lines from getting the top of Parsenn Bowl. Between lengthy navigation times and the need to collect Zak from ski school at a set time, we were lucky to get in a couple extreme powder runs in a day.

As it turns out, that's about all I could handle. My once-a-year ski legs gave out by lunchtime on day three, giving me the perfect opportunity to explore the resort. Intrawest had started to put its stamp on things, but the base was still fairly basic, with a few restaurants, shops and bars and one lodge with 230 condos.

It also had a Discovery Center by the Zephyr lift with information on property prices, an exhibition on the history of the resort and town and a video about its past and future. I watched the video, happy to see that Intrawest planned to focus on mountain improvements, like lifts up the backside of Parsenn, in phase one. The "village," complete with hundreds more condo units, restaurants, shops and other amenities, would only come in phase two, with groundbreaking in 2006.

I felt for the old village and wondered if these grand plans would put its quaint, small, independent shops out of business. As a management company for the City of Denver, Intrawest is quick to say that it sees itself creating a resort that unites the old with the new. Time will tell. In the meantime, I like Winter Park. I like the feeling you're playing in Denver's backyard and hope Intrawest manages to connect its sprawling mountains and new resort with the old town, and it avoids overgrooming its homegrown appeal.


A Copper Bowl
On the other side of the continental divide, about an hour away, Copper Mountain is a totally self-contained resort. In place of an old town, there are three purpose-built villages, compete with over 30 lodges and 20 restaurants (many of them chains), a gym, a spa, an arcade, skating, tubing and even a stable.

We had no reason to leave, and we didn't. We skied hard every day, treated ourselves to big meals and collapsed in front of our condo fire, overlooking the slopes, every night. Many of the restaurants even offered room service -- a bonus for the ski-weary family. Zak and I had a blast tubing, though I discovered that I prefer being strapped to things I can exert some control over.

We all went on a sleighride dinner, which gave us a history of the area in a kitschy and touristy sort of way, which was nonetheless fun. None of the food options are worth writing about, but lodging comes with kitchens and groceries are available in a couple of resort shops, albeit at resort prices.

I even squeezed in a massage one evening, for which unprepared muscles were extremely grateful. I was sure I'd prefer Winter Park and it's more down-home atmosphere. What I discovered is that my travel preferences are different when I've got my son with me. It's just plain easier not to have commute more than 100 metres from your condo to a ski lift, restaurant, rental shop or grocery store, especially when you're constantly schlepping ski equipment, hats, gloves, helmets and other accessories for yourself and your child just about everywhere you go.

You don't need a car to get to either resort as shuttle services from the airport are excellent and reasonably priced. But to get back and forth between lodging, town and resort at Winter Park, a car would've been nice.

At Copper, on the other hand, there was a great bus system to get between the three villages. On the slopes, the lifts between various peaks and bowls seemed better coordinated. It was easy to get from lodging to ski school to the bowl and back again.

When we were there, windstorms closed down lifts to the bowls frequently and when we could get in, the bowls had lost their deep powder to high traffic. But thanks to a Snowcat on Tucker Mountain, we were still able to get above the tree-line for that backcountry feel. We had to work for it a little more than I'd like, hiking for 20 to 30 minutes along ridges where the Snowcat wouldn't go before finding the cream we wanted to drop into. Once there however, the trudge was soon forgotten.

The other areas we fell in love with were the tree runs off the Sierra Lift at Union Peak, which was conveniently located above the ski school. Like Winter Park, Copper's terrain is also naturally divided with a wide variety of runs and vistas for all skill levels, but there are substantially more options for green skiers, with 21 percent of runs for beginners, compared to eight percent at Winter Park.

The odd thing is, this expanse of beginner runs by no means feels like it's at the expense of intermediate or expert options. In all areas, we seemed to be able to find quiet, ungroomed tree areas to dip into. This was a riot to ski with Zak, following a week of excellent lessons that had graduated him from an assisted snowplower to an independent, near-parallel skier.

I have nothing but great things to say about the ski schools at Winter Park and Copper. At just over US$250 for three full-day lessons including lunch and lift package, it wasn't cheap, but it was worth it.

Zak got the training he needed in a fun environment with other kids. He started the week feeling lukewarm about skiing, but by the end of it, his confidence and interest had grown tenfold. And for Geoff and I, the full days meant we didn't feel like we were wasting time and money skiing beginner runs. In addition, picking Zak up at the school day end of 3pm gave us time to do a couple runs with him before the lifts closed at 4pm.

The skiing was equally excellent at both resorts, and both are extremely family oriented. Ultimately, I liked both for the shared "wow" I experienced every time I wiped the powder off my goggles, took in a deep breath of thin air, smiled and truly felt that Rocky Mountain High.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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