Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

© Corey Rich

With an average annual snowfall of 930 centimetres, Vail is an epic powder destination.

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Powder perfect

An Ontario ski expert and his daughter dive into divine powder in Vail, Colorado

The majority of skiers from western Canada live for it. Many from eastern Canada are so intimidated, they go out of their way to avoid it. How something that brings so much joy to one group of skiers can provide so much frustration to another seems curious, but it all comes down to what you're used to.

The “it” is powder snow. Although certain areas in British Columbia get more of it, the desert dry conditions of states like Colorado win the quality-over-quantity discussion. Light, dry, fluffy, deep, seemingly bottomless, pillowy snow. It makes such a rare appearance on eastern ski hills that when it does, most don’t know what to do in it.

Vail, Colorado is a classic epicentre of great powder that can keep a Westerner happy and teach an Easterner that this is truly what skiing is all about. The fact that Vail manages to also receive 300 days of sunshine a year (or so say its promoters) is just so unfair I don’t want to discuss it.

Children in Eastern Canada are taught to be happy skiing or snowboarding on man-made glaciers of eastern hardpack. But their open-mindedness is clearly evident when, after a snowstorm, this sub-species of diminutive skiers can be found among tight forests making first tracks in fresh powder.

Although born and raised in the flatlands of Ontario, at 10 years old, my youngest, Sophie, has spent much of her childhood on skis in trees looking for untracked snow with her siblings and weekend friends. But she’d never really skied big mountain, dry, Western powder. So, with a pedagogical day at school, and a couple of non-descript absence days, we headed to Vail on a mission. The powder proved to be only one of many great memories.

Tubing and bouncing

Vail is an easy powder destination to get to. With so many flights and routes to busy Denver International Airport, and a seamless shuttle transfer to Vail, the destination has been a no-brainer for Canadians for more than 40 years. My daughter and I arrived with loads of time to settle in at our luxe digs at The Arrabelle ( Sophie then got friendly enough with other kids in the rooftop lap pool and hot tubs that they invited her to join them in dropping snow onto unsuspecting pedestrians six stories down, and later to suit up for an evening of kids' activities half way up the mountain.

Adventure Ridge is Vail’s wintery amusement park at the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, a few steps from our hotel doors at Vail Square in the Lionshead area. Fearless Sophie took on two new buddies, Andrew and Gaby, at competitive bungee trampolining, followed by full-contact tubing, kids snowmobiling (somewhat less exciting when they learned that no checking was allowed) and dinner at nearby Bistro Fourteen.

Dad’s ambitious plans to finish the night by snowbiking home 680 vertical metres back down to Vail Square were annulled when all three kids started falling asleep on their dinner plates. But, it had begun snowing again and we were in Colorado on a powder mission — morning, and untracked freshies, would come early.

At a somewhat less-than-lanky 5’6”, I’ve often spouted the (stolen) line that “short skiers ski more knee-deep powder.” But when you’re 10 years old (and your parents are both short) the mantra can be rewritten as “Short skiers ski more waist-deep powder.”

Hit the slopes

With the crew champing at the bit the next morning, we headed up (and up and up) over and past all the punters on Vail’s endless corduroy-groomed front side. Miles of immaculately cut runs on several faces all eventually lead back to either the original Vail Village or Vail Square at Lionshead.

But they would have to wait for another trip, since Sophie and her new powder-hound buddy Andrew had heard about Vail’s legendary back bowls and were eager to investigate. A transplanted easterner, nine-year-old Andrew had spent his last two years in Vancouver, skiing Whistler regularly, so memories of the icy racing gates in Ontario where he’d “grown up” were fading quickly. Watching the two new fast-friends try to outski each other in knee-deep, and sometimes waist-deep blower was incredibly rewarding; like somehow I’d passed down a skill, except I don’t ever remember offering tips or lessons.

With more than 2000 hectares of skiable terrain, Vail has a run, a bowl, a terrain park or a glade to fit all skiers — except, perhaps, the most extreme ski movie stars. Vail’s steepest steeps are relatively gentle compared to resorts like BC's Revelstoke, Whistler or Red Mountain Resort, and when combined with 30 centimetres of fresh snow on top of a winter of white, our speeds were naturally in check, our tumbles giggly soft.

Glide in the glades

When the sun went down and the falling snow left nothing to see through our goggles but white on white (and our stomachs feeling queasy), we pushed on past the bowls to ski in the well-spaced trees of Vail’s Blue Sky Basin.

Opened only a few years ago, the distinct area offers more than 200 hectares of run in glades of either evergreens or aspens that provide shelter from wind and excellent visual perspective in a storm. They’re also a source of deep, untracked snow — and provider of more giggles and squeals as the young ones charged in and out of the trees.

And for those who aren't yet powder hounds? Vail’s massive arsenal of groomers continues to lay out velvety corduroys during the day.

Later that evening, after a hearty family dinner at the Sonnenalp Resort’s Bully Ranch, we donned bowling shoes at Bol for a round of 10 pin. Poor Sophie and Andrew had to be piggybacked home to their duvets.

With Sophie passed out, one sock still on, traces of the evening’s ice cream on her ear, I sat down to the gas fireplace and read the Vail Daily. Inside the stories that could be from any community newspaper were intermingled with ads for real estate (including 10 pages of bank foreclosure notices), dining, entertainment and in-town cosmetic surgery clinics. But the cover story? “Powder plentiful — and a foot more is expected.”

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