Vail, Colorado

It’s no secret that I love mountains. The Appalachians are my favorite mountain range. Within the Appalachians, I love the White Mountains and the Berkshires. When it comes to mountains, especially those in the eastern United States, I don’t discriminate.

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Out west, I’ve spent time in various mountain ranges, including the Sierra’s, Santa Monica’s, Cascades, Wasatch, and Santa Rita’s, but until last week, I had never been to the Rockies. I had seen the Rocky Mountains on flights across the country, and I even viewed them from a hotel room in Denver, on my one and only trip to Colorado in 2011, but, I had never explored them.

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Given their scale, five days of skiing at Vail could barely be described as “exploring the Rockies,” but at least I can now say I’ve been there. There is so much more to see in Colorado, and then of course, there are other states like Wyoming and Montana that I’ve never seen. This trip wet my appetite for more.

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I always thought I would take a few of my bicycles to Colorado and explore the mountain roads and trails that make it a Mecca for cyclists. I never thought that the first significant time spent outdoors would be on a ski slope. I don’t come from a skiing family. My parents don’t ski or snowboard, so I didn’t get exposed to the sport at a young age. I dabbled a bit with both when I was in high school. I skied a bit in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, but never pursued it. In college, I skied one day in Park City, Utah on a dare, and then didn’t pick it up again for 10 years until I returned to Park City with a group of friends.

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I had consciously avoided skiing out of fear of injury. My summer sports are so important to me that I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize them through the risk of injury. When I met Debbie in 1999, she was a snowboarding instructor at Killington, but she too had been away from Alpine sports for some time.

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I have some strong skier friends, and since that trip to Utah, we have been on subsequent trips to Stowe and Jay Peak in Vermont. Despite skiing in terrible conditions, I learned to love the sport. I realized that despite the expense, it can be a fantastic family pastime. Debbie and I talked about doing more of it by introducing our kids to snowboarding. I decided to stick with skiing, and two years ago, I even bought my own downhill gear.

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As a family, we have been to Stowe, Jiminy Peak, and Mt. Southington (in Connecticut). Debbie is proficient and the goal was for the kids and I to become good enough to justify a family trip out west in the coming years. So, when this group of guys decided on a ski trip to Vail for our 2017 retreat, I was pumped.

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I knew I needed an intense and focused trip a real mountain if I was ever going to make a leap forward with my skills. The unforgiving snow conditions and short trails on New England mountains helped were limiting me.So, the trip to Vail exceeded my expectations in every way possible. I’m 10 times better after three days. We skied for 16 hours (counting our ascent and descent) and covered 58 miles with more than 70,000 feet of descent. It was a crash course in Alpine skiing. I followed my buddies all over Vail. We explored the Front Side, the Back Bowls, and Blue Sky Basin.

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We had spectacular conditions. One of my buddies, who has been skiing for 48 years, and just returned from a heli-skiing trip in British Columbia, said that they were three of the best days of skiing he has ever had. We arrived on Saturday. It snowed overnight, and on Sunday, high on the mountain, we had up to 18 inches of fresh powder. Sunday’s weather was great. It was partly sunny with occasional snow shower at the higher elevations. The visibility was fantastic and the snow was light and fluffy. We skied from 8:30 A.M. when the lifts opened, until the last lift at 3:30 P.M. We explored the Back Bowls and laid fresh tracks all over the mountain. People were letting out whoops from all directions. Even the locals reveled in the conditions.

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I had one scary moment. I was following our group through a wide-open snow field when I hit something under the snow. The collision was abrupt and I ejected from both skis. I tucked and rolled, slamming the back of my head on the ground. The depth of the snow was a blessing and a disguise. It had completely covered a felled tree. The only evidence of the tree was a small dead branch protruding from the snow, but it was more than 15 feet to the left of the section I hit, and I never saw it.

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My left ski was wedged under the log, and out of view. My right ski bounced off the log and was buried in the snow. Thankfully I hit the log straight on with my boots, and I released from the bindings. My neck and back were sore, but I was thrilled to be alive. No one saw the incident, but one of my buddies hiked back up to help me out. I had no idea what I hit until we dug out my skis and uncovered the log so that others would see it. I was shaken, and learned a vital lesson. Skiing can be very dangerous. I shook it off and continued on, though even more aware of my surroundings.

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By evening, it had started to snow again, and pretty much never stopped. The valley saw on and off snow, and from Sunday night through this morning, it snowed steadily higher up on the mountain, and at times, it came down heavy. The snow just kept coming. Monday’s conditions were just as good as Sunday’s, and there were far fewer people on the mountain. The snow wasn’t as light, so pushing through the powder presented a new challenge, but by the end of the day, I had progressed even more.

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Tuesday was our final day, so we stayed on the front side and explored more new trails. Vail is huge. You pay  a premium to ski there, but the level of service was very high. The lifts and other facilities were top-notch. The customer service was fantastic.

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I’m interested in an Alpine touring set-up so I can combine hiking with skiing. That would suit my style. I’m also looking forward to a Vail return trip and the idea of exploring other western resorts is appealing too.

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