Photo by Dan Davis/Vail Resorts
January 15, 2009 — Everybody wants to know where the powder stashes are on Vail and Beaver Creek. Everyone wants to know the truth about that rumored sneak through the trees, the mythical route across the ridgeline to the epic basin of white, or the enchanted glade which appears magically only to powder-riding’s pure of heart.
My apologies in advance, but I’m not going to tell you where those places are.
I know, I know, it’d be so much easier if long-time locals like myself simply gave up the goods on the internet and on the pages of glossy magazines, replete with maps, directions, and glamorous pictures of the untrammeled powder which awaits you inside one of our Valley’s many secret stashes. On the other hand, I’ve been skiing here 29 years and I’d rather not be run out of town on a rail (or worse).
Let’s put it this way: you can read this article and get a lot out of it – but you’ll get a lot more if you read between the lines.
After all, finding stashes on your own is perhaps the greatest adventure in skiing, and I wouldn’t want to deprive the reader of that joy. Discovery, exploration, and self-reliance are among the key values infused into this Valley’s moral core, planted here by the World War II veterans and hardy pioneers who established Vail as a remote skiing outpost in 1962.
In those days powder was plenty. In these modern days, gulping latte on our way to the high-speed quad, jamming on the boards and rocketing upward, we can arrive at the top only to realize we’ve already been left in the proverbial snowdust. Life is short, lines can be long, and the potential routes are labyrinthine. The gargantuan, truly massive combined 7,104 acres of terrain at Vail and Beaver Creek has the ability to scramble a snowrider’s internal radar. Staring at terrain maps leaves all but the hardest of the hardscrabble veterans feeling daunted, even harried on one of our legendary powder days. The snow falls, the clock tick-tock-tick-tocks, the lifts spin round and round the wheelhouse, and every moment that goes by means as many as 25,000 other skiers per hour are tracking up powder which should rightfully belong to you.
So take a deep breath and peruse this powder piece – by the time you read the final lines you’ll be chiller than a December morn’ — ready, willing, and able to discover your own piece of powder paradise before the final flakes fall.
THE POWDER POACHER'S CREED: RULES TO LIVE BY
Leave lift lines to the languorous: Weekenders especially must become adroit at the art of avoiding the glut which pumps like bacon-double-cheese-grease through the mountain’s main arteries. Beaver Creek is usually pretty crowd-free, but sees bad circulation once in a while at the Rose Bowl Lift. In Vail, keep clear of chair 4, chair 2, chair 11 and chair 5 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekends. Vail is a huge mountain – a smart skier need never wait long in a lift line.
Lunch is for later: Energy bars were invented for a reason. Pack the domestic equivalent of a military M.R.E. into a small pocket and prepare to arc endless s-turns through an empty mountain while others head for the lodge.
Neither sleep, nor snooze, are superior: The early bird enjoys an absolute feast on powder’s fattest worms.
Greedy? Go for the glades: Trees are not for the timid, but a trek into the timber can often open up into a tremendous treat.
Traverse for no travails: The main route is inviting, easy, and generally groomed. Those in search of the stash should explore the far reaches of the ridgelines, especially in Vail’s Back Bowls.
Listen to the wind: Yes, grasshopper, let go your conscious self. Hear the evening wind. Calculate its direction. Look for ridgelines where hungry gusts eat up snow crystals, buff them into birthday-cake icing, and spread them thick on the leeward side of the ridgeline. When morning comes, navigate well and you will know Nirvana.
Recommended runs to reconnoiter
Larkspur Bowl: The main drag down this beautiful basin is always groomed, which makes it a perfect place for newcomers to sample a bit of powder and see how it feels. Dip into the skier’s left-hand side (Larkspur and Yarrow) in the morning for fresh, light powder – but beware of heavier, wetter snow in the warm afternoons.
Spider in Rose Bowl: Bumps get buffed out on this black diamond run on powder days and working across the fall line works to your advantage. All the run’s a stage on Spider (and Web), which runs underneath the Rose Bowl lift.
Royal Elk Glades: Tree-huggers will love this run, in a literal sense, as navigating the pines is mandatory for exploring this experts-only powder stash on Grouse Mountain’s west end.
Screech Owl: This one gets tracked out fairly quick on weekends, so put it at the top of the list on powder mornings to get the most of this steep, deep, black diamond.
Stone Creek: This used to be a local’s secret (and an illegal out-of-bounds run) off the east side of Rose Bowl, but it’s opening in 2006 gave Beaver Creek its first true cliffs and carnage run.
President Ford’s Run: There are many reasons the former Chief loved this run, above all its ability to collect and hold good snow. Peek into the nearby aspen trees for potential face-shots in Thresher’s.
Chair 14: The first time riding powder snow can be delightful – or possibly intimidating, depending on where you go. Chair 14 is the perfect place to get used to how your board(s) ride in the thick white stuff. Also, for a newbie looking to escape the “beginner” zones at the base of the mountain, Chair 14 offers the sublime vistas and adventurous feeling offered only at the peak.
China Bowl: This vast, vast area of skiing is the secret home to some of the Valley’s, no … the state’s … no, the country’s … no, the CONTINENT’S greatest powder stashes. Timid skiers/riders need not apply. Avid, adventurous skiers/riders can apply the rules in the accompanying “Powder Poacher’s Creed” to great effect. And a bit of advice: bring a snorkel for enhanced breathing.
Windows: Of all the secrets herein, this is the one most likely to earn me the right to buy the bar a round on opening day. Once arrived at Windows in Vail’s Back Bowls, however, it’s up to you to find the prime line.
Prima and Riva Ridge: This may seem far from a secret stash, but in fact these runs on Vail’s frontside are often the least skied runs on the mountain as powder skiers flock to the Back Bowls. When the wind is strong, the Back Bowls are scoured, and the light is flat, these tree-protected routes are the day’s best bet. Remember, Prima is a leg-burner, so bring experts-only to this run.
West Game Creek Bowl: Lost Boy, like Chair 14, is a good place to become accustomed to powder skiing. More adept powderhounds can peel off on Wild Card, a blue which is perhaps one of the best cruising runs on all of Vail Mountain. Beware of lift lines on Game Creek lift, however, which can fill up at odd times and be completely clear at others.
The Minturn Mile: The secret has long been out regarding this off-piste run which can be accessed through backcountry gates located in Game Creek. The first few hundred yards of South Game Creek are some of the best yards you’ll ever know – but the ski-out is a lactic-acid luge run. If you’re out-of-shape take a week or so to get your legs before you attempt this Vail classic — otherwise you may find yourself doing the Wil-E-Coyote spread-eagle-splat right into a creek bed. Remember, backcountry skiing is dangerous and risky – once you ski through that gate you’re on your own and must be self-reliant in Colorado’s often brutal winter wilderness.
The pockets of powder mentioned in this article are a primer — but the truly brilliant insights of a veteran skier come during an actual powder day, deciding where to go and when. Conditions are different from day to day, hour to hour, and the run that was flush with flakes may be tracked up only an hour or two after that first loop. On the other hand, sometimes powder will pile up during a big storm and the last run in the afternoon can be the best.
As you read between the lines of this article, also keep in mind that sometimes the best way to find the stashes is to befriend a veteran skier on the lift, at one of our Valley’s bars or restaurants, or anywhere else along the way. There’s no better way to get into the good stuff than to follow the tracks of a die-hard local
This article originally appeared in Vail Beaver Creek Magazine.
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