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The O. Report
Helis replace an aging legend: Chair 10 now a distant memory
Lift crews at Vail Mountain complete the installation of 29 lift towers with assistance from a Sky Crane helicopter Sept. 17.
Courtesy of Vail Resorts

Helis replace an aging legend: Chair 10 now a distant memory

By David O. Williams

September 21, 2007 —  You have to understand that growing up in Denver my home mountain for years was Mary Jane, a hill adjacent to Winter Park, Colo., known for its endless zipper lines of Mini Cooper-sized moguls.

So when I moved to Vail in the early 90s I was skeptical of its ability to provide much in the way of bump skiing, which at the time enjoyed a popularity that has waned significantly with the advent of wider shaped skis.

Olympic medalists Nelson Carmichael and Donna Weinbrecht were household names in skiing circles back then and a burgeoning pro mogul tour was all the rage in Vail. My boss and the publisher of the Vail Daily at the time, Jim Pavelich, even dabbled a bit on the mogul circuit.

So to properly do a story on the local mogul skiing scene I hooked up with some guys from Vail who were hot and heavy on the pro mogul tour at the time and they decided to school the newbie from Denver, who thought nothing could top Outhouse at Mary Jane, on something called PPL.

If you’re not familiar, that stands for Prima, Pronto, Log Chute, a series of three bump runs on the front side of Vail Mountain that will crush the cartilage of even the most hardcore bumpster.

Helis replace an aging legend: Chair 10 now a distant memory
Helicopter crews work to place the last of 29 lift towers as part of the replacement of Chairs 10 and 14 with new high-speed quads for the coming ski season.
Courtesy of Vail Resorts

Dave Hilb and members of his mogul posse, whose names escape me now, watched in amusement as I tried to keep up on PPL in my 80s holdover stretch pants and white rear-entry Raichle ski boots.

When we got to the bottom and started heading up the old Chair 10, something like a 17-minute ride at the time, I grinned stupidly and admitted PPL stacked up with the best of Mary Jane, but was that all Vail had? Mary Jane was loaded with lines, from Drunken Frenchman to Riflesite Notch.

Hilb just smiled on the long ride up and said we were headed to Highline. On the ensuing run I sustained my first and so far (knock on wood) only knee injury of my skiing life, hyper-extending it in a deep trough trying to chase professional mogul skiers. Young and uninsured, my knee eventually recovered but my psyche was forever scarred.

Highline, to this day, remains one of my favorite runs on Vail Mountain. On a powder day, after macking up freshies in the Back Bowls, Highline is the ideal place to poach a few soft turns on the way back to Vail Village. The trees on skier’s left are always fresh and fluffy, especially now that most people are on fat skis and want no part of the bumps.

So when helicopter crews put in the lift towers for the new Chair 10 on Monday (as well as a Chair 14, giving Vail a remarkable 16 high-speed quads) I was a little nostalgic, not to mention curious as to how a high-speed will impact Vail’s unheralded mogul Mecca.

My gut is there won’t be any real impact in terms of skier traffic, other than to get people up to Two Elk Lodge faster and more seamlessly. There’s a school of thought that high speeds ruin an area by upping the skier traffic (see the proposed replacement of Chair 5 in Sun Down Bowl).

But with half the mountain’s total of 32 lifts now high-speed quads, the reality is that it’s spreading skiers around the mountain more and more each year. Blue Sky Basin has relieved pressure on the existing Back Bowls and more high-speeds means better skier flow mountain-wide.

My RealVail partner Tom Boyd and I started a tongue-in-cheek campaign to “Save Chair 10” a few years back when we were both still at the Vail Trail, even going so far as to have T-shirts printed up. Neither of us were particularly serious about it, but now that the old, slow double is gone, it will be interesting to see how Highline skis.

And whether I’d have any better luck hanging with Hilb and the boys these days.

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Picture this: snow on Breck's lifts, Vail's Gore Range

Breckenridge Ski Resort 

Picture this: snow on Breck's lifts, Vail's Gore Range

By David O. Williams

September 17, 2007 —  If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then I should stop writing right now and let the image at right speak for itself.

Problem is, you’d have no idea of the context of the photo, so before I completely concede my craft to the visual wizardry of photogs such as Dan Davis, whose images illustrate many of the stories on this site, let me quickly lend some context.

The photo was not taken by a professional shutterbug but by someone in the Vail Resorts PR/marketing department, nor is it in Vail, despite us posting it on It’s actually of the Independence Chair at Breckenridge Monday morning (Sept. 17), where the first snowfall of the month dusted the lifts and the surrounding chairs.

The second photo accompanying this blog was shot by yours truly and shows a view of the Gore Range from my front deck in West Vail, just west over Vail Pass from the slopes of Breck.

The cumulative effect of these two photos is to get you psyched about ski season, and if they don’t have that effect (and you’re a snow rider), then you need to check your pulse and possibly consider calling in some emergency medical assistance.

Picture this: snow on Breck's lifts, Vail's Gore Range

With less than two months to go before the bull wheels start turning at all of the surrounding ski resorts in the Central Rockies, the inordinately wet and chilly summer we’ve been enjoying has many local weather prognosticators speculating we’re poised for a spectacular ski season.

Only time will tell, and early season conditions can be a crapshoot (just as likely dominated by balmy Indian summer as blustery autumn gales), but there’s no doubt that deals abound.

At Vail, for instance, the resort is celebrating its 45th season with Vail Snow Daze (, a week-long festival headlined by Ludacris and The Roots. Early season deals include the purchase of three nights of lodging and three days of skiing and a fourth night of lodging and a fourth day of skiing free. For this and other deals valid Nov. 24- Dec. 12, go to or call (800) 404-3535.

I’m always amazed more people don’t take advantage of the pre-Christmas rush, when lodging is cheaper, lift mazes look less like a cattle call, and there can be some amazing conditions. As you can see from these photos, the base is already starting to pile up – at least above 13,000 feet.

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Stopping to smell the celluloid
The weirdly compelling Pan's Labyrinth wrapped up Beaver Creek's innovative Food & Film Series Sept. 12.

Stopping to smell the celluloid

By David O. Williams

September 15, 2007 —  Sometimes we get tunnel vision here in the high country, putting our heads down and scurrying from one function to the next, wrapped up in work and kids and the chaos of everyday life.

We forget to stop and smell the spruce trees, if you will, and take the time to appreciate and participate in all this valley has to offer. And compared to most ski towns, we have a banquet table of cultural and recreational offering that is fairly groaning under the weight of possibility.

The trick for locals is to come up for air long enough to get out and enjoy the wide array of diversions right here in our own backyard. We’re often all scrambling so hard to carve out a viable existence here that we forget how great here is.

Fall is a good time to dial things back a bit and take a look around. After Labor Day the frenetic summer festival season winds down, the leaves start to turn, the air gets cold and crisp at night and the valley truly comes to life.

Two things really underscored that for me last week when my wife and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary by simply driving up the hill to the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek - recently renovated and boasting the mind-blowing new Allegria Spa.

Our overnighter and couples spa treatment there, though, is a rich enough topic for a future blog. The point really is just what an astounding property and spa facility we have just a few miles up the road, and this time of year the place was eerily empty (with correspondingly low room rates).

A couple of nights later we got a sitter and returned to Beaver Creek to indulge in a little culture in the form of the Vail Symposium’s innovative Beaver Creek Food & Film series at the Vilar Center for the Arts.

If you haven’t been there, be sure to catch a show there in the near future. The state-of-the-art 500-seat venue is beneath the plaza just below the Hyatt, where in the winter ice skaters flit about on the roof, and it’s a great theater visually and acoustically.

The final film in the four-film Vail Symposium series, which paired different foreign films with different foreign foods, was “Pan’s Labyrinth” – a movie all the more powerful on the big screen of the theater named for the fallen stock picker and philanthropist who funded it, Alberto Vilar.

Our commercial movie theaters here in the valley, for obvious reasons, tend to shy away from foreign and art-house films, although the Spanish flick “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which won three Oscars in March, was mainstream enough that I believe it played here briefly.

Problem is, with the demolition of Crossroads this past summer, Vail no longer has any theaters, and won’t for several years while the new Solaris is being built, leaving us with just two multiplexes – in Edwards and Eagle – that show mostly mainstream movies.

The Vilar Center’s foray into film was a welcome one. The Spanish fairytale for adults, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is gruesome, intense and at times quite twisted, but it is also a beautiful and thought-provoking work, and Denver film critic Walter Chaw’s pre- and post-film analysis was spot-on.

I’m hoping for a similar series this coming winter. Clearly there’s a local appetite for such fare (witness the growing success of the Vail Film Festival) and that type of diversity of cultural offerings continues to make this a great place to live … and visit.

Go to for more information.

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Age matters in pursuit of peaks
Seventeen-year-old Corey Austin from Warrenton, Va., scramble across a scree field near the summit of Missouri Mountain on an outing with the Beaver Creek Hiking Center
By David O. Williams

Age matters in pursuit of peaks

By David O. Williams

September 11, 2007 —  VICKSBURG, Colo. – The question of age wasn’t rattling around too much in my head on the way up 14,067-foot Missouri Mountain Aug. 9, but it certainly was a source of preoccupation on the way down.

The old climbing cliché, “the summit is only halfway,” never rang truer for me as I reached the top with relative ease only to have each step toward the bottom of the 10-mile, 4,400-vertical-foot hike send jolts of pain up through my calves, knees and thighs.

At 42, I’ve been ascending the state’s 54 highest peaks – collectively known as fourteeners – at a very leisurely pace since I was 16 in 1981. Missouri was just my 23rd fourteener in 26 years – a glacial rate of less than a peak a year.

Compare that to the speed record of 10 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes for bagging all 54 and … well, there really is no comparison. At this rate I’ll be 73 when and if I climb them all, and that won’t even qualify as an age record. Older guys have done them all.

Tips for climbing fourteeners with kids

  • Teach them to respect the mountains by starting their climb early (in order to be off the peak by noon); being prepared (plenty of warm, waterproof clothing, a map, compass and extra food and water); and knowing when to turn back.
  • Keep them entertained. As in any endurance endeavor with kids, keep up the patter, make up games along the way (give them climbing poles, binoculars and maybe a disposable camera), point out interesting geology, flora or fauna, and don’t balk at taking breaks to snack and chug water.
  • Teach them that the climb is what matters, not attaining the summit. Don’t badger them into reaching the top; you’ll both regret that experience.
  • Don’t do the baby in the backpack thing. After all, who really benefits from that experience? Your 8-month-old won’t remember it, and they can’t tell you if they’re cold or in distress due to altitude. And if things go wrong, do you really want an infant that far from medical attention?
  • Research your climb. Some good ones with kids: Sherman, Quandary, Belford, Democrat.
  • Adolescents contribute their muscle and enthusiasm to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a preservation group that rerouted the trail on Missouri. Go to for more information.
  • The Beaver Creek Hiking Center guides hikes on Missouri and several other fourteeners. Go to
    , click on activities and then hiking, or call (970) 754-5373.

So clearly I’m not going for any records, but in the back of my mind all these years I’ve harbored the notion that I will one day climb them all. It’s just that the soreness I experienced coming down Missouri made me wonder for the first time if I really will.

I started using hiking poles a few years ago on an outing with the Beaver Creek Hiking Center (after years of scoffing at pole users) and discovered they really do lessen the impact to skiing-battered knees, especially on the way down. On Missouri I climbed without poles for some reason and was shocked by how much shock those poles absorb.

After briefly contemplating my own mortality, my thoughts turned to my kids. It would be easy to blame my three boys born over the past seven years for limiting my time in the high country, but at some point your kids can join you and become a motivating factor.

My parents first introduced me to peak bagging when they dragged me up Grays and Torreys in 1981. Eighteen years later at the age of 64 my Dad declared Mount Sherman his final fourteener after enduring punishing leg pain on the way down.

On that climb my wife, Kristin, pregnant in the first trimester with my oldest son, Nick, nearly made it to the top of her first fourteener. A little light-headed for obvious reasons, she stopped short of the top but close enough to count it in my book.

And to many, counting the climbs is what it’s all about. My realization on Missouri the other day was that bagging them all is not as important as the experience of meeting a challenge with friends and family.

On the Missouri climb, 17-year-old Corey Austin from Warrenton, Va., whose parents sent him out with the Beaver Creek Hiking Center, reached the summit of his first fourteener, maybe a year or so older than I was on my first summit. He wasn’t too high-school cool to admit what an awesome experience it was.

“My family doesn't do well with long hikes and lots of elevation gain so I quite enjoyed the change of pace and the challenge,” Austin said. “The scenery was also something you don't often find on an easier hike. It was fantastic and I can't wait to get out there and climb the rest.”

Our guide, Nick Fickling, told me he got his daughter up a fourteener at the age of 8 (a 7-year-old holds the age record for all 54) and said it really depends on the kid and to some degree the parent – their level of skill, fitness and ability to keep their kid motivated and having fun.

I thought of my own 7-year-old son, Nick, and realized he’s fit enough but would probably be bored by the trudge, which might prompt me in my peak-bagging mindset to push him too hard and ruin it for him. Maybe next year, after we’ve both picked up a bit more wisdom.

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