Am I going as fast as Leonhard Stock?
I am barrelling down Boomer. Other skiers are schussing past, and it will take me about ten minutes to ski roughly the same distance Stock skied in a minute and 45 seconds, but never mind. Boomer is one of Vail's ego trips, a novice trail that makes just about any skier feel like a Gold Medal winner. Sometimes the ego runs give one a false sense of confidence, I reflect as I catch an edge and fall, sliding about 30 feet down the slope in a nylon schuss -- the price of wearing stylish ski clothes that glide smoothly over the dry Colorado snow and have no sticking power.
Once you've invested in ski clothes, skis, boots, poles and bindings -- an irresistable temptation with all the pre-season, election-day and George Washinton's Birthday sales -- you don't want to be all geared up with nothing to do but watch the olympics on Tv and read the dismal snow reports of local areas. Vail has about 60 inches of snow -- none of it made by machine. It's crisp, dry snow -- the conditions that can make even the clumsiest klutz feel lke a Hanni Wentzel.
"Do I ski as well as that man?" I ask my husband, pointing to a smooth skier below as we ride up in the chairlift.
"Don't be ridiculous," he guffaws, pointing instead to a skier who is stemming and swaying and making wide traverses all the way across the hill. Over the past 21 years, I have learned and unlearned several methods of skiing, some of them in foreign languages. I have gone from long wooden skis and boots with laces to short fiberglas skis and boots I can't even walk in, much less buckle. I have also broken a leg and lost courage as well as youthful vigor, so the excuses for my lack of skiing style can be reeled off to anyone I ride up the chairlift with.
Yelling "single" and riding up the chairlift with a stranger, even if you're far from single in the marital sense, is part of the fun of skiing. There are touring Australians, who tell you how polite American skiers are compared to Europeans; there are developers from New Jersey, business men from Minnesota Illinois and, mainly, Texans. Often they ski in cowboy hats and smile indulgently when you repeat the bumper sticker saying that "If God had wanted Texans to ski, He would have given them mountains."
Vail, one Texan tells me, is know as the Dallas Alps, since it was developed largely by Dallas money in the early '60s.
"If God had wanted us to ski, he would have given us money -- and he did," he adds, and he's right. It takes money to ski Vail well. The ticket around my neck, good for six days of lifts, cost $90. Luckily I'm too proud to take lessons, and too cheap to have more than one ski outfit, and we are guests at a condominium owned by generous friends from Denver.
We meet them for lunch -- they have been skiing expert runs -- at the Stube, a reservation-type restaurant segregated from the cafeteria at the tip of the gondola. We dine in happy exclusivity on baked brie with almonds, washed down with lots of wine. The tab is $54 for six of us, but never mind. The wine makes us feel not only rich but daring. We are willing to ski almost anything now -- or at least the intermediate trails: Avanti, Pickeroon, Ledges, Lodgepole and Hunky Dory. I end the day by skiing down Simba, a novice run reported to be the favorite of former President Ford. It's wide enough so you can veer left and right and still stick to the middle of the road, and nobody laughs if you fall on your face.
Later in the week we discovered Vail's big bargain -- the $1 cup of homemade soup sold at warming shacks at the top of the mountain. The soup changes everday -- from minestrone to split pea to navy bean to chicken noodle -- and comes with lots of crackers. You can take your tray outside and work on your tan. And if you eat at the right time -- early or late -- you can avoid the crowds at the lift lines. Vail isn't supposed to have lift lines, but you can wait as long as half an hour for the gondola, which people like to take first thing in the morning since it shelters you from the cold. Every skier has his own strategy for avoiding lift lines, although some find them a time to relax and replenish suntan lotion. The hardy shun the gondola and take the lifts to the top in the morning, ski the mid-section while everybody else is eating, and do the bottom in the afternoon. Some lifts always seem to have a line. I find myself avoiding one of my favorite runs -- Lost Boy -- because there always seems to be a 20-minute wait at the lift.
Apres-ski begins about 3, as the sunshine skiers wait for their diehard companions while drinking beer on the terrace at Alfie Packers, a watering hole named after the only Coloradan ever convicted of cannibalism, or sipping their way through a liter of margaritas on the porch at Los Amigos, or snacking on shrimp at the Watch Hill Oyster Club while reading all about its Rhode Island founder who, the management admits in fine print, was fictitious. You do have to get it straight with your skiing companions where you are going to end up at the end of the day, since Vail is really three ski areas connected by trails. If you end up at Lionshead and you're meeting uour friends at Vail Village, you'll either have to walk or take a free shuttle bus or take the lift up again and ski down another way.
After apres-ski you can rest your weary muscles in a jacuzzi or bake in a sauna. At the Vail Racquet Club where we are staying, our hosts apologize that you have to wear bathing suits in the jacuzzi -- a fact that makes even our co-guests from wicked Los Angeles sigh with relief. After you have rolled in the snow to close your pores again, it's time for dinner -- if you've remembered to make reservations several days in advance.
There's an infinite variety of restaurants in Vail -- Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, French and that ubiquitous hybrid, Continental, The French chef at the Vail Racquet Club prepares an excellent goose liver pate, a fresh trout meuniere and a succulent entrecote aux poivres verts. Guido's offers a tasty spaghetti with clam sauce and at the Antlers the adventurous can dine on a gamey elk steak Diane with chestnut puree and "wild rice" containing only a few kernels of the real thing.
Vail Village, where most of the ambiance and gemutlichkeit is in the evening, was built in the early '60s to look like a European ski village. With its clock tower, chalet-type architecture and wooden balconies, it resembles Kitzbuel or St. Anton about as much as Disneyland resembles the places it tries to reproduce. You may not be willing to suspend your disbelief that much, but you can't call it plastic because it's too well done. Cars are kept out and a pedestrian covered bridge carries skiers over Gore Creek to narrow streets lined with chic shops, ski rental places, restaurants and bars.
Despite the idyllic village image, Vail has its share of urban problems. There are free shuttle buses from virtually all accomodations to the lifts from 6:30 a.m. until midnight, but most people seem to drive their rental cars, causing traffic jams in the parking lots. The newspapers promote "smokeless weekends" to mitigate the problem of pollution by the thousand s of fireplaces in the thousands of condominiums that keep springing up, blocking one another's views of the wilderness everyone is coming to enjoy. On some weekends, Vail even has to limit the number of lift tickets sold, to 13,500. Such is the price of success, of perfect conditions and sun that shines, according to a Vail brochure, 70 percent of all ski days.
On our visit, the sun shone six out of seven days. On the seventh day, it snowed and the wind blew and I rested and investigated possible activities for the non-skier in Vail. There was the Vail Nature Center, featuring a Clivus Multrum composting toilet. There was Colorado Mountain College, operating out of a log cabin and offering photo safaris and gourmet cross-country skiing expeditions. At the golf course you could watch cross-country ski races take an all-day cross-country ski lesson, or try snow shoeing. You could go for a snowmobile ride or, for $50, rent a mini snowcat big enough for a family of four and terrorize the mountain. Instead, I just wandered through the shops, trying to decide whether or not I really needed those $94 goat-hair apres-ski boots.