In December 1973, my New England college declared itself a victim of the OPEC oil embargo imposed after the Arab-Israeli war, and announced that it was closing down for the winter semester. I cursed my fate . . . but made the best of a bad situation and bought a one-way ticket to Steamboat Springs, Colo.
During that snow-filled winter at the cozy ski resort, I learned not just the finer points of washing dishes and waiting on tables. I also learned about powder. As a transplanted Easterner, I had been weaned on the hard-pack of New Hampshire. I had heard that untracked powder did exist, but I had also been taught to believe in the tooth fairy.
In Steamboat, I became a believer. Sliding through the waist-deep virgin powder that filled birch glades of the Steamboat's Shadows trail, I was mindful only of the whooshing of nearby skiers who, like me, were deep into ski heaven. Even the bumps on the black diamond White Out trail were softened under a blanket of light "Colorado gold." Perhaps the tooth fairy does exist.
In the two decades since, I have skied all over the world, but Steamboat remains one of my favorite destinations -- not only for reunions with old ski buddies but for visits with my wife and three small children. On every occasion, at different times of the ski season, the mountain and its namesake town a few miles to the north have not failed us. Other mountains may have steeper terrain or lighter snow, but Steamboat has succeeded in creating a challenging variety for all but the most aggressive skier. And where else can you ski with the venerable Olympian Billy Kidd, who still leads a throng of skiers on his daily 1 p.m. run down Heavenly Daze?
I understand that the thrill of powder skiing is not shared by everyone, and that's okay. Who's to say that skiing with your kids down the Why Not cat track or watching them negotiate the baby bumps on Rainbow are not just as thrilling? It's just different, that's all.
A sunny day draws skiers like lemmings to the high-speed quad lifts off Sunshine Peak. But the terrain there is wide open, and there is room for everyone. Trails sweep in an easy fall line down the mountain, offering an intermediate's version o f nirvana. When my oldest daughter, Eve, now 10, was a baby, she'd spend hours on my back as we cruised our way down High Noon. For 6-year-old Morgan, who came with me to Steamboat last year, the Sunshine lift line offered a confidence-building opportunity after morning ski-school classes to work on her beginning parallel turns.
The best advanced skiing takes place at the heart of the Storm Peak Express trail system -- the chutes off the 10,000-foot-plus Storm Peak summit and the bump runs off the Four Points chair lift. The Chutes and Flying Z have been cut just above Buddy's Run, a classic, winding trail named after Buddy Werner, a young Olympian from Steamboat Springs who died in 1964. Their steep glades are the first place to head after a heavy snowfall. Twister, Hurricane and White Out offer concentrated steepness and plenty of bumps -- not the sort of runs you want to be on unless you're under 25 with a back of iron and knees to match. For the rest of us, Rainbow beckons.
Most trails for beginners and early intermediates are located on the bottom half of the mountain. There are plenty of options -- from the basic traditional slopes just above the Silver Bullet gondola base to the easy, winding and scenic cat tracks cut to enable the youngest (or oldest) of beginners to crow that they skied all the way down from the top of the gondola. Rough Rider was easily Morgan's favorite run. It has all the ingredients that kids her age find exciting, including well-spaced trees to speed through and a poma lift with cut-out characters that waved to her on the ride up. For a kindergartner, skiing just doesn't get any better than this.
Morgan was a regular at Steamboat's ski school during our visit, and took full advantage of the small teacher-to-student ratios that Steamboat's ski school insists upon. During our week at the mountain, she progressed seamlessly to beginning parallel turns on the easy intermediate runs on Sunshine Peak. On more challenging slopes, like Vagabond, she put her "iron man" snowplow into gear and skied down happily and under control.
On more than one occasion, I spent time observing the kids in Morgan's class as they skied and was gratified to see that the instructors made sure not to push the students beyond their ability. Keeping a group of six to 10 pint-size skiers warm, content and up on their skis is no easy task. I could see that Morgan's instructors were expert in not just the mechanics of skiing. They imparted the most important lesson of all, especially for young children -- that skiing can be fun.
Fun or no, a regimen restricted to downhill skiing can wear out the most dedicated skier. Steamboat Springs has the advantage of being a real town. I've spent many an afternoon window-shopping along its wide sidewalks, taking in a movie or stopping for ice cream. Shops sell used clothing and furniture, Western hats and boots, and outdoor wear for real and ersatz cowboys. And Steamboat's namesake, a hot mineral spring that sounded to French fur trappers like the chug-chug of a paddle wheel steamer, is right down the street.
Visitors to Steamboat Springs can move around quite easily without a car. An efficient, free bus service runs between town, the local supermarket and the mountain area, where more shuttle buses connect with resort condominiums and hotels.
Those so inclined need not even visit town: The resort complex offers a variety of shops and good restaurants. Of the latter, I am partial to Hazie's, located at the top of the gondola, which opens in early evening to accommodate restaurant patrons. The expansive, moonlit view of the entire Yampa Valley complements the food. More adventurous souls in search of mountaintop gourmet dining can take a snowcat-drawn sleigh from the top of the gondola to Ragnar's restaurant.
Morgan and I stayed closer to sea level for our sleigh-ride dinner. After a 20-minute bus ride from Steamboat's Gondola Square to the All Seasons Ranch, we climbed aboard a horse-drawn sleigh, complete with heavy blankets and a tale-telling driver, for a 20-minute ride through the Yampa Valley high country. Morgan was thrilled when she was allowed to take the reins and drive us to our destination. Along the way, we saw elk, and lots of tracks in the snow -- coyotes, we were told. My eyes were also drawn to the stars, which, in the crisp clean air of a Colorado evening, didn't disappoint.
Dinner was served family-style in a large canvas tent that was heated by a wood stove. Most of those attending were families, but there were also a few couples, huddled by themselves close to the fire. A guitar-picking cowboy led us in song.
Strawberry Park was another big hit. A four-wheel drive bus picked us up for the half-hour ride from Steamboat out to the hot springs there. The site still retains a rustic ambiance, which is fitting, because the springs are out in the middle of nowhere. There is a tepee for changing, and the lavatory consists of an outhouse. Food and drinks are carried in and out of the park by patrons.
The springs occur naturally. The water can still be seen bubbling out of the ground, just above one of the two large pools that have been constructed out of nearby rocks. One is slightly hotter (104 degrees vs. 102 degrees Fahrenheit) than the other, and a third is filled with frigid, heart-arresting mountain water. Of course, there's also plenty of snow to jump into.
After a hard day's skiing, there is nothing quite so relaxing as an outdoor swim in the mildly sulfurous hot springs . . . and nothing quite so invigorating as the subsequent plunge into ice cold water. Children are welcome during daylight hours. Evenings are reserved for those old enough to take off their clothes without blushing.
Morgan was not thrilled about leaving the pools, and not just because she had to change in the unheated tepee. The body stays surprisingly warm during the time it takes to leap out of the pools into warm, if slightly damp, clothing. Whatever chill lingers is quickly extinguished in the well-heated bus, which carefully makes its way down the snowpacked road and back to town.
Later, I asked Morgan what she'd liked best about our trip to Steamboat. "The hot springs," she quickly answered.
"What about the skiing?" I asked. "Oh yeah," she replied. "That too."
Geoffrey Aronson is a freelance writer in Gaithersburg. CAPTION: WAYS & MEANS
This year's ski season at Steamboat (2305 Mount Werner Circle, Steamboat Springs, Colo. 80487, 970-879-6111, 1-800-525-2628 for lodging information) runs from Nov. 23 to April 14, 1996. Adult lift passes are $44 per day, $252 for six days from Dec. 9 through March 31 and $39 per day, $222 for six days, from Nov. 23 through Dec. 8 and April 1 through April 14. Day passes for children under 12 are $25 per day all season. Kids Ski Free, Rent Free and reduced Teen Ticket programs are also available when parents purchase multi-day tickets or rent skis. Special "Breakaway" packages, including two nights' lodging and skiing, start at $131 per person.
GETTING THERE: American, Northwest and United fly from Washington to Yampa Valley Regional Airport, 22 miles from Steamboat. All are currently quoting a round-trip fare of $427 from Jan. 6 through Feb. 18, with restrictions. Fares are considerably higher during the holiday season and after Feb. 18, when the lowest fare being quoted by American is $570 with restrictions. United flies between Denver and Yampa Valley; round-trip fare is $138, with restrictions. The 157-mile drive from Denver to Steamboat takes about three hours.
SKI SCHOOL: There is a variety of ski school options, including various ski and child-care combinations for children 6 months and older. Children's group lessons run from 9:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. and cost $55 per day; children from 6 to 12 years old receive five hours of instruction and lunch.
WHAT TO DO: Strawberry Park Hot Springs (P.O. Box 773332, Steamboat Springs, Colo. 80477, 970-879-0342) is open 10 a.m. to midnight daily; admission is $5, $7 on Friday and Saturday night. Sweet Pea Tours (970-879-5820) offers transport between Steamboat and the hot springs for $20, including admission.
All Seasons Ranch (970-879-2606) offers a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the Yampa Valley topped off by a family-style dinner in a large heated tent. The outing, which leaves from Steamboat's Gondola Square at 5:30 and 7:30 daily and includes bus transportation to the ranch, costs $39 for adults, $36 for children ages 6 to 12 and is free for children under 6.
-- Geoffrey Aronson CAPTION: Morgan with other young skiers at Steamboat Springs. CAPTION: The Colorado town of Steamboat Springs.