VAIL; A slope for every level of skier

It's only fair to tell you that until very recently I was a nonskier of fairly militant ilk. I didn't like the high-priced image of skiing. I didn't like the supercool image of skiers. I didn't like being out in the cold stuff very much, and I especially didn't like not knowing what all the hullabaloo about skiing was about.

A ski trip to Vail, Colo., set me on a different path. There's something about being on top of the world, surrounded by snow-covered fir trees and majestic mountains, that's worth all the trouble of getting there. Learning how to get down once you're up isn't really all that difficult, either.

But first, a little history.

The ski rush started in Colorado back in 1859. Before that, few people were foolhardy enough to stay in the mountains in the winter.

But then - GOLD! Suddenly lots of people were there - to stay. They copied the Norwegian mode of getting around on skis. The early models were homemade - long, thin boards strapped to regular boots.

In those early days skiing was the only means of transportation in the bleak and harsh winter mountains. People had to learn to get around on skis if they wanted to get around at all.

One of the first people to use them was the Rev. John L. Deyer. He had a one-two punch: he skied to rough and remote mining camps to preach the gospel. He also had a contract with the government to deliver the US mail, including gold nuggets, bank drafts, and letters from back East.

What started as a means of transportation gradually became fun, too. This growth is chronicled in the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail, where old pictures show settlers making games and competitions out of their snowy necessity - with racers being pulled by horses or jumping off cliffs.

Recreational skiing in the Rockies became even more popular in the early 1900 s with the invention of mechanical lifts.

Then came World War II. The US war effort demanded a team of soldiers highly skilled in winter warfare. The 10th Mountain Division trained at Camp Hale, near present-day Vail, 10,000 feet up astride the Continental Divide. There soldiers learned to scale ice walls and slide down fissures with guns in hand. They learned to ski and how to use new equipment under austere winter conditions.

The training paid off. The men of the 10th Mountain Division were put to the test and emerged victorious from the Italian Appennines.

After the war, some of the soldiers of the 10th returned to the Camp Hale area. Through their efforts the ski industry in Vail and the surrounding mountains grew and flourished.

What makes Vail special is that it is the largest mountain ski resort in this country. On a mountain as big as Vail there are slopes for all levels of skiers, and plenty of room for all. There are 57 miles of ski trails and two powder bowls. The town has accommodations for 16,000 people, and scores of stores to clothe them, restaurants to feed them, and facilities to cater to their every whim. Besides that, Vail is an extraordinarily beautiful valley set in some really majestic mountains, with sunny days and blue skies.

Sixteen chairlifts and one gondola can carry 21,340 skiers an hour to the mountaintop. The vertical drop is 3,050 feet and the altitude is 8,200 feet at the base, 11,250 feet at the summit. The longest trail is 33/4 miles long. Thirty percent of the trails are novice (which means they are approachable by a beginner after an average of three days of lessons at the ski school); 40 percent are intermediate; and 30 percent are advanced trails.

Vail is modeled after an Alpine village. Hotels and condominiums are modernly impressive. Luxuries abound. A free bus service runs the entire length of the village every seven minutes from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. When a light snow falls at dusk, there's magic in the air.Vail averages 320 inches of snowfall a year and has newly installed snowmaking equipment to supplement the natural powder. There is already enough snow base this winter to please expert skiers, and Vail maintains a weather and snow conditions hot line for visitors' information (phone (303) 476-4888). Vail's ski school has 400 instructors teaching beginner through expert levels. For ''never ever'' beginners, lessons last all day and include a lunch break with the instructor. After the first day, you can stand up and move forward and stop. After the second day, you can turn. After that, you're able to start skiing the mountain.There is a teen-age program in the ski school for young people who want to ski with others their own age. There is a children's program including informal ''Ankle Biter'' races, with ribbons for everyone. The ski school maintains a day care center and a special kids' area called ''Peanut Peak,'' where youngsters can practice without worrying about ''big people'' speeding past.For nonskiers, or skiers between runs, Vail offers an indoor skating rink, heated swimming pools, saunas, Jacuzzis, movie theaters, a concert hall, beauty salons, indoor tennis courts, an art gallery, the Colorado Ski Museum, the Vail Nature Center (featuring the plants, rocks, and wildlife found in the area), and 70 shops and restaurants.Guided cross-country ski tours are also available, as well as sleigh rides and snowmobiling.For the advanced skier, Vail offers workshops and special classes in technique, including mogul skiing, carving turns, and powder skiing, tours with guides to the best powder bowls, a self-timer race course, and NASTAR race classes.For really expert skiers, there is a 51-degree slope (which means very, very, very steep) at nearby Beaver Creek.Beaver Creek is 15 miles down the road from Vail, with free bus service right to the lift line. Beaver Creek is a resort-in-the-making: There is a reception center and inflatable bubble base camp facility, and substantial construction of a new ''village'' is under way. The Beaver Creek slopes are well groomed and challenging, and afford a nice alternative terrain to Vail.Practical details: I took a TWA ski package; these can cut up to 62 percent off regular prices and fares.The packages route the traveler through Denver; Salt Lake City; and Albuquerque, N.M. From there, ski trips are available to the finest slopes in the west: Aspen, Snowmass, Steamboat , Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain, and Winter Park in Colorado; Taos in New Mexico; and Snowbird and Park City in Utah.You must reserve seven days ahead. Minimum stay is five days, maximum 21 days. You must buy the hotel arrangements, too.For example, a seven-day trip from New York City to Vail on a weekday would cost:Air fare, $318 round trip coach.Lodging (double occupancy, seven nights, per person) $367 to $558. Some condominium units are available with fully equipped kitchens, affording substantial savings for people who want to cook their own meals.The package includes six days of ski lift tickets, bus transportation from Denver to Vail or free use of a car, and discount coupons for clothing, food, and equipment.

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