From the moment the wild-card blizzard of Oct. 15 hit the Rockies during the nationally televised Broncos game, it was destined to be a winter in which East was East and West . . . well, the West won. At least in terms of snowfall so far. Recalling last year's record-breaking Colorado ski season during one of the warmest autumns ever to lap the Eastern Seaboard, everyone, it seemed, has made haste for a repeat Rocky Mountain high. Reservation lists are rumored to be up by as much as 70 percent.
So, toting tattered ski equipment but pristine memories of Rocky Mountain schussing, I was with the hasty hordes who fled for the high country in the midst of holiday merrymaking. In what turned out to be the biggest ski season to date, I quickly rediscovered that even with unspectacular snowfalls (current base levels average four feet), Colorado offers some of the finest downhill skiing thrills around. But during peak seasons one had best bring along sufficient disposable income, your own transportation, and a tolerance for at least 15 people doing exactly what you are doing at any given time.
My first indication of this came as early as the Boston departure gate, where a line of snowbirds and sunbirds -- the former sagging like packhorses under the weight of ski equipment and the latter lithe in blazers and plimsolls -- snaked ominously around the airport lobby. Cut-rate air fares had lured more than just me from the East Coast.
After a few hours, it seemed that the snowbirds rendezvoused with half the state of Texas in the Fox Center Grocery in downtown Breckenridge, one of the state's oldest mining towns and smack in the center of ski country. Here the Thinsulate and blue-jean crowd mingled freely with the fur jacket and suede boot types, and everyone grabbed for the last packages of potato chips and bean dip.
But it wasn't the food that had drawn all of us to this quaint Victorian town here in Summit County, the country's largest and most popular winter resort area. Blanketed with roughly 1,000 skiable acres, Breckenridge had earned a reputation for uncrowded runs but occasionally clogged lift lines.
During our visit to the slopes, the snow base stood at a hefty if unremarkable four feet -- which was at least the length of the lines encircling the lift ticket booth the following morning. Despite the lure of discounted, interchangeable lift-ticket books, we forked over the $22 for an adult one-day lift ticket. (Breckenridge, uniquely, will refund part of a full-day ticket if you decide to ski only the morning.) Hastening to avoid the ski school crowd that mobs the quad chair at midmorning and afternoon, we scooted up the mountain.
True to reputation, the double-mountain resort offered uncrowded trails but lift lines that swelled to a full 20 minutes by midafternoon. The snow, while not powder by any means because of the warm weather and dearth of storms during December, was skiable hard-pack.
While the Summit County shuttle bus will freely transport skiers to any of the other ski areas in the county, we chose to drive to Vail, a half-hour commute from our Breckenridge headquarters. Vail lifts open at 8:30, and it pays to get to the base of this immense and immensely popular mountain early: It is the biggest skiable peak in the state.
Lift tickets top out at $25 (parking will be an additional $4 to $6), but you can be the first on your block to try out the new automated lift-ticketing machines. If you don't get much of a jump on everyone else, the line for the gondola will be an intimidating 50-minute wait by 9:30. We elected to ride the Nos. 8 and 9 chair lifts instead. Our morning runs at the top of the mountain were superb, until gathering crowds made us watch the electronic bulletin boards flashing lift line waiting times. With 18 lifts and 1,750 skiable acres, Vail offers plenty of nooks and crannies in which to avoid the herds, but constant wrestling with the trail map can be frustrating.
After lunch, feeling relatively toned up, we headed for the backside of Eagle's Nest for some strenuous runs down the sun-soaked Game Creek Bowl. Even with a single chair lift, the line here was appreciably shorter. The meandering miles-long runs back to the base lodges inevitably clog up as the advanced and beginner slopes funnel into each other.
On Dec. 29, in what turned out to be the day with the largest skier turnout in Colorado history, we turned our skis east toward Keystone. We'd heard about the $15 million expansion and opening of the new North Peak, which was meant to bolster both the lift and trail capacity of this resort traditionally geared for well-heeled intermediate skiers. Attractive resort development, crisp trail grooming, and an exceptionally courteous staff have made Keystone one of the state's most popular resorts. Its lack of Aspen-like notoriety makes it especially appealing to visiting families.
A half-day lift ticket goes for $19, and on the advice of one local we avoided the post-lunch crowds at Mountain House and drove up the road to River Run Plaza and the new gondola. The advice was good. Even on this most crowded day of a record-breaking season, the line was short and the gondola itself was first-class transportation -- a sleek, black-and-chrome bubble.
Once at the top of Keystone Mountain, we skied down the backside to the base of new North Peak. Lift lines were nonexistent. ``It has a reputation for being hard. That's why the lines are short,'' explained John Tolle, an expert 13-year-old skier and our partner on the chair.
A fast and furious afternoon of runs down the more intermediate Starfire left us breathless and more than a little convinced that Keystone's image as a lightweight ski resort was no longer true. Despite the hard and occasionaly thin snow cover -- a few rocks reared their ugly heads -- the afternoon proved again that the best skiing is had when the crowds are the thinnest.