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November 17, 2010

Powder and Sunshine at Breckenridge's Opening


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Breckenridge, Colorado (Gerry Wingenbach)

It’s here. We’re on. Warren Miller’s latest ski flick is history. It’s time to live your own ski and riding movie.

Thanksgiving is approaching, and prime options for turkey with heaps of snowy trimmings appear to be the usual suspects: Colorado, Utah, British Columbia, and Alberta. Sunday River, Killington, and other major-league Eastern resorts will pull it off, too. They almost always do.

The first week in November saw the US Alpine ski team leave the glaciers of Austria for the slopes of Vail and Copper Mountain. Families are returning to Keystone. The Austrian ski team is at Sun Peaks in British Columbia. Lake Louise opened Nov. 5, with World Cup races just weeks away.

Utah’s Solitude, Brighton, Alta, and Snowbird are cranking up the lifts, and by Thanksgiving almost all the state’s top-shelf resorts should be running on close to all cylinders. Park City Mountain Resort (the best-run ski resort in America; they’re in the ski business, not the real estate business) is tweaking operations for a Nov. 20 opening. (I boot skied a black-diamond run in a foot of powder up there the third week of October.) The Canyons opens about the same time with some major improvements. Deer Valley is holding off until early December, ensuring corduroy for the privileged seniors who inhabit the place and can’t handle free-spirited snowboarders. (Still no riding allowed up there.) 

Aspen and Telluride will be running by Turkey Day. And in the heart of Colorado, Breckenridge opened Nov. 12 with nothing but blue skies and powder. Last season, more skiers and boarders (1.6 million) visited Breckenridge than any other resort in the US. What’s that about?

So let’s start the season at Breckenridge.

The night before opening day it dumped six inches. Seventeen inches fell earlier in the week. Only a tenth of the mountain was open (the Colorado Super Chair at the base of Peak 8 doing the heavy lifting), but it’s a big, big mountain.

Opening day began as a pink glow in the east, while down at Pup’s Glide Shop, a one-room, purple-colored miner’s shack just off Main St., my buddy Rick “Pup” Asher was waxing skis. The shop and Pup are Breckenridge institutions. Locals clang their bicycle bells or honk their horns when they ride by.

Pup skis 100-plus days a year with a posse of hard-core locals. And if you can keep up, you’re welcome to join him. Last year, he gave up ski days to tune equipment for the awesome US team at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver.

“Because of the altitude, we get good, consistent snow from the get-go,” Pup said. (Breck tops out at 13,000 feet.) “It doesn’t rain or get slushy up there, not even in spring. And when the Breckenridge wind blows, it picks up the snow and dumps it again.”

Let’s check it out, Pup. But first, we’ll take a spin through town.

Breckenridge is perhaps the best-preserved, 1860s-vintage Victorian jewel in the West. The oldest continuously occupied mining town in Colorado. At one time, it had the only post office between Denver and Salt Lake City. Today, you’ll find 249 historic structures and 70-plus restaurants and bars. (Locals hang at Fatty’s Pizzaria.) It’s both a pretty town and a rowdy town; the real thing, including beds for more than 20,000 guests.

Up on the mountain, actually four linked mountains, you’ll find 29 lifts (including North America’s highest) accessing 155 trails and seemingly endless in-bounds, backcountry-like terrain. More than 700 acres are above tree line (more than Vail), and there’s plenty of glade skiing.

“We’re a great family resort,” Pup said. (It’s true, but it sounds like he works for the chamber of commerce. I know he spends most of his time on the white chutes off Imperial Express, or traversing and hiking to the classic steeps off Peak 7.)

Twenty-six years ago, Breckenridge was the first Colorado resort to allow snowboarders and today their parks and pipes are known around the world. The biggest event this year might be the Winter Dew Tour (Dec. 16 – 19), a carnival featuring the best riders in the world and an outpouring of entertainment.

Back here on opening day, the buzz is mostly about the great skiing. “Best opening in ten years,” said Steve Harris, the manger of the mountaintop Vista Haus.

But even more striking than the conditions is the rejuvenation of Peak 8 base area with new buildings called Ski Hill Place and the Ski Hill Grill, where they served a free, French toast breakfast.

One Ski Hill Place is a luxurious hotel and condo complex where units sell for as much as $2.6 million under the tagline “Breckenridge Like Never Before.”

After skiing the day away, I attended the grand opening gala, dining on appetizers that I have no idea how to spell. Every realtor hit on me. You’d think those got-rich-quick brokers could sniff out who has money and who doesn’t. Their major selling point was the historic nature of Breckenridge and the fine character of the locals. Guys like Pup, I guess. Oddly, they never mentioned the mountain in a context other than a scenic backdrop.

Looking around the palatial digs and beautiful people, I was thinking I’ve never seen so much cleavage stuffed into little black dresses at the base of a chairlift. I also couldn’t help but notice that Pup wasn’t invited.

But now it’s Day 2. The avalanche-control bombs are booming and Pup and I are heading up the mountain, the cleavages of the four Breckenridge peaks teasing us higher. A hawk circling without the quiver of a wing.

And now...The Mountain Buzz:
The Canyons opened another 400 acres and 10 trails; also improved access to the mountain, including North America’s first-ever lift with heated seats.

Bridger Bowl, the greatest little ski area in Montana, has a new chairlift.

Skiing the Alps, especially Switzerland, is the dream of every winter lover. The declining euro and Swiss franc make it even more affordable. Here’s a cool address at a hot resort: Tschuggen Grand Hotel at Arosa above the medieval city of Chur.

Whitewater Ski Resort in BC has a new chair opening 700 acres on the Backside area.

Vail replaced Chair 5, and there’s a new app called EpiMix that tracks your vertical at all Vail resorts.

Park City Mountain Resort’s kid’s ski school with a maximum of five in the class. They’ve added three new Adventure Alleys through the trees.

 Please follow me on Twitter @themountainpost


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Related Topics: Christmas Vacation · Skiing & Snowboarding

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