Powder and the fashion

The Arabelle resort in Vail.
The Arabelle resort in Vail. 

Robert Upe ticks off the boutique labels as he joins skiing's high society on the gondolas at the Colorado Vail resort.

Despite a night of fiery salsa and tequila, I'm walking with purpose. Skis over my shoulder, helmet on, goggles down and jacket zipped to my chin. Snowflakes swirl about.

It's morning at Vail ski resort in Colorado. I press into the crush of skiers and snowboarders trying to get on the Eagle Bahn Gondola. It has snowed all night. Everyone is here. Powder has covered the resort's immense trails and cloaked the fir trees in white. Sheets of snow slide off the chairlifts as they crank up for the day.

Bistro Fourteen at Eagles Nest.
Bistro Fourteen at Eagles Nest. 

I hear a chirpy breakfast radio announcer say the snowfall is also slowing down traffic on the nearby Interstate 70, which cuts through the mountains from Denver to Vail, a stretch of about 150 kilometres. I wonder if there is a convoy of Denver office workers speeding west in beefy SUVs to gatecrash this classic powder morning.

The cocky twentysomethings ahead of me in the lift line are hooping and hollering and they haven't even got on the gondola yet. I push on towards them and although we're all full of vim and vigour, there is order and good manners among the crowd. In Europe, gondola rides to access the piste can be marred by bad behaviour, with pushing in and elbowing an art form, especially when powder is on the ground. But at the Eagle Bahn, the vibe is one of excitement.

My fellow skiers and boarders are fashionably dressed, looking every inch a glam set of the alpine world. Alpine style icons such as North Face and Helly Hansen are dominant labels in the boutiques at Vail village and the resort is as much about shopping, good eating, drinking and carousing as it is about skiing and snowboarding.

The New York Times once described Vail as an "American institution, a beacon at the cultural nexus of sport, winter family travel and high society". The resort is also a beacon for Australians, ahead of Aspen and Steamboat, according to ski-travel specialist Skimax. Vail village has Tyrolean-style stone-and-timber facades, heated footpaths, a bubbling creek and outdoor ice-skating. The mountain wear displayed in shop windows is made of high-tech fabrics that promise to keep the wearer warm and dry and to wick away perspiration. Even the thermal underwear has brains - it promises not to scratch or irritate the skin, just ensure the wearer stays smell-free.

Then there are the accessories. Goggles with built-in movie cameras, watches that measure vertical feet and canisters of oxygen that can ease altitude sickness (Vail's peak elevation is 3527 metres and it can leave you breathless).

Like all of us this morning, skiers have been obsessed with the quest for fresh powder snow at Vail since 1962 when the resort opened with a handful of lifts and $US5-a-day lift tickets.

The founding fathers were local rancher Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert, a soldier with the legendary 10th Mountain Division. It's reported that Seibert said to Eaton at the top of what became Vail: "My god, we've climbed all the way to heaven."

Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary on December 15 and will be consumed by season-long celebrations that will include concerts and parties. The milestone season will also include the opening of a new gondola, reputed to be the fastest of its kind in North America. The unnamed gondola replaces the Vista Bahn Express chairlift and will take skiers from the resort's base to mid-Vail in 7½ minutes, eclipsing the old chairlift's time by 40 per cent.

The gondola, construction price undisclosed, will have 10-person cabins, cushioned and heated seats, and wi-fi: a union of mechanics and technology that Eaton and Seibert (both have passed away) could not have imagined when they surveyed their "heaven" and formulated plans to open a resort on grazing land once inhabited by Ute Indians.

Eaton's son, Carl, works at Vail's nearby sister resort Beaver Creek as a maintenance manager. When Vail was opened, he says, the chairlifts were double seaters.

"I think dad enjoyed watching Vail grow beyond his and everyone else's expectations," Carl says. "He had a great way of accepting change even though he may have been a little set in his own ways. I don't really know what he would think about the EpicPass and wi-fi in gondola cabins, though."

The EpicPass is the resort's electronic ticketing system. It's valid at other mountains owned by Vail Resorts, including Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Keystone and Arapaho Basin. It can also be used for three days at Switzerland's Verbier fields.

The pass costs $US679 ($657) for the season; however, shorter and cheaper options are available. The pass works in combination with Vail's EpicMix, an app introduced last ski season that records a skier's or snowboarder's daily vertical feet, the number of days skied and the number of lifts ridden.

It records the information via radio-frequency tracking and provides skiers with a platform on computer or smartphone for seeing the information - and sharing it. Photos taken by an army of resort photographers on the slopes are sent straight to a skier or boarder's EpicMix page.

Vail is the biggest single ski resort in North America (although Canada's Whistler Blackcomb is bigger if you count the twin resort). Vail's vastness means there's plenty of space and you can easily be the only person on a slope, even if those Denver SUVs arrive en masse.

The resort's terrain is broken into three zones: the front side, Blue Sky Basin and seven back bowls. Many of its 193 runs are wide open and there's usually a choice of groomed snow, bumps or varying degrees of difficulty wherever you go.

That means it's an ideal resort to ski if you are with people of differing abilities.

There's a good portion of intermediate terrain in Blue Sky Basin, as well as more testing tree runs, and out there you feel as though you're in the wilderness.

However, the biggest challenges are to be found in the glades and chutes in the back bowls.

I get into the rhythm of the powder at a run called Ricky's Ridge, named after one of Vail's first instructors. Occasionally, another skier goes by, hooping and hollering, but there's hardly anyone in sight most of the time and the snow comes up to my knees as I cruise down the mountain. This is what skiing is all about.

FAST FACTS

Getting there United Airlines has a fare from Sydney to San Francisco (13hr 20min), with connections to Denver (2hr 25min) starting from $3550 high-season (December-January) return, including tax. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect. See united.com. Road transfers from Denver Airport to Vail with Colorado Mountain Express (including free on-board wi-fi) cost from $89 a person, one way. See ridecme.com.

Staying there Skimax has an eight-day package including accommodation in a two-bedroom apartment at the Ritz-Carlton Residences (theresidencesvail.com) from $3945. The residences have a heated outdoor pool and spas. The package includes a seven-day Epic Pass. See skimax.com.au.

Skiing there The season is from November 16 to April 14. Total skiable terrain is 2141 hectares. There are 31 lifts and 193 trails. Average snowfall is 899 centimetres.

Eating there Vail has more than 100 restaurants, cafes and bars.

Elway's steakhouse on East Gore Creek Drive serves a 22-ounce rib eye that might stop even the steakhouse's owner and NFL quarterback legend John Elway in his tracks. See elways.com.

Bol, a combined tenpin bowling alley and sleek restaurant on East Meadow Drive, serves pizzas for $US14-$US18 ($11-14). An hour for a bowling lane costs $US50. See bolvail.com.

Game Creek Restaurant is a snowcat ride up-mountain from Vail village. A three-course fixed menu, including elk, costs $US85. See gamecreekclub.com.

More information vail.com, epicpass.com.au.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Vail

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