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Thursday, March 4,2010

What's it like to ski Colorado? Snowmass has the answer

By Marissa Hermanson and Ryan Casey

We looked down on Long Shot, a 15-minute hike behind us, the clouds below us, and the state’s longest ski run in front of us. It was nearing 3 o’clock and would turn out to be our last run of the day, which had been packed with some phenomenal skiing at Snowmass. The snow had been nearly perfect, the lines had been a breeze, and the terrain was nothing to sneeze at.

Long Shot, a 5.3-mile blue, which weaves itself to the bottom of Two Creeks mountain at the eastern-most part of the resort, gives you a sampling of every type of terrain Snowmass offers. At the top, you’ll find at least two-to-three feet of fresh powder before you gradually encounter some high-alpine skiing, and then move on to bumps. Toward the base, the final part of the run is groomed.

At that base, the Two Creeks lift will take you over a gorgeous gulley where the mountain’s namesakes snake their way below your feet.

Snowmass, nine miles outside of Aspen, has long been one of our favorite mountains, and this trip did nothing to deter our enthusiasm. It was, hands down, the best day of the ski season to date.

Yes, at $96, a one-day ticket is steep — but if you choose one day to splurge this ski season, Snowmass is the place.

Consider that in just six hours, we’d hit every type of terrain imaginable: rolling hills, high-alpine, bumps, powder, groomers and trees. Even as the snowfall grew thicker — at some points reaching near-whiteout conditions — it simply added to the mountain’s experience.

Our day started with a ride up the Elk Camp Gondola, which was built in 2006 with a price tage of $13 million. Taking you from the base of Fanny Hill to the midway point of Elk Camp in seven-and-a-half minutes (1,372 vertical feet), it was a cozy way to start things off.

Serving as our guide of sorts, our friend and Snowmass resident, Leslie, took us up the Elk Camp quad to hit a few of her favorites: Grey Wolf and Bull Run. Both of these blues featured high, rolling terrain, and were blanketed in just enough snow to remind you that, yes, we were deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and, no, we were not dreaming.

From there, it was on to High Alpine by way of Adams Avenue and the Alpine Springs lift. Perhaps motivated by the Olympic spirit, we got into Nordic ski mode and made our way across an uphill catwalk to Green Cabin, which, starting at nearly 12,000 feet, offered spectacular views of the valley below. The stretch of skating and poling was worth it, as it turned out to best the best run of the day.

Steep, blanketed with a fresh snow, and wide open, Green Cabin is the quintessential Colorado ski run. You know those friends from the East Coast who ask you what it’s like to ski in Colorado? This is the answer they’re looking for.

It also typified what Snowmass is about.

Other resorts offer the quick 30- to 40-second runs. Snowmass is about quality, but it’s also about quantity. In addition to Long Shot, Campground, a black running down the western part of the resort, can take you 30 minutes to complete. Others on the western part of the resort, like Bearclaw and Slot (with a more-than 2,000 vertical foot drop), also offer long-distance trails.

It’s runs like these that set Snowmass apart. Often times, we felt entirely alone. It was a feeling of backcountry skiing without the avalanche danger.

After Green Cabin, we hitched a ride up to Sam’s Knob. It was lunch time, after all.

Sam’s Smokehouse was a bit expensive (as is the case with all onmountain restaurants), but we were seated at the far west of the dining area, overlooking Garret’s Peak. And that landscape was stunning. Opened before last season, the $9 million restaurant seats 160 people inside, with room for 50 more on its outdoor patio. As the mountain’s newest, and perhaps best, food, it’s no wonder it sits at the top of the resort’s main lift: the sixperson Village Express.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention a few of our other favorites:

Powerline Glades, mogul skiing, weaving your way back and forth through trees, on Big Burn.

Garrett’s Gulch, a black that splinters off at the top of the Sheer Bliss lift. Skinny, quick and in a natural alley, there’s hardly anything like it anywhere else. It typically gets hammered by snow, too.

Naked Lady, a blue off the Alpine Springs lift — you know, just so you can tell people, “Yeah, I skied Naked Lady.” (Be warned though: often this statement is interpreted as, “Yeah, I skied naked, lady.”) Coffee Pot, a blue off the Alpine Springs lift. It’s not too challenging, while still being enjoyable, and is often a great way to warm up. As a bonus, it can also dump you out on to … Fanny Hill, a green that runs parallel to the village. Hit it at least once.

There’s just too much going on in the periphery that you don’t want to miss. (We’re talking ski jumping into pools, fun tree trails, people watching, etc.)

The best mountain in Colorado?

Ask five different people and you’ll get five different answers. Yet there’s no question that Snowmass is in the conversation. If you have a chance to ski here, don’t think twice — ski Snowmass.

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