“Did you see the sign that said, ‘Danger, cliff’?”
“Nope,” I said, a little unnerved. “Good thing.”
He just continued to smile as if to say, “Naw, you would have handled it anyway.”
We were nearing the end of a day that radically changed my view of skiing, and of myself as a skier. I’d had a full day of instruction with Cliff Edwards when I’d expected just a guide to introduce me to the massive mountain that hosts perhaps the best ski resort in North America: Vail.
I’m not a Vail booster, just repeating what the people who get paid to make such judgments have proclaimed the last few years, that Vail is the best ski resort in North America. It’s also the biggest, the biggest on a single mountain, that is. Whistler, in British Columbia, is bigger, but it sprawls across two mountains.
I’d wanted someone to show me around on my first visit here, my first ski trip to Colorado after a lifelong interest in the sport. Colorado skiing had been legendary when I was growing up. The place where I learned to ski was a small rise in the farm country south of Minneapolis called Buck Hill. Back then it felt like quite a hill, with its 306 foot vertical drop, and my leather lace-up boots and wooden skis with cable bindings were high-tech compared to the wood planks with a leather strap my father used when he skied to his fish house. We’d ski under lights at night, sometimes when it was so cold—well below zero—we could manage no more than a run or two before we had to duck into the warming hut to avoid frostbite. In those years we heard tales of skiing in the Rocky Mountains that sounded mythical, stories of dry snow, runs that went on for miles.
Now I was finally here. On my first day at Vail I had the pleasure of skiing with Jen Brown, twenty years a ski racer and now communications manager for Vail. Following her had produced the best day of skiing I’d ever had. Of course I couldn’t keep up with her, but I entered a zone of Zen skiing as I latched onto her poetic flow down the mountain. I swung in arcs like hers, felt tethered to her, skiing in a spiritual tandem that produced a quiet euphoria. By the end of the day I was both ready for more and ready to call it quits. After all, how could it get any better?
The next day I met Cliff Edwards, and my whole ski world turned a different hue. Cliff had grown up in Port Chester, New York, where his family was in the ski business. They were pioneers in snow making, learning about the technology from resorts in Wisconsin, bringing the knowledge back to New York and turning a nearly bankrupt ski area on the Massachusetts border, Catamount, into a popular ski center. He began teaching skiing as a teenager, and moved to Colorado when a job as a ski instructor opened up at Vail. That was 27 years ago.
“My boss in New York knew the head of the ski school here and recommended me for the job. I got it and I’m still here.”
You’d think that teaching the same skills for 27 years would become as rote as brushing your teeth, but Cliff swept his arm toward the mountains running off to the horizon and said simply, “I get to work out here, and teach people what I know, help them learn to love to ski.” The gleam in his eye said the rest. There was nothing he’d rather do.
Like many good teachers, Cliff makes his students comfortable. “New technology makes skiing so easy. In some ways, the technology and groomed runs have made skiing too easy. People don’t have to learn to ski anymore.”
By “new technology” he meant the fat skis that everyone is on these days. They have a more pronounced parabolic or hourglass shape, wide at the tips and backs and narrow in the middle. The shape allows easier carving with the edges, and puts more surface area on the snow, something skiers got from snowboarders. More surface area gives more control.
“So much of skiing today is flexing in the ankles,” he said. “Lateral flexing allows the skis to carve the shape, forward backward flexing keeps the pressure on the tips so you stay in the fall line, stay with gravity, and allow the skis to brake you on any slope, no matter how steep, at any speed.”
He tipped up on his edges to show me what he meant. “Press in on the inside of your foot, or tuck a knee slightly. That will get you on the edge of the ski. It’s very subtle. Then the ski does the turn for you. You can teach people to use the skis, but you can’t teach balance. That comes with practice.”
I’d learned the previous day what these new skis could do. I’d commented to Jen that the skis made me a better skier than I really am, and she laughed, politely suggesting, “No, they bring out the best in you.”
Then Cliff presented a concept that was completely foreign to me. “Don’t use your muscles to support yourself on skis. Use your bones, your skeleton. If you line up your bones you get pressure on the front of the skis. Stacking your bones gives you balance and control. Using your muscles, I call that exercise.” Out the window went my lifelong belief that the key to skiing was bending your knees and using the strength of your thighs to support you. That’s what I’d always been told, the way I’d always tried to ski—leaning forward onto the tips of the skis—and had at my advanced-intermediate level. No more.
We took several runs, Cliff coaching me along the way with clear, precise, and simple advice.
“Don’t think of turns, think of carving a shape like a C. Always carve the shape. Leave your skis in the fall line a second longer, you’ll stay in control, and be ready to carve the next shape. Don’t use your skis like windshield wipers, swishing them back and forth. Think of a car going around a corner. The front of the car leads and the rest follows around the turn. Let the front of the skis lead. Remember, the front of the ski is where your control is. Two-thirds of the ski is in front.”
On catwalks and other gentle slopes he urged me to keep practicing. “Too many people just ride on their skis, they don’t take these opportunities to learn. Practice railroad tracking. Work on tipping your skis, work on your balance, ride one edge, then the other, always leaving behind parallel tracks like a train.”
But the key piece of information was to stand tall. “Don’t bend from the knees or the waist,” Cliff repeated throughout the day. “Bend from the ankles, which puts the flex on the tips and presses the edges into the snow. You give gravity something to pull by standing tall. Think of a river. Go in the river and flow with gravity. Or think of water skiing. You never want any slack in the rope. Same here, keep gravity pulling on your chest, and press the edges into the snow. That allows you to carve the shape and brake yourself all the way down the fall line. Keep your body back, let the ski do its work.”
Surprisingly, I was able to absorb all this information and apply it as we explored Vail’s back bowls, expansive sweeps of open terrain that converged in creekbeds and valleys. We never rushed. Cliff skied in gentle routes on every run, taking his time, carving his shapes, evidently practicing his technique so I could work on mine.
“What I like most about skiing is getting out into beautiful places,” he said. “We couldn’t get here without skis.”
He had already led me to such places, where we found ourselves alone, in the trees, picking our way down steep slopes, along frozen streams, making our own tracks back to the lifts.
Vail feels like three distinct ski resorts. The front side of the mountain offers the kind of skiing most people have come to know and expect: runs carved out of the face of a mountain with obstacles removed and forest marking the boundaries. The back bowls are treeless expanses where you can stay in groomed areas or venture on your own over snow that’s been left to nature’s forces. Either way, there’s so much terrain it’s easy to get away from the crowd. And then there’s Blue Sky Basin, an area just beyond the bowls that opened three years ago and is meant to recapture a more traditional skiing experience. Trails are cut out of the forest but obstacles have been left in place. You ski around boulders and snags and feel as if you’re simply making your way down a mountain rather than skiing at a resort where everything has been made as safe and tidy as possible.
At the top of Blue Sky Basin, a place called Belle’s Camp, you get the feeling that it is a simpler time. There’s a lodge with a huge stone fireplace, tables to sit around with friends, but no food service. Outdoor grills are always on and available for use, so bring your own and enjoy the feeling of skiing as it was a generation or two ago. An old barn and wagon on the ridge suggests the place was recently taken over from ranchers, but of course the wagon was placed there for just that reason and the “old barn” was built recently out of concrete made to look like weathered wood. Even so, Belle’s Camp has a tranquil, rustic feel to it, and reminded me of my own simpler times skiing.
When I was a boy we used rope tows and t-bars, and the big deal at Buck Hill was the one chair lift. One of Cliff’s comments on the chair at Vail resonated with me: “People spend too much time sitting now, they don’t get used to being on their skis. We learned to ski going up the mountain as well as down using t-bars, poma lifts, rope tows. Kids don’t learn that way anymore, and they lose a lot.”
I skied at the Dartmouth Skiway in New Hampshire in the early 1970s, a place that also had more surface lifts than chairs. The area felt more like a mountain, but with its low-altitude snow still wasn’t the legend I was hoping for. It was here I used up one of my nine lives, losing control on ice on a blind turn and flying into the woods. If my skis hadn’t hit the trees before I did, if I hadn’t somehow managed to shoot between two trees when my skis hit taking the brunt of the impact, I would certainly have been killed. Cliff put me at ease about skiing in the trees when he said, “People who get killed in the trees aren’t skiing in the trees, they’re skiing on the trail out of control and go into the trees.” No doubt he was right.
Cliff’s constant reminders not to “get hollow in the chest” by rolling my shoulders forward and bending at the waist helped me grasp what he meant by standing tall and stacking. Bending at the waist, I discovered, was my biggest problem, how I always got myself into trouble. On one slow descent through the trees as we stepped down from one catwalk to another his shout, “Don’t get hollow!” was still in my ears as I did just that on the final drop to the trail and splattered on my chest, skis flying.
We skied all over the mountain. We skied the bowls, we skied the trees, we skied the moguls, we skied through Aspen groves, we skied down gullies, and down slopes I never would have contemplated before. All because he got me to trust the skis, to trust my ability to keep my body back, to stand tall.
Vail’s top elevation is 11,570 feet, its vertical drop 3,450 feet. That’s more than ten times the drop of my childhood ski area. The place feels less crowded than my favorite Lake Tahoe resorts because it’s so big and there are so many places to leave the crowds behind, especially if you have someone like Cliff to show you the way.
On our last lift up the mountain from the back bowls, the waning sun brushed the peaks with a rosy alpenglow. The last time I’d seen that was a few months earlier in Nepal, when staring at the otherworldly face of Lhotse from about 15,000 feet. An avalanche of incomprehensible proportions roared down the mountain as I stood there, in awe of nature’s raw beauty. We were approaching Vail’s summit and I realized it was roughly the same altitude as Namche Bazar, that fabled Sherpa town that’s the gateway to Mount Everest. And I realized that Cliff, and Jen, like the Sherpas who showed me their world with love and care and respect, had introduced me to their world with the same mindfulness. These two mountain places were as culturally different as night and day, but they were unified in me, through these people. Skiing was just another way to get up into the high country, to bathe in the alpenglow that mountains provide.
We got to the summit only seconds before the ski patrol pulled the ropes across the entrance to the back bowls, and we skirted past so we could ski the only bowl we’d missed all day. Carving shapes down the mountain behind Cliff I couldn’t get out of my head what he’d said on that last lift ride.
“You keep calling yourself an intermediate skier but you’re not. I’ve been with you all day. You’re an expert skier. I don’t know any other way to say it.”
Perhaps that’s the legend of the Rocky Mountains I’d been seeking since childhood. Keep your body back, stack your bones, give gravity something to hold onto, tip ’em and ride.
Don’t want to ski? Get a bike.
They say riding ski-bikes is popular in the Alps but I’d never seen one, let alone been on one. At Vail you can do this at night. Yes, in the dark. Whether to give non-skiers and skiers alike something else to do or just looking for ways to generate more revenue, Vail offers nightly runs down the mountain on bikes that have skis for wheels. You wear short skis on your feet for control and use your weight on the seat to keep you from flying into the blue yonder.
We strapped headlamps above our goggles, practiced a few turns and stops (you slide the rear around to slow down and stop), then headed downhill behind Slovakian Jan Strbe, who’s working at Vail for his seventh consecutive season. My headlamp lit up the slope ahead but it was hard to see far or tell how steep the slope was until I picked up speed. “Whoa, too fast!” I shouted to myself as I wove this way and that trying to slow down, and “I’d rather be skiing” reverberated in my head. But soon I was getting the hang of it.
On my second run I was having a great time, now trusting the bike and my ability to control it. The flashing of headlamps off into the trees told me where my companions were headed, but I stuck to the trail, intersecting with a line of snowmobiles out on a night tour like us. Below, the village lights twinkled like stars and the distant peaks loomed like ghosts. The breeze was cold but my adrenaline was pumping. This could become habit forming. Crazy sport.
If you don’t like the sound of this there’s also ice skating, tubing down gentle slopes, or restaurants on the mountain. Vail, like other ski resorts, is trying to provide something for everyone.
For information, go to Vail.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.
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