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Traveler: Way-Back Bowls

For all the controversy surrounding it, Vail's Blue Sky Basin (better known as Category III) is about as benign as can be, consisting mostly of open terrain and glades.

Which is not to say it'll be boring. Far from it. Encom-passing tight trees, sparse trees, aspen groves, new-growth evergreens, rough-edged ridgelines, wide-open natural bowls, and steep cirques, Blue Sky broadens Vail's character, even if the pitch doesn't add much to Vail's mix. With three of four planned lifts in place, one-and-a-half of the two bowls that constitute Blue Sky are slated to open for skiing January 6. That's 500 acres of new terrain.

Better skiers will immediately head for the cornice that spills steeply from the western edge of Pete's Bowl. This north-facing stash preserves some of the mountain's softest, deepest pow. Less obvious but perhaps more rewarding, the long western ridge of Earl's Bowl protects powder in the trees and¿since it'll take a traverse to reach it¿could well be the last place the fresh gets cut up. And the new Earl's lift will provide a speedy return trip.

As a bonus, one of the new lifts is actually in Tea Cup Bowl, in the Back Bowls. It'll return Blue Sky skiers to the top of Vail Mountain, yes, but mostly it will provide Back Bowl skiers ready access to Tea Cup Bowl and China Bowl's west wall.

The main Blue Sky attraction is Earl's Bowl, a rolling, intermediate heaven. The pitch resembles the front side off Avanti. Trees along the fringes will up the ante for the adventurous. On either side of the aptly-named Ridge lift, whose namesake divides Pete's from Earl's, cut and gladed runs resemble Beaver Creek's Grouse Mountain.

Advanced skiers will probably take lines through the trees; intermediates will explore the "groomed glades," that is, the white open spaces between the tree islands.

In keeping with the low impact philosophy of modern ski-area design, Blue Sky offers few amenities. There are basically two high-speed lifts, a warming hut, and a few groomed routes down. But really, what more could you want?

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