Here's a confession: I don't "get" Vail. On some gut level, it doesn't grab me or engage me, and I can't comprehend why so many love Vail so much. True, the Back Bowls are bliss on a powder day. And there is a lively, embracing feeling one gets while walking up Bridge Street -- but it lasts for all of 50 yards. What else is there? For the most part, Vail's terrain isn't very steep, very varied, or very interesting. The mountain's front side is as uninspiring to gaze at as a bowl of vanilla yogurt. In fact, Vail Valley's scenic value is lower than any ski hill outside of Greater Detroit.
Sacrilege, I know. But I'm not alone. The parallel world, in fact, is divided into two kinds of skiers: Those who believe with every morsel of their being that Vail is the greatest, and those who think Vail sucks. Which just shows that love of a particular lift-dotted peak is as personal and sometimes as hard to rationalize as love of the more mortal kind.
Last winter, I spent several days in Vail, trying to feel the love. Two friendly sisters who grew up there and love it a lot showed me around one day. Their Vail was nice, but it didn't rock my world. My pal Chris Anthony (who has appeared in 13 Warren Miller movies, is a mind-blowingly great skier, and grew up in Vail) gave me hispersonal mountain tour one day, and we had an absolute blast -- but I still didn't catch the bug. I had coffee at The Grind, an amazing Euro-style lunch at Cucina Rustica, après at Vendetta's, cocktails on the patio of the Platzl during a free concert by a great funk-zydeco band, and a superb massage at the Sonnenalp Spa. It was all extremely nice. But something was missing. Whether we're talking mountains or men, I need my niceness mixed with hefty doses of complexity, soul, and sex appeal.
The real deal, for me, is Whistler Mountain. I'm not referring to the resort of Whistler, which I like a lot. And I'm not talking about the dual mountain big-ass playground known as Whistler-Blackcomb, which I also like a lot. I am talking quite specifically about being in love with Whistler Mountain itself. Enraptured. Over the top. And I am not exaggerating one bit.
This was not a case of love at first sight. Like most visitors, I initially found the skiing on adjacent Blackcomb Mountain to be more accessible. But then I found myself staring at Whistler all the time, like a baby stares at its mom. Even now, when I am walking around town, I often stop simply to gaze at it. The more I look, the more I want to look. Whistler Mountain is the most enduringly beautiful ski mountain I have ever seen.
But I especially love to ski it. I love Whistler Mountain's contours and how they feel under my feet. I love the tingly rush I get from its abundant steeps. I love dropping through the bony gullet of West Cirque into knee-high powder and billows of cold smoke. I love nonstop high-speed carving for 5,000 vertical feet. I love the fact that Whistler is a mountain with many secrets, a small fraction of which I now know.
Okay, maybe having an intimate relationship with a hunk of earth, snow, rocks, and trees is kind of warped. But the more I ski Whistler, the more I want to ski Whistler. When I'm on that mountain, I feel not only at home but more alive -- and somehow more complete.
At a Park City dinner party, a rather drunk but quite pretty woman named Susan told me how much she loved Aspen -- and how utterly dreadful she imagined Whistler-Blackcomb to be. "You likeit?!" she asked incredulously. "I'm amazed! Isn't the weather miserable? Isn't the snow like cement?"
"No," I said. "Actually, that's a myth. There is a lot of weather, but that weather brings in heaps and heaps of great snow."
"Oh," she said. "Well, is it as perfectly dry and light as Aspen's snow? Because I only like skiing in powder, and I only like powder when it is perfectly light like that."
But there's more to Susan's Aspen than champagne. Susan lived the good life in Aspen for 20 yeears. She ate goulash with world-famous physicists. She drank fine wine until the wee hours with friends who didn't need to flaunt how much the bottle cost. She had sex on several occasions with a famous handsome TV star (or so she claims). It was the most wonderful chapter of her very vibrant, cosmopolitan life, and when she talks about it, she lights up like a kid who hit a home run and got straight A's in the same day.
"I wouldn't visit Whistler if I were you," I told her. "It seems like you've found your perfect place."
On my last night in Vail, it snowed. Only three or four inches, but it was enough. In a flash, in Teacup Bowl the next day, I understood the whole Vail thing: It's a spacious, free place, where everyone, no matter their ability level, can fly downhill without any feelings of obstruction. You can let your boards run free.
That feeling in Teacup had me tingling all over -- for all of 10 minutes. Then the feeling was gone, and all I really wanted was to go home to Whistler.