February 2001
Is bigger better?
Rather than start with the question: In skiing, is bigger better? Let’s start with a dream - maybe a daydream, maybe real, but a persistent dream that haunts skiers’ psyches the way dreams of flying haunt young children. You know the one I mean - a run, a perfect run, that doesn’t stop, that goes on and on and on, down and down and down an inexhaustible, self-renewing mountainside. Each new drop-off leading to a new runout, couloir and bowl, trail and face, pack to powder and back, or vice versa, endlessly, on legs that never seem to give out, on skis that just keep on turning no matter what. All serious skiers have innocently pushed off into this perfect dream of a run that never ends. And some skiers, lucky skiers, have come close to skiing it, for real, on a perfect day, on a very very big mountain. I guess that’s the essence of the big-mountain ski experience. Not a run that never ends, but one that feels as though it might never end....

And in that sense - sure - bigger is definitely better! Our question is bigger too. The topic is more than just the ski mountain - we’re discussing big ski resorts in general: the whole scene, the mountain and the town, the ambience, all that jazz (including the jazz, if the resort is sophisticated enough, or the just rock and roll if it isn’t). The same question - is bigger better? - can easily be asked about resorts.

But I’d like to pause first, to share an opinion that’s become unfashionable in a ski business often driven by real estate development. It’s this: ski resorts are first…and foremost…and always…about skiing. Period. Or at least they should be. Everything else is, in some sense, secondary.

For me the ski mountain, and the resort town at its base, do not constitute two halves of a perfectly balanced equation. For me, the quality of any ski-resort experience depends mostly on the quality of the skiing. I’m just not buying the rap that goes: “Well, the skiing’s not so hot, but they really pamper you; the shopping is great; and wow, you should see our condo, what luxury!” No thanks! If I want luxury I’ll check into a fine old hotel in Paris or Zurich or the Peninsula in Hong Kong. If I’m after a world-class shopping experience it’s the via Monte Napoleone in Milano, the electronics district in Tokyo or even the Galleria in Houston. And as for food - well, a medium-good restaurant in New York will most likely serve better fare than the fanciest restaurant at the fanciest ski resort. “Wait a minute, I can hear you saying, don’t meals always taste better high in the mountains, after a great day of skiing?” I quite agree, but that’s just my point. However wonderful, however extravagant or sybaritic the resort facilities at the base of the mountain, you have to look to the slopes to discover if it’s a great resort - small, big or bigger. The better your skiing experience the better your resort experience will be. And yes, big mountains do give you more. The bigger the better!

But how big is big? In this relativistic world, nothing is more relative. Skiers from the Midwest arrive in the Rockies with eyes as large as saucers - from two lifts to twenty, from three hundred vertical feet to three thousand. It’s a revelation, a revolution. The big-mountain experience changes you as a skier. And it’s the same everywhere. Los Angelenos, graduate with glee from southern California ski hills to Mammoth. After a season or two in the Carolinas, southern skiers can’t wait to hit big-time Vermont ski mountains. Even here where I live, in Colorado, folks who’ve developed a skiing addiction at Loveland, or even Keystone, discover a new dimension when they finally visit really big mountains like Steamboat, or Snowmass or Vail. Did I say addiction? Big ski mountains are certainly addictive. Like any addict, you want more. Luckily, there is more,

The next step up in scale, mountain scale, is found in the Alps. Big European skiing is simply much bigger than big American skiing. A few years back my good friend, ski writer Peter Shelton, made his first visit to the Alps. I’ve kept the postcard he sent me from France: “Lito, I am beginning to understand what you have known about the enormity and the quality and charm of the skiing here.… In les Arcs we skied four runs of 7,800 vertical feet EACH!” For Peter, as for me, bigger was better. He actually skied that dream of a never-ending run. And he has returned, often, to those mega areas in the middle of those mega-mountains, the Alps - as I try to, every winter, to stretch my wings.

Just how big? Take Verbier - well over a hundred lifts, four separate mountain valleys which can be skied on every exposure. A day at Verbier is often spent taking a succession of lifts to the top of some major summit, like Mont Fort, and then skiing down, down, down to a distant village for lunch. In the afternoon you do it again: another run from another summit. Think what this means: two runs a day! And those two runs give you almost more skiing than you can handle.

The progression works like this. At a small ski area you wind up skiing individual runs, favorite runs, challenging runs, friendly runs, but your experience is “chunked” into small units. At a larger ski area you wind up feeling that you are skiing a mountainside not just one trail; and at a really large area - a place like Mammoth, say, or Jackson Hole - you feel that you’re actually skiing an entire mountain. And so you are. But the last step in this sliding scale of skiing bigness comes when you are skiing a whole mountain range. It’s all there, and it’s all yours.

This is what happens to skiers in the biggest alpine zones of Europe - places like Val d’Isère-Tignes, or the Vorarlberg in Austria, or less well known ski regions like La Foux d’Allos-Pras Loup in the southern French Alps. In all these cases the mountains transcend the resort. Indeed there are multiple resorts nestled into the contours of these sprawling ski zones; and it doesn’t matter what resort you start from, what side of what peak you eat lunch on, or where you wind up at the end of the day. If you have skied down into another resort, in some other valley, you can always take a taxi home. And you probably won’t complain; you’re too high on so much skiable space! Much bigger was much better.

In all honesty I have to add a couple of caveats here. First, not all ski areas in the Alps are this big; some are positively ho-hum beside the giants. Second, to get the most out of this mountain-range scale of bigness you have to be a very strong skier. Big ski resorts Alps are often a tougher skiing environment than our North American ski resorts. It’s the in-bounds/out-of-bounds dichotomy. American resort skiing is, almost by definition, an in-bounds experience; while in the Alps there are no bounds. Finally, the bigger the mountain, the more likely you are to be spending a lot of time at or above timberline, which means that clouds can roll in and positively devour your skiing day. Take it with a grain of salt. There’s no way to experience the freedom and release of big big-mountain skiing without taking this sort of a chance with the elements. You have to risk losing a few days in pursuit of that endless run. And you’ll never make the jump from skiing a trail to skiing a whole mountain unless you get up into those wide-open spaces above timberline.

In the normal tradition of even-handed journalism, I should be talking pros and cons, the pluses and minuses of big ski mountains and big ski resorts. But I’ve already let my prejudices show; why hide them now? Instead let me underline the diversity of what constitutes bigness in skiing. Everything doesn’t have to be big. I find a small resort at a big mountain to be totally satisfying, but a big posh resort at a smaller (or otherwise limited) ski mountain doesn’t excite me.

Big resorts (as opposed to their ski slopes) have some big advantages. Families with very young kids, for example, can more easily find child care services, and baby sitters, at big resorts. Skiers find more choices of all sorts during their après– and pre–skiing hours, whether it’s a choice of restaurants or a choice of ski tuning shops. And although the big resorts, here and abroad, tend to be pricier on average, you can still find more bargains say at Vail than at Telluride, just because of the size and competition.

I guess it's obvious that I’m crazy about big ski mountains, and very big on big resorts. At a big resort you can fine-tune and personalize your skiing experience much more readily than at a smaller ski area. Logically, there will be more of the exact sort of skiing you are looking for at a bigger resort. That’s good. Size also means numbers, crowds, and while new generation high-speed lifts have pretty much licked the lift-line problem, you may sometimes feel that big ski resorts are too well known, hold too few surprises. The solution is simple: visit big resorts farther from home. Distance does wonders.

But for me, the critical distance remains that from the top of the mountain to the bottom - a distance measured in turns and adrenalin and views, not purely in feet or meters. You push off at high altitude, in dry, light fluff, your skis squeaking on a cold ballroom floor of packed powder. You ski down into the forest— into first one forest then another: alpine fir, spruce, lodgepole pine, finally aspen groves, white lines cross-hatching a skier’s space.... Still you keep dropping. The snow sets up, then warms. Thousands of vertical feet lower it feels like spring. Suddenly it is spring. Genuine corn snow is flying out form under your skis. And still you turn, drop, shoot out across surprise flats with a once-in-a-blue-moon grin wrapped across your face. This is it. The run the lasts forever. Or at the very least, lasts as long as the mountain is big.

   February 2001
photo at top of page:
big mountain skiing in the Three Valleys, Les Trois Vallées, in the heat of France's Haute Savoie region.
photo © Linde Waidhofer
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.