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Ski break: holidays with altitude

Rocky Mountains, Winter Park, Colorado. Image: CorbisRocky Mountains, Winter Park, Colorado. Image: Corbis

Following last season’s return to health, confidence is high across North America’s ski resorts, says Ben Clatworthy

Spirits are high in North American skiing circles after the 2012/13 season proved to be a year of all round growth. According to the National Ski Areas Association last season saw an estimated 56.6 million skiers take to the slopes of North America, representing an 11% increase on the previous year, which had been characterized by a distinct lack of snow and the lowest number of skiers for over 10 years. Furthermore, 78% of ski areas reported increases in visitor numbers, yet another indication of the widespread rebound to full health. One of the biggest rises was recorded in New Hampshire, where visits were up nearly 21% to 2.3 million.

In all, visitor numbers rose in every period last season with the most substantial increases recorded at its close. Specifically, visits were estimated to be up 2% in the early season, 16% during Christmas and New Year’s, and an impressive 25% during the March 26 to closing period.

Snowfall, however, was far from impressive, with most resorts reporting lower than average depths until the final few weeks of the season. Utah reported having 9% less than average. However, many resorts did close with abundant snow on their trails, and some were fortunate to be in a position to delay their closing date.

Hopes of continued increases next season are high, with Vail Resorts already reporting strong lift pass figures for next season during their spring sale. Vail Resorts CEO, Rob Katz, says: “We are extremely pleased that our spring season pass sales for the upcoming season increased approximately 18% in units and approximately 24% in sales dollars, as compared to the prior year [during the same pre-season period]”.

Vail Resorts has also announced it’s taken over operations at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah from this season. The company, operating 10 ski areas in five US states, has announced a $130m to $140m capital expenditure on its resorts in readiness for winter.

Sister resorts Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows in California have spent $8m on improvements for winter 2013/14 as part of a five-year, $70m renaissance.

The US ski market has shown considerable resilience in the past — skier numbers barely fluctuated during the global downturn — and as thoughts increasingly turn to this season, confidence is high among resort bosses.

BEGINNERS

We suggest: Winter Park, Colorado

Why: This is a resort of two halves: the ‘Winter Park’ side and the ‘Mary Jane’ side. Today, Mary Jane is famed for its moguls (ski bumps) and tree skiing, while families and beginners frequent the Winter Park side, where groomed trails and high-speed lifts make for the perfect training ground. The resort also offers countless long green trails for those looking to explore the mountain. The Winter Park Ski & Ride School, renowned for its friendly and highly qualified instructors, runs group and individual lessons for adults and children. The school uses GPS trackers to give parents peace of mind that should their child stray from the pack, they won’t be on their own for long.

What’s new: The resort is adding three new snow cats and replacing two others this season, allowing them to increase their groomed terrain to 750 acres a night, creating perfect conditions for families, and beginner skiers and riders.

Alternative: Beaver Creek, Colorado. There are excellent nursery trails at the resort base, and unusually a number of easy trails at altitude.

SERIOUS SKIERS

We suggest: Aspen, Colorado

Why: Aspen isn’t all about fur coats and shops. For expert skiers looking for high-mileage and testing trails, Aspen, and nearby Snowmass, have it all. Aspen Mountain offers a number of double black diamond trails, all of which have challenging terrain. Experts looking for bowl skiing won’t be disappointed — the gates at the Highland Bowl lead to a field of double black diamond trails. For those looking to ski moguls, the Olympic Bowl will test the toughest of legs.

What’s new: After mega-investment in recent years, the main news for the season is the growth of the Mountain Collective lift ticket, which allows two days of skiing or riding at several resorts.

Alternative: Alta, Utah. Linked to nearby Snowbird, Alta has cult status among local skiers, who make a beeline for its high ridges.

STRICTLY SNOWBOARD

We suggest: Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Why: Jackson Hole has long been raved about by skiers, but snowboarders are unanimous in their love for ‘JH’ too. There’s loads of terrain to be had for both expert and novice snowboarders, although those afraid of leaving the trails may find themselves limited. Corbet’s, the 50-degree couloir, is a must for any adventurous visitor — mainly for the terrifying jump in — and it’s said to be easier on a snowboard too. But the resort is just a small part of the bigger picture, with the backcountry gates allowing access to over 3,000 acres of amazing terrain. There’s a good sled scene too, kicked off by the likes of Travis Rice who hails from Jackson. They still all just call him ‘little Trav’, despite him being the biggest name in snowboarding — it’s the relaxed atmosphere that makes JH so special.

What’s new: This season will see new direct flights from JFK and Seattle to Jackson Hole Airport (JAC). Direct flights are available from 11 cities on American, United, and Delta airlines.

Alternative: Fernie, British Columbia: A resort always in the top 10 for snowfall, Fernie is a must for snowboarders looking to head into the bowls, which are exceptional.

APRES SKI

We suggest: Whistler, British Columbia

Why: Whistler may be voted number one in North America for skiing, but it’s also a serious party town with infamous apres-ski bars, such as the Garibaldi Lift Company, the Brewhouse and Merlin’s. The resort also organizes countless events and festivals during the winter, including the popular World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) at the end of each season.

What’s new: Whistler Mountain’s Harmony quad chairlift will be replaced with a new high-speed, detachable, six-pack chairlift for 2013/14. A high-speed quad chairlift is being built into a new area in Blackcomb Mountain’s Crystal Zone.

Alternative: Heavenly, California/Nevada. Hot spots for apres-ski include Fire+Ice at the base of the gondola and an Austrian-style bar at the top. Once night falls the casinos have shows, often with big-name performers.

ALTERNATIVE ACTIVITIES

We suggest: Jay Peak, Vermont

Why: Jay Peak certainly isn’t the most expansive resort in New England in terms of skiing (it has just eight lifts), but since opening the Pump House indoor waterpark last season, it has become the place to head for off-snow fun. With chutes, slides, a plunge pool, a river and even a surfing area, it’s hard to believe anyone would want to ski past lunchtime. For those looking for an adrenaline rush, La Chute (French for ‘The Drop’) stands at an impressive 65ft. Protruding from the building, it shoots daredevils down the ride at 45mph. Even with a full 360-degree rotation, it takes a mere six seconds to reach the bottom — but you’ll be screaming for far longer.

What’s new: Further huge developments — at a cost of $25m — are on the way for this winter in the Stateside sector. A new 80,000sq ft Stateside Base Lodge, a hotel, 84 mountain cottages, will all open in time for skiing, as well as countless amenities, including restaurants and a rental center.

Alternative: Banff, Alberta. For more traditional activities, Banff has everything from snowshoeing to dog sledding and snowmobiling. Ice canyon walks are popular too.

PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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