Ski Town Milestones

With the exception of this past year I’ve lived in a Colorado ski town for the better part of a decade and, aside from my hometown, I’ve never lived anyplace longer. It’s the only ski town I’ve ever lived in so I really can’t compare it to another one but friends in other ski towns tell me they too have certain annual events locals use as milestones to help count down to opening day.

Without a doubt the first milestone that gets me stoked for the upcoming season is autumn. And it usually happens subtly, sometime in late August on a hike in the backcountry, when I notice a few leaves on a single aspen starting to turn. A week or two later a few more trees join in and, although daytime temps are still in the 70s, when I take the dog out at night I can see my breath.  By the third week of September whole sections of forest have shifted from summer green to autumn gold.

Autumn Aspens

The color shift welcomes Ocktoberfest as the next milestone in my town. Beers, bratwurst and Helmut Fricker paired with bluebird days and powdered-sugar dustings of snow in the higher elevations bump my stoke up to the next level.

Ocktoberfest 2009


But as much as the excitement of Ocktoberfest and the amazing spectacle of the aspens’ transformation gets me thinking I need a better plan to get in shape for the upcoming riding season, my stoke gets a major boost when the water fountains are drained in Vail Village.

Since the 2002 – 2003 season my home mountain has been Vail and for anyone who hasn’t spent time there Vail is split into three pedestrian villages: Gold Peak, Vail Village and Lionshead (until it’s renamed).  Each of these villages are made up of restaurants, retail stores and residences following the course of Gore Creek from east to west all with lift access to the mountain.  I worked in Vail Village so my morning commute usually consisted of catching the bus, getting off at the Vail Transportation Center and crossing over the covered bridge.  On the walking leg of my routine I passed by two water fountains that get drained when the mercury shows signs of freezing.

Early September - Water Still in the Fountain

No big deal, right?  But the day I descend the Vail parking structure steps and see an empty fountain my heart starts pounding because it’s a major milestone that tells me I’m even closer to opening day.

Living in Colorado gives you a front row seat to witness the first to open race that happens every year between Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin, both on the Continental Divide, sometime in October.  This year they were both beat out by Sunday River in Maine but Loveland opened two days later on October 24th and Abasin opened the following day.  Last year Loveland beat out everyone when they opened on October 7th.  In the weeks leading up to both resorts opening days, coverage about their progress online and in the Vail Daily creates an energy in town that is tangible.  It also means that, as both resorts race to open, I’ll be able to pick up my season pass.  Some years I’ve been in and out of the ticketing offices in under 15 minutes and others have seen me huddled with throngs of other locals catching up on their autumn adventures for over two hours.  Since the inception of Vail Resort’s Epic Pass, the tradition of standing in line has been replaced by the day I visit my PO Box and find that glorious envelop containing the keys to the upcoming snowboard season.

Epic Pass

Inevitably conversations turn to whether or not we’re going to head to Abasin for opening day or if riding the white ribbon of death and risking a season ending ACL/MCL injury is worth the drive over Vail Pass to Summit County.  Some years we do, others we don’t but regardless the conversation and subsequent decision is one of the final indicators in the countdown to opening down in my town.

Then it happens.  I wake up to the sound of the snowguns across my valley.  I literally jump out of bed and bolt out the door before the dog to see where they’re blowing snow.  It’s amazing that a sound like the thundering rush made by the snowguns echoing off the valley is enough to put locals in an even better mood.  It evokes the same feeling I got as a kid creeping down the stairs on Christmas morning to see the glow from the tree before I actually see it and reminds me that I’ve passed another milestone in my ski town.

Man Made Snow on Gold Peak

For so many people Halloween is the first domino in a series that sets off an entire  season of major kid holidays.  I grew up in a small New England town where I anxiously counted down the days to October 31st through a crescendo of leaf piles, corn stalks and pumpkins until that one magical night.  Halloween in a Colorado ski town has a totally different feeling.  All but a few aspens have shaken off their leaves and the days leading up to tricks-or-treats are filled with intermittent snow showers and increasingly colder nights in the valley. All Hallows Eve in my valley is less about witches and goblins and more about rock boards and early season hikes to snowline.

Halloween falls in the middle of off-season in Vail.  Bridge Street, which is traditionally jammed with winter vacationers, is vacant at the end of October with only a handful of restaurants and retailers willing to tough it out until the mountain opens.  In a town that relies heavily on tourism, October is one of the only times throughout the year that I don’t have to share my town with anyone else but locals.  Up until recently, I was the director of an art gallery in Vail Village that stayed open year round so we participated in the annual Trick-or-Treat Trot that takes place a few days before October 31st.  From before I can remember Halloween has been one of my favorite holidays.  Passing out candy, I have a blast reliving my love for such an innocent holiday where both kids and adults have free reign to just pretend.  So as I give away my last piece of candy to the last zombie skier, I smile, knowing that I’ve passed the final milestone in my ski town.  In less than three weeks Vail Mountain will be open.

SNOW jack-o-lanterns

Happy Halloween!

So how do you mark the calendar until opening day?  Do you live or have you ever lived in a ski town?  Where?  What milestones get you so excited that you end up strapping on your board and doing flat spins in the living room?  I’d love to hear your story so please post your milestones and stay in touch.  Thanks for checking in.