My Private Keystone

The previous post I spent dissing the EPIC Pass, but praising its mountains. Vail will always be one of my favorite places on Earth, despite being sick of high prices and breaking-down lifts. Breckenridge will always be my go-to place for a party (waiting for the Plunge!), but I’ll never reveal my secret stashes there, not even if you tortured me with a ski stick (yes, that’s what they were originally called!).

Keystone? Well, Keystone isn’t really much of a secret. The mountain is pretty big, but doesn’t really compare to the other big mountains in Colorado. The infrastructure is good, but the runs a bit on the iffy side. Keystone’s problem, really, is mostly not crowds or cost, but the alternating exposure of the slopes. If you look at a map, Keystone is in fact three mountains aligned North (front side) to South (Outback). You ski the North and South side of each mountain.

The problem? The sun melts snow on the South flanks/slopes much faster than on the North sides and you end up with a pattern of alternating-quality snow. The North sides are generally colder and have the better snow, while the South sides suffer from icy conditions in the morning and can become a slush trap in the afternoon. That’s not nearly universal, of course: sometimes you want the warmth, for instance if the snow is icy everywhere and you want it to melt, in which case the North sides can remain icy and inhospitable all day.

There are more problems. For instance, while the mountain(s) is(/are) pretty big, there is only one lift that gets you from mountain 1 (Dercum M.) to mountain 2 (North M.), and only one for the entirety of mountain 3 (The Outback). The line at Santiago lift (leading up 2) can get out of hand at any time of day, because it used to be the only way to get from 1 to 3. (There is the gondola from 1 to 2 now, and it’s usually uncrowded. Take it if you want to go to the Outback!)

But this is not a litany of bad things about Keystone Resort. Instead, I’d like to present my favorite places on the mountain. I feel generous, since I am not going to see you there next year, as I will be skipping the EPIC Pass (as mentioned before).

So, first a preamble. What makes a place one of my favorites? It needs to fulfill a stringent set of criteria:

  1. Access through one or preferably several express lifts
  2. Snow of constant/predictable quality in a wide range of weather conditions
  3. Lack of crowds and unpleasant types
  4. A real challenge to get through
  5. No flat areas long enough to require unstrapping and pushing/walking

How this affects my choice of secret stashes is pretty clear. (1) The terrain by Alpine lift in Copper is fantastic, for instance, but the lift itself freaky slow. (2) While I love the Ruby Express lift line at Keystone, the snow can be of extremely variable quality and easily turns into an ice trap. (3) I loved Paradise Bowl in Crested Butte, but there was no untouched powder ten minutes after resort opening. (4) Groomers have long not been my thing any longer. Part of it is that you have to take them anyway to get to your favorite places, but part of it simply that I find it boring to just go down a run, whether straighlining or carving. If there is lots of powder it can be fun, but even then just a couple times.

A word of caution: the places I frequent are dangerous. People on the slopes are dangerous, but trees are much worse. Also, there are things (rocks, stumps, branches) between trees. Finally, my favorite places have cliffs, jumps, bumps, moguls, and other torture devices strewn densely in them. Proceed at your own risk, and always remember that this article was written by someone who had to sit out snow sports for 5 years because of a shoulder separation.

Now, with all that preamble, my favorite places in Keystone:

#4 Diamondback Glades. Iffy on icy days, the glades around the Ruby Express lift line keep the snow pristine longer than the runs around them. While the lift line itself is iffy, as mentioned above, you can still find good snow in the glades if the temperatures didn’t climb above 40 degrees the day before. As an added bonus, these glades allow for the shortest feeder boredom at the end, since you pretty much get out right by the Ruby intake. Pleas notice that the glades West of the Ruby line are generally closed to the public, no matter how delicious they look like, because the area is stumpy and rocky.

#3 Prospector Glades. With entry possible both from the Outpost and the top of North Mountain, Prospector Glades are just to the right of the (blue) Prospector run. Prospector Glades are not thinned, so you’ll better stick to proven tracks the first few times, as trees can be quite close to each other and stumps are to by found everywhere. These glades are good on days where the snow is old, because then the relatively flat slope will match the acceleration of the ice beneath you and you’ll be as fast as you would want to be. They are also relatively short.

#2 Windows. Apparently, every ski resort has to have a Ptarmigan and a Windows section. While the Ptarmigan is usually a beginner area, the Windows section is plunging tree lines. They get the name from the fact that the gladed runs are like windows through the forest. At Keystone, Windows is the area between the flat gondola (Outpost Gondola) and the easy, crowded runs (Mozart and Prospector). You can start high by hiking up the mountain, but the express lift access is from the Summit, taking a left under the gondola and continuing on the service “road” right above the gondola itself. Snowboarders will need to stop around Narrow Gauge but can cross horizontally to reach the “runs” farther out. These trees are phenomenal on a powder day and get steeper the farther out you get. The first run, Mouse Trap, is wider than the other ones, while the forest gets denser after that. Beware of nasty, tall cliffs on the South end!

#1 North side of the Outback. Any of the glades there is a hooting holiday, with Badger ending in a flat out of which escape is hard. They offer North slope snow quality, a challenge between bumps and trees, a fast express lift with sufficient capacity to get you up in no time, and only hardened skiers in your neighborhood. The farther to the right/East you go, the longer you’ll have to survive the bottom feeder run (Coyote Caper) marked as black but the usual flat feeder. Note that there is hike-to/snowcat-to terrain high above.

“But!” I’ll hear you say, “What about…?”

  • Front Side: The Front Side has some of the best snow, as it’s tucked on the North face of Dercum Mountain. It’s also the place where all beginners hang out. That’s not bad and I harbor no prejudice to future Shaun Whites, but “beginners” also means “groups,” and frankly there is little worse to me than groups of people of mixed experience levels on the mountain. That’s mostly because the more advanced/expert members of the group get bored and start doing all sorts of stupid things.
  • Bullet Glades: love them, they are on the right side of the mountain, have some real challenges to offer, and can be amazing fun. Sadly, you need Santiago to get to them and that is really the most crowded lift outside of the Front Side. Also, the Glades are pretty far down, so you have to take Starfire or Powder Cap for more than half the vertical until you hit the wooded area. Still, on the day after powder day, the place to be.
  • South of Santiago: awesome terrain, uncrowded, widely spaced trees. On a good day, drowning in powder at Geronimo makes you spontaneously yell that chief’s name. Sadly, it’s all on the South side of the mountain, and the uncrowded nature of it all ensures that the sun clutches the snow everywhere.
  • Wildfire/Wolverine on the Outback: same problem as above, albeit with the attenuating circumstance that the trees are not as sparse and hence the snow marginally better after a sunny day.
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