Category: Sports

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:

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Good-bye RMSP, Welcome IKON!

Last year I decided to splurge and buy both major season passes available in Colorado: EPIC, which is Vail’s offering and includes access of some kind to A-Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, and Beaver Creek; and Rocky Mountain SuperPass (RMSP), which is good at Eldora, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Steamboat, and Crested Butte.

Of course, just as I decide to do that, we get one of the worst snow seasons on record. We are worried about water supply in the summer, as the snow melt is going to be insufficient, but right now I am more concerned about the tree stumps that are not covered and the runs that didn’t open until well into February.

Also, any crap season is good enough to throw the world of ski resorts into major turmoil. Whether that’s the problem or something else I cannot say, but I ended up buying the last RMSP season ever issued. RMSP is dead, as well as another competitor, M.A.X. They are replaced by a brand new pass that takes into account the shake-up in the industry.

What happened is that Vail Resorts (of EPIC) bought Whistler-Blackcomb from Intrawest, which runs Winter Park and Steamboat in Colorado. To make things more confusing, Intrawest renamed itself Alterra and is now a private company, still headquartered in Denver. And to top it all off, Alterra is co-owned by the company that runs Aspen, and synergies seem to emerge.

The end of all confusing happs is the emergence of a duopoly that is reflected in season passes. The old EPIC pass will continue, and will doubtlessly continue to be very popular. In fact, it snagged not only Whistler-Blackcomb, but also Crested Butte in its lineup. The pass will continue to offer some of the finest mountains in North America, including Whistler and Vail, two of my favorite three.

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Crested Butte Weekend

It’s been a tough year for travel. I had to deal with a lot of work, and if I found the time to snowboard, I rather shot up I-70 to my favorite haunts than drive for hours and days just to slide down a mountain I didn’t know. I mean, I am some 75 minutes from some of the finest resorts in the world, do I really have to fly to marginally better or really just different mountains?

Well, my friend C came to visit and he is an avid snowboarder. We make a point of always traveling to some place neither of us has seen, since we want to experience surprise in equal amounts, and there were quite a few mountains even in Colorado I had never seen before. Since I had the Rocky Mountain SuperPass and it included time at Crested Butte and Steamboat, I asked him to pick one of the two and he chose the correct one: Crested Butte!

[It was correct simply because it then turned out RMSP would not include Crested Butte next season, so this was my last chance to see the place for free!!!!]

A friend of mine, always the generous, let us stay at his condo in Downtown Dillon (as it were). So we decided we’d make a road trip out of it: drive to the condo in the evening, then to Crested Butte the next day.

Driving from Dillon to Crested Butte

There are basically two main ways to get to CB in the winter. Both are well-traveled highways, so either one is cleared of snow in a timely fashion. The last part of the drive is the same for both, while the two forks connecting with Denver are as different visually as you can imagine.

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My Favorite Moments of Surfing

The snow falling in the mountains is now measured in feet, not inches and the temperatures are so low (-10F) that I had to move my remaining boards into the utility closet, where the furnace will keep them warm. For now, it appears, I have to cut back on my surfing sessions while still not being able to drive up the mountains to snowboard (because of the feet of snow that block the freeway). A good time to reminisce!

I took up surfing late. I mean, I didn’t live in SoCal until 2009, but even then I waited years before I tried it out. Surfing, from the outside, looks boring: most of the time, surfers are just sitting in the water waiting for waves. Not exactly the most appealing thing for a hyper person like me.

One day I realized UCSD had cheap surf lessons and I decided to give it a try. Even if I didn’t like it, I’d still meet new people that were trying to have fun, how bad could it be? 

Turns out the lessons were not so hot. Or they were too hot: in my ignorance, I had bought a 7mm wetsuit on sale and showed up on the rare fogless day at La Jolla Shores. To make things worse, Day One was on land. I think I may have overheated several times and had to jump in the water (much to everyone’s amusement) to just cool off.

Surfing is really hard, probably the hardest sport I ever tried. Yet I stuck with it, because it is much more of an experience than anything else I’ve ever done. Here some of my favorite moments in the five years of surfing:

1. Boop

I had just finished the beginners’ class and was a total noob. Not a kook, because the class had taught me proper etiquette and rules of engagement – which meant that I barely got a wave an hour to even try. To make up for the boredom, I had put an MP3 player in a plastic bag and listened to music through underwater headphones. 

I was just sitting there, bopping up and down at Scripp’s, praying nobody would take the next wave. I hadn’t paddled in maybe 15 minutes and was bored. Once in a while, I would turn around to see how far it was to shore and how embarrassing it would be to paddle back.

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GTotN: Conclusion

It is Presidents’ Day 2016 as I write this. The sun has come out and it’s going to be a warm day in San Diego. The yellow jacket is staring at me on a chair opposite this computer, while the board and gear are still firmly lodged on the living room floor. It’s a mess, a glorious mess.

This adventure was amazing. I saw places I would remember forever, had more fun than I thought I could have, was less stressed out than I thought I would by the constant need to move, move, move.

There were a few takeaways. First, I am firmly back in the saddle when it comes to snowboarding. I was reticent for a long time, the lingering side effects of the shoulder separation contracted in Breckenridge still haunting me. Not on this trip: I pushed harder than I have ever before, and I was rewarded with more accuracy, more stability, and greater challenge. I snowboarded down double blacks wondering why they weren’t just single blacks, and had a ski instructor in Sun Valley tell me I should stay the hell out of blue runs and use them only to get to the more challenging drops.

Second, I was positively amazed at how much my second time in Jackson Hole was better than the first time. I had very, very fond memories of the place and thought they couldn’t and certainly wouldn’t be bested. But I was wrong, and Jackson Hole delivered. Part of it was that I wasted less time exploring places I wouldn’t like, part of it that I actually was able to get everywhere I wanted to get (including the top), and part of it that I found new places (especially in the Village) that I didn’t know existed, but made my day.

Finally, and this is the biggest one, I found Big Sky. Sure, I was lucky and got a fresh dump of pow pow to work with, but aside from Swift Current, the mountain was perfect. It is enormous, second to Whistler only in North America, but it also has a variety that is hard to match. Unlike Whistler, too, it has much more consistent snow. I cannot tell you how often I’ve gone to Canada only to find the snow rained out, or melted already to the point where you couldn’t ride down to Creekside. You don’t have to be afraid of that in Montana, although it might occasionally get way too cold for comfort.

Better than Whistler, Big Sky is not crowded, ever. Presidents’ Day weekend is the busiest time at any resort in the USA, and I remember with horror the lines at Ski Express in Heavenly (45 minutes! in the singles line!) Yet, aside from the popular destinations, I never had to wait in Big Sky. And since it is uncrowded, people are friendlier and don’t get frustrated as easily. I wonder about the random rudeness of some, but I have an inkling it is more a function of the weekend than of the place.

Next year? I still have a dream trip to make with the Mountain Collective, and I mentioned it here in a previous post. The trip is Lake Louise, Kicking Horse, Revelstoke, to Whistler. All those resorts are lines up on Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway (except for Whistler, which is on a spur through Pendleton). The problem is logistics, having to fly into Calgary and dropping off the car in Vancouver, or vice-versa.

I may do that trip later in the season, if I feel like it. It would be great to have 5 of the Mountain Collective resorts under my belt in one year, although I had 4 last year – not a giant difference.

But next year? I am planning on getting the MAX pass and staying a full week. One full week in Big Sky, and if I have the time and money, one more week at one of their other destinations. Maybe Steamboat in Colorado, although I will be a native by then. Maybe Mount Bachelor in Oregon. I’ve heard great things.

GTotN Day 6/7: Holiday Inn Boise Airport and flight home

To the West, the airport, to the right the Holiday Inn. I was happy about that, because I really didn’t want to deal with any kind of traffic in the morning.

Location for the Holiday Inn is perfect, and the rooms are really nice. In fact, this was probably the nicest room I’ve stayed at during the entire trip. The only downside: I got a Hotwire room. Some hotels have the nasty habit of giving guests the crappiest rooms just because you ordered it with a discount.

Las Vegas knows how it’s done: if you show up for the first time, they more often than not upgrade you for free. If you go to Cesar’s Palace and get upgraded to a mini-suite, while at the Circus Circus you get stuck in a danky room next to the elevators, you are simply going to give Circus Circus a crappy review and never show up there again.

Such was my fate at the Holiday Inn Boise Airport. The hotel was barely half full, judging by the number of empty parking spots in the morning, yet I had been assigned a room so obviously Hotwired, it even had its own sign.

You know how when you get to a hotel floor, they have signs that tell you “Rooms 301-332, left?” Well, this hotel had the same. Plus a sign that read, “Marco’s crappy room, around the corner.” OK, it said, “334, right arrow.” But it really meant the same.

It was the room, you guessed it, whose long wall was the wall to the elevators on the other side. All night long, I would hear the chyme of the elevator whenever someone stopped at my floor (3) People would talk in normal voices, and they felt as loud as if they were standing right next to me.

I’ve had two experiences worse than this in a hotel. Once, I lost my apartment keys in Portland and the building manager refused to give me spares that night, so I had to stay at a Motel 6, right next to elevator and ice maker. It was whoosh, crunch crunch all night. Then I was at the fancy Mammoth Ski Resort Lodge and they gave me a suite at the corner at street level. Snow removal equipment was working all night.

Still, nothing that makes me recommend the Holiday Inn Boise Airport. At the very least, if you booked on Hotwire, make sure they change your room, no matter what they first give you. Simply say something like, I will not like that room, please give me a different one, and only then march upstairs and check what they gave you.

In the morning, I was on my merry way. The airport formalities were easy. Drop off the rental car, walk to Alaska check-in, walk through security, wait. There was no delay this time around and we got into San Diego on perfect time to witness a gorgeous, warm and sunny morning. I will miss San Diego’s winters, for sure!

Lyft (and Uber and all the other cab apps) finally got a place to do pick-ups at the airport. It is in the parking lot, just beyond the regular cabs. The app even has instructions when you request a Lyft.

So concludes a wonderful week of snowboarding adventure.

GTotN Day 7: The long way home

One thing I failed to mention in my write-up of the snowboarding day in Big Sky is that it was “unseasonably warm.” It was mid-February, when temperatures should have ranged from 15 to 38 (low high). Instead, it was 38 to 50. Locals told me it felt like May.

I had checked the weather before going up the mountain and made the right (if scary) call: only the Tesla base layer and a cotton sweater on top. That my usual uniform for spring skiing, and it was way too much for the day. I wish I had brought the convertible jacket (the one where you can separate the shell from the inner lining and wear it as a full protection jacket, a shell only, or a light jacket with not shell).

The warmth and sunshine and lack of wind certainly helped make the day as perfect as it was. They also conspired to make the night a tragedy for the snow. All the softness of the day would turn into crusty ice at night. I thought maybe I could get by on Moonlight Basin, maybe I could get to the tram and do some of the crazy stuff on the top of the mountain.

But I didn’t. I was tired, since I hadn’t slept well, and I had a long drive back to Boise ahead of me. There was snow on the forecast for the afternoon, and I didn’t want to get trapped in it. And I was tired, with a crescendo of snowboarding that had culminated in a day spent nonstop on the slopes.

Finally, I would have to pay a full day, $106, while knowing I wasn’t going to stay much past noon. I would also have to pay for parking, since I would have lost another hour getting to the shuttle and driving down.

For consolation, I told myself it didn’t really matter: I would be back. Big Ski is easily reached from Bozeman (it’s about 50 miles from the airport) and the snow is much more reliable, still, than at other resorts. It’s the kind of place where you feel comfortable buying a time share, because it doesn’t really matter that your week is assigned: no matter what week it is, you can make it work.

I also learned about the existence of a “secret” resort just South of Big Sky. It is called the Yellowstone Club, is members only (where members means you have to buy real estate), and boasts 2200 skiable acres. It is weirdly adjacent to Big Sky in a way reminiscent of Alpine’s proximity to Squaw. If you want to buy into the private resort idea, you should know that the cheapest condo there is about $2M at the time of writing. “But no lift lines” sounds a lot more appealing in Heavenly or Mammoth than in Big Sky.

I jumped in the car with the clouds from the West looking dark and uninviting. I had planned on leaving after the stores opened, so I could buy one more Big Sky souvenir. But I didn’t make it: it was 8:30 when I went downstairs and handed the key to the front desk. Dumped everything into the car, not caring about planning anything, not needing to make sure the snowboard gear was in reach and that I wouldn’t leave the boots in the car, or else I wouldn’t be able to get into them in the morning. No more snowboarding for a while. Sad Face!

I drove off knowing the drive was going to be 6.5h on a good day. Six and a half hours don’t sound too bad until they are your parting shot going away from a week of perfect fun.

The gas stations in Big Sky, at the bottom of Lone Mountain Road, are both relatively cheap. If you are leaving town, buy gas there, since anything en route is much, much more expensive. When I drove past, it was $1.85 in Big Sky and $2.65 in West Yellowstone. That may be because West Yellowstone seems to be the snowmobile capital of the world: I saw at least seven bands (gaggles? murders? choppers? packs?) of snowmobiles on tour just driving through.

There was no snow. I drove down without the slightest issue and by the time I had reached Ashton in the Snake River valley, I knew the drive was not going to be a problem. From there on, I drove to Idaho Falls and onto the freeway. Stopped for a Starbucks on the way. After that, a long long boring boring drive and stop at the McDonald’s in Burley. I might be forgiven for not knowing much about Burley: the only thing I remember was the people driving off the drive-through, reclined in their car seats because of obesity.

As you drive on, you reach the Snake River Canyon and things get more scenic. Central Idaho is volcanic and the canyons are steep and scenic. There is an area called Massacre Rocks that sounded historic, but turned out to be just a cautionary tale for emigrants.

Eventually, I got to the airport in Boise.

GTotN Day 6: Big Sky Resort

2016 02 12 11.40.20The shuttles come only once an hour and I wanted to be on the mountain early. To make sure I wouldn’t miss it, I was out and about around 8, for a departure at 8:35. I thought I was going to freeze my heini off, but it was actually temperate.

The bus arrived and I boarded with a small bunch of people. The driver then left at the appointed time and we started winding our way up Lone Mountain Road, the main road towards the lifts.

After an eternal wait, the mountain came into view. It is just the singleton you see in the pictures, a looming presence that commands attention. From there on, the views would simply be divine. Snowboarding? Did I really come here to snowboard?

We got unloaded at the top parking lot, with a view of the Village (Mountain Village). It looks very meh, with condo fortresses dominating the view. Here, almost immediately, I ran into the only snag of the stay: rude skiers. This portly guy was huffing up the very wide stairs with his skis slung over his shoulders. I was in hurry so I passed him to the right and he yelled at me for being so pushy.

When I got to the top of the stairs, there was a ski locker. A family of three had decided to put on their gear right there, blocking the passage. I stood, waiting for them to scram or at least move a little. I asked politely if they could let me pass. Just as I did that, Portly Guy comes from behind, pushes me to the side, knocks over the kid that was putting on his ski boots, and finally rams his ski with a wide swing into my standing snowboard. Better the board than my head, I guess. Best of all: Portly Guy’s hurry ended not 20 yards later, when he stopped on the plaza and stood around for an eternity, waiting for goodness knows what.

It wasn’t an isolated incident. The entire day I would see some skiers do rude things. The kind of rude that implies you don’t matter. It wasn’t targeted at me, at all: I saw a guy slam the door of the restaurant into a child’s face, or a lady cut in line at the restaurant, only to have a long phone conversation while the people behind her were fuming to order.

What was most surprising about that behavior was that the people of Big Sky – resort staff, minders, drivers, line cooks, waiters, and even the random person that just happened to be on the lift with you – they were all unfailingly loveable. It was as if this resort attracted both the worst and the best of mankind.

My first wish was to get onto the lift that would eventually land me to the tram to the top. Sadly, as I stood in line, I heard the avalanche charges go off. I know that sound too well, from Whistler. It means you can’t snowboard until they clear all danger.

My sinking feeling wasn’t helped by the fact this lift was both incredibly flat and incredibly slow. Yes, we were going towards Lone Mountain. No, the name, Swift Current didn’t describe the thing. In fact, it mocked it. Not since the days of the Galaxy lift in Tahoe did I experience such a disappointment.

At the top, I turned to the first thing that said black diamond and ran with it. It turned out to be a run called Stump Farm. The snow was great, with at least 3-4 inches of powder freshly dumped. The farm was just a moguled up hillside I managed in something like three minutes. After that, flatness. It was as if I had used up the stored vertical all in one face and I was not going to get any more fun after that.

Next time around, I turned right. Swift current ends above a slow triple chair that was, though, moving. When I got there, though, they were not loading. I had to go down the mountain, back to the loading area of Swift Current.

This time, luckily, I had more fun. I saw a group of people enter the woods at something called White Magic, which turned out to be a thinned out gully and more fun than I deserved in my current mood. I zipped down and had a blast trying to dodge the trees and not get thrown off track by bumps! Instant mood booster!

The prospect of another slow ride up didn’t appeal, so I turned to the other lift that loads in the Mountain Village area: Ramcharger. The name implies force and speed, but I had already been disappointed by Swift Current. Boy, was I wrong!

First of all, there was no line and there wouldn’t be all day. The longest I had to wait was 30 seconds, and even then only because some group in front of me was waiting for a straggler. Ramcharger was also pretty fast and never stopped (unlike Swift Current).

I saw a run in the glades advertised, Wounded Knee. There was nobody on it as far as the eye could see and the snow looked delectable. I could see the moguls under the powder, it looked like a challenge. I was up for a challenge.

Boy, was that fun! I dashed down, not stopping once, even on first try. I was just turning and twisting, using the forward momentum of the second half of the swing to lift off and turn with easy, while I used the impact of the first half to slow me down and give me a chance to look ahead. I zipped faster than I imagined I could, surrounded by trees and impacted by a giant field of (relatively shallow) moguls.

At the bottom, I simply got back onto the lift and repeated the same idea a half dozen times, first tracking all the way. Wounded Knee was a large field and there was so much to discover in it!

Then a lady said she had done the lift line and had had fun, so I tried that. Then I saw there were more glades to the right of Wounded Knee (Ambush Glades) and I started romping through those.

What do you know, then I figured there was a whole other high speed quad on the other side of the same mountain, Thunder Wolf. I went down that way to find a beautiful, steep, powdery white face, Mad Wolf. Took that one, and realized there is a gully on the snow field at the end.

And there it happened: this skier saw me coming and pushed himself in my way. I assume he simply wanted to get down the gully before the snowboarder would block his way, and I can’t really blame him. The gully was moguled up, made for skiers.

Getting the gully on first try was rewarding. But the face of the skier when I passed him, gliding effortlessly on the same moguls he thought I couldn’t take, priceless.

There were more options on that side, and I took them all, again. The lift attendant got a big smile whenever I came down his way and high-fived me every single time. It was zoom up, zoom down. I started timing myself and it turns out I am way faster than the lift.

I was euphoric. I had never had such snow in recent memory. It was the kind of snow that makes that slightly raspy, somewhat silky sound at the bottom of the board. Just the right amount of traction for your board not to go crazy and shoot away from under your feet, but not bogged down to the point of having to stand on the back to avoid drowning in the snow.

It was noon and I had a sense the tram might be operating. I still heard the occasional charges go off, but I also could see the cars moving. So I took a Wounded (Arrow to My) Knee and sighed as I waited in line at Swift Current. Curse the name.

They were moving, no doubt! As I got closer to the top, I could see skiers coming down the bowl of the triple chair, but some of them disappearing towards the tram. When I got to the top, I turned right and down to the tram base.

Only to see a line a mile long. I also saw that the tram itself had teensy cars, not bigger than those of Bridger Gondola in Jackson Hole, but with the same frequency of the Aerial Tram. It would take at least two hours to get through that line, and frankly I wasn’t having enough boredom to allow for that.

I skipped and did one of the runs in the bowl. It was mad fun, with the powder spraying every which way as I zoomed between crags and rocks. I could have gone back the same way, but it would have meant going on the slow triple chair. So I opted to seek out White Magic and do that again.

Back to Ramcharger. Back to Thunder Wolf. I knew there was more to the mountain than that, but I was having a perfectly wonderful time, and who knows what I would have gotten anywhere else.

It was 3p when my stomach started complaining. I hadn’t eaten anything all day and had snowboarded my heini into the ground. I looked at the restaurant at the top of Ramcharger and Thunder Wolf, Everett’s, but the sight of long-stemmed wine glasses told me it was going to take too long. Down at the bottom, I found the place I craved, the cafeteria in the mall. They even had a grab-and-go chicken tenders and fries area. Obviously, the grab-and-go stuff tasted stale, but the line at the grill counter was too long for my hunger.

By the time I was done, I could have still gone up for at least two more runs. But I was beat, beat, beat.

I stood up and looked at the map outside. I had spent the best snowboarding day of at least three years exploring less than a third – maybe less than a quarter – of the mountain. There was the peak to be bagged, there was the mountain down from Everett’s I had only looked at, there was an entire North-facing section, Moonlight Basin, that was supposed to be perfect but I couldn’t go because of the avalanche charges. I could have gone there after noon, but I was too much in fun to accept change.

I got onto the bus smiling like I had won the lottery, Which, in my world, I had. I was drenched from head to toe and it would take an hour to dry out the base layer with the hair dryer. But, boy, was that fun!

The verdict? I love Whistler, I love Jackson Hole, I would love to go back to Snowmass and Snowbird. But if I have a chance to go back to Big Sky, I will, no matter what else is available. The snow was amazing, the runs were well designed and there was huge variety, there was lots of challenge on Lone Mountain – you could see it on the ride up, the couloirs tracing lines of insanity for skiers and snowboarders to conquer. Best of all, it was Presidents’ Day weekend and there was no crowd!

GTotN Day 6: River Rock Lodge and Big Sky, MT

2016 02 12 08.26.46Big Sky is an odd resort. I occupies a wide valley that ascends until it hits a capping mountain, Lone Mountain. There are several villages, each with its own character. The main base area is called Mountain Village, and actually has a whole mountain below itself. There is a village called Moonlight Basin, which is new. There is a Hidden Valley. Just below that one is Town Square. There is a Golf Course. There is a Meadow Village. There is a crossing and a Canyon Village.

Which one is the real village? Not easy to tell. The base of the mountain, where the tickets are sold and the shuttles stop, is Mountain Village. That one has all the infrastructure and the views of Lone Mountain. Town Square is otherwise the town center of sorts, but it has no view whatsoever of the mountain.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. There is a free shuttle bus that goes up and down the valley at an hourly rhythm. If you can score rooms at Mountain Village, go for it. But any of the villages is fine.

The Rock River Lodge is right by Town Square, that is the commercial center. The hotel is really nice, and the staff really friendly. They charge a bullshit “resort fee” of $15. They seemed to be very embarrassed by it: the receptionist claimed it was a Hotwire charge. When I called her on it, saying that I had stayed at two more Hotwire hotels on this trip, in Sun Valley and Jackson Hole, and that neither had charged me a fee, she said the magic “resort fee” word and I knew better than argue. She continued to claim, though, that the money would go to Hotwire/Expedia, which is absolutely not true.

Frankly, the resort fee is an invention of a marketing person that absolutely wants to be fired. What it does is hide an expense until it’s too late to complain about it. You make your selection based on price and comfort, and when you show up at the front desk (prepaid), they tell you there is an extra fee. At that point, they tell you it’s take it or leave it. You have no option at that point, so you pay it. It’s extortion, plain and simple.

That’s so unethical, I am surprised it’s even legal. That type of mandatory fee should be declared at the time of purchase, if not directly baked into the room price. I do not know whether that’s a fee uniquely charged by the Rock River Inn or if it’s the whole community, like at Squaw. At Squaw (where the charge is $20 per night – I think Mammoth is similar) it irked me so much, I swore I wouldn’t go back, ever.

Aside from that, the Rock River Inn has actual keys, which is a real nuisance when you snowboard. The problem is that the keys easily tear through the snow pants, so that it’s really advisable to leave them at the front desk when you go boarding.

The Internet was really good, which was welcome (especially since my AT&T gizmo didn’t work too well). The breakfast was tragically bad, and the hot tub was covered the entire time I was there. Not very inviting. Also, for some reason there were very loud people walking around at 2:30a both nights. Made me feel right back in Pacific Beach, but there is a good reason why I am leaving this place soon.

The Village was nothing to write home about. The stores clustered around a Town Square, but they were really not too exciting. There was a deli, a liquor store, a few eateries, and boutiques. Also, a bank. I could only hope the mountain was worth it, because the Village most certainly wasn’t…

GTotN Day 5: Jackson to Big Sky

2016 02 11 12.21.07i was a little apprehensive at first. The final part of the drive from Sun Valley to Jackson Hole, the Tetons, had been steep and fraught with danger. What would the drive to Big Sky look like? I knew there was a canyon involved, but how steep would it be?

The weather was nice, and as I point out in the previous post, I felt Confident. First, the crossing of the Tetons. Not a problem, except for this lady in the Forester ahead of me that slowed down to a crawl (20 mph) whenever there was water on the road or a turn. Given that it was 37 and we were crossing the mountains, there were lots of turns and lots of water!

We got into Victor and she left for Idaho Falls while I went straight ahead. Again, the landscape was fantastical and magical. Endless expanses of white. The towns were smaller here, less busy, less interested in the passing tourist in the Outback.

Eventually, I got to the first escarpment. It wasn’t bad, at all. The kind of drive you could handle in the snow, no problem. Then I got into the town of Island Park, where things were flat again.

It turns out that Big Sky is really close to the West Entrance of Yosemite National Park. In fact, you have to drive through the town of West Yellowstone to get there. It’s a small town with lots of snowmobile traffic. And it is here that Google maps did something odd again.

You see, when I was driving from EBR-1 to Idaho Falls, almost in the town of Idaho Falls, on US 26, GMaps told me to leave the highway and go onto a rural road that was thick with ice. It didn’t go long, and after about two miles I was back on a highway. Only that it was the same highway I had been on. I should have simply gone straight instead of taking this weird detour.

The same was happening in West Yellowstone: GMaps told me to bypass the only traffic light in town by going on a side road that was thick with ice. I wonder if that’s an artifact of the Waze acquisition, but it sure felt weird to leave the US highway only to get back onto it a block later.

Long story short, you then get onto US 191 that gets you to Lone Mountain Road, which is where all the action is in Big Sky.