Category: The Grand Tour of the North

GTotN Day 2: Best Western Tyrolean Lodge and Ketchum, ID

2016 02 08 08.14.10I didn’t really get a chance to connect to the place when I checked in. I just picked up the room keys and walked up the stairs, then dropped dead tired into bed.

It was in the morning that I activated my snow sense. I got the coffee maker out and started my day by brewing a 12 cup batch and checking email. The hotel WiFi was pretty crappy, and the LTE gizmo turned out to be on AT&T, not Verizon as I wished.

I managed. The Best Western gets points for decor and style. The rooms are clean and nice. Nothing fancy, but also very functional. They did have a coffee maker, pretty much the only food amenity, but it was one of those single cup brands that don’t really appeal to the tired aficionado.

While the place was very clean, it showed there hadn’t been upgrades in a while. The door frames had water damage, the toilet seat was a little worn out.

But they certainly made up for it by being a great place. The breakfast buffet was nothing to write home about, but well organized and in a cheerful locale. The decor, Austria in the 50s, was tasteful and understated. It was a chain hotel with the feel of a boutique hotel. And everybody was friendly.

I didn’t get to see the town until the afternoon, after the first day of snowboarding, but Ketchum is a winner. It has the feel of a real place, nothing of that phony tourist ambiance that is so Squaw Valley or downtown Aspen (or even my world favorite, Whistler). Ketchum does have its insane number of kitsch shops and real estate agencies, but it’s been around before skiing was fashionable and will once it’s over (never!).

The main drag is not Main Street, but a street perpendicular to it. Lots of stores, from the fancy to the cheap. Lots of eateries, but none that I would recommend.

Ketchum, incidentally, is the town near the resort named Sun Valley. There is a separate town called Sun Valley, which is on the other side of the valley from Ketchum. It’s a little confusing, but not as much as the town by Heavenly being called South Lake Tahoe.

GTotN Day 1: San Diego to Sun Valley

2016 02 07 19.18.18The Alaska flight to Boise leaves San Diego at 3:40p from Terminal 1. It was a Sunday, so the late afternoon was a perfect time to go. What do you know, it was also the first day of a heating trend and I found myself leaving town with the first long stretch of beach weather arriving. It’s been a cold winter, this year, with barely a day making it to average temperature.

I called a Lyft and a ginormous Tahoe showed up. I guess that was very much in keeping with the spirit of the trip, no? We got to the airport in no time, and I had totally overbudgeted time. I got through check-in in no time, thanks to amazing Alaska staff. Then security was not a problem, unlike at Terminal 2. I had nothing to do but browse Facebook and Reddit for hours and realized I really needed to get some games on the phone.

The flight was uneventful. I got sort of lucky and scored a window seat, but I got it on the left side, where the sun was about to set and made watching painful. I still managed to see Mount Shasta, my favorite mountain on the planet (until this trip).

We were somewhat late. At first, they said one hour, but then it ended up being more 30 minutes. We got into Boise, where we actually had to get out of the plane on rolling stairs, like in the ancient days. Then we had to walk a covered but unheated walkway to the terminal. It wasn’t cold, and we were lucky. I can only imagine if it’s below zero and you have to walk for five minutes with the fear your shoes are going to freeze stuck to the floor and you won’t ever be able to leave.

The airport is tiny, compared to the ones I am used to. They also have an amazing setup: rental cars come before baggage claim, so that you can waste time filling out forms while your luggage is placed on the belt. Smart move!

I was with Hertz on this trip, and to my delight they informed me that my car was going to be a Subaru Outback. I could have kissed them: I hate those fleets that are entirely composed of vehicles that are of little appeal to a car buyer, but work well for rentals. Yes, I am talking about you, Nitro, you of the crappy bumper that bends just by looking askance.

The board bag was waiting for me as I showed up. I could tell TSA had gotten busy because they had moved the zipper locks from the end to the middle, doubling my chances that something might fall out.

I got to the car and drove in the dark. I stopped in Mountain Home, where I had to get off the freeway, anyway, and got into the Walmart to buy the items I was missing. From there on, off on highway after highway, until I would get into the valley of the sun. Speed limit: 25.

GTotN: Planning

Why did I pick the three resorts on the list? Why Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, and Big Sky?

Mountain Collective had added Sun Valley this year, with Lake Louise and Thredbo. I dreamed of going to Lake Louise, but an international trip comes with its complications: if you rent a car, you cannot cross borders. You need to bring your passport, and that makes things a lot more complicated in case stuff (including the passport) is lost or stolen.

I also wanted to go to Sun Valley. My friend that taught me snowboarding hails from Idaho and he always told me how fantastic the snow is up there. How he would chase the powder up and down the hill, never to worry about ice because it was always too cold for the snow to melt.

With Sun Valley in mind, the options for other resorts were limited. I could drive down to Salt Lake City and visit Snowbird again. I had loved that resort, for sure. I could also return to Jackson Hole, which had surprised with the quality of snow and terrain, as well as the general friendliness of the people.

That would have been a trip, but I didn’t want to retrace my step so closely. The tour I just described would have been last year’s tour, only with Sun Valley replacing Snowmass. I am not going to say it wouldn’t have been worth the effort, but I wanted a little more adventure.

Then I remembered my geek days of perusing Wikipedia’s Comparison of North American ski resortsIt’s an amazing resource if you want to know where to go, as it has sortable lists of every kind of geeky data. The one that interested me the most was skiable acreage, followed by vertical drop. In those two categories, the winner was my all time favorite resort, Whistler/Blackcomb. But it was followed by a resort that not a whole lot of people seemed to have been to: Big Sky, Montana.

I googled the place. Switched to the image search. I almost fell on the floor. That mountain looked gorgeous, simply spectacular. Then I realized there was a tram that went all the way to the top. I couldn’t even begin to imagine standing there, at the top of Lone Mountain, looking into Yellowstone National Park. I had to go.

So, there you go: a new resort to Mountain Collective, a resort from last year, and a resort outside the Mountain Collective.

What route would I take?

Once I saw it would take a full day to get to the closest of the three resorts if driving from San Diego, I knew I had to fly somewhere. Of the three resorts, the only one reasonably close to an airport is Sun Valley, 2.5 hours from Boise. I had driven from Jackson Hole to Salt Lake City, so I knew that to be an impractical trip. And the only thing close to Big Sky is Bozeman, MT. Not exactly Chicago’s O’Hare field when it comes to frequency of flights.

When I checked connections, it became apparent that Alaska had a direct flight from San Diego to Boise. I was sold. There were seats available for the days I had in mind, and they were not even too expensive. The time was also relatively convenient: I would fly into Boise in the evening and leave in the morning. Since it was unrealistic to drive to even the closest resort in the morning, thus making an early start of the snowboarding impossible, a late arrival guaranteed I wouldn’t waste a full day of boarding to travel. I would land in the evening, drive to the resort at night, and start snowboarding in the early morning.

That made the first stop mandatorily Sun Valley. I would get in around 7, which would get me to Sun Valley around 10p. Excellent time to zzz and get ready for the first day.

From there, I had two options: either a long drive to Big Sky, a shorter drive from there to Jackson Hole, and then a longish drive back to Boise; or a shortish drive to Jackson Hole, a shorter drive to Big Sky, and then a long drive back to Boise.

Since I really didn’t care about the length of the last leg, I opted for the second version. I would drive Boise to Sun Valley to Jackson Hole to Big Sky. As it turns out, that was the best way to approach that from a travel satisfaction perspective, for several reasons.

The days I picked were far enough from the day of planning and purchasing to get decent prices, but not far enough to make it impossible for me to make another trip. I settled on 2/7 to 2/14, which was just before the crazy Presidents’ Day weekend. Which was a great thing, since resorts tend to be less crowded around a holiday.

Where did I buy everything?

As mentioned, I didn’t need to worry about lift tickets at two of the resorts, since they were included with my Mountain Collective Pass. The third one, Big Sky, offered online purchase, but I could do that when I got to Sun Valley and got a better idea of what the weather was going to be like.

I got a lucky break with the car. Of course, I wanted AWD to avoid getting stuck in the snow. After all, we were talking about the second week of February, smack in the middle of the season! Also, incessant snow was on the forecast for all three resorts, and I saw myself already muddling through feet-high snow banks to get from one place to the next.

When I booked, there was a special price: the “Intermediate SUV” option cost about as much as a compact car. I couldn’t believe it and booked immediately. Then I went to the Alaska Air site and bought the corresponding flights. I got lucky, and seats on the direct flights were still available at the same price I had looked a before.

Hotels were more of a problem. The thing is, you really have to spend a lot of time researching options, because all resort hotels in season are freaky expensive, and the quality can be very varied. I recall spending some $250 a night in Snowmass for a room that was barely bigger than the queen size bed in it, and with sheets stained with blood on arrival. Not so nice. Conversely, I scored an amazing two bedroom condo in Vail at the end of the season for less than half that price.

I quickly realized that pretty much all the places that had rooms sold them on various sites, including Hotwire. If you don’t know the place, it offers special rates if you buy a location, but not a specific property. Hotwire will tell you the general area, the star rating, and a customer recommendation index in addition to your price. After you pay, it will tell you where you are staying.

Generally, the combination of data points gives you a good indicator of where you are going to stay. That works particularly well in ski resorts, because there just aren’t that many hotels of any given category, especially when you book close enough to the trip that a lot of places simply have no rooms left on any online travel site.

What do you know, I got exactly the hotels I thought I was going for. I was iffy on the one in Big Sky, but got the one I wanted in the end. The amount of money saved is not astronomical, but if you save $50 in two days, that’s enough to buy an extra souvenir shirt, and I need those!

What snow gear would I need?

Montana in the middle of winter. Literally the middle of winter, counting as such the period between December 21st and March 21st. It was going to be cold. 20 degrees below kind of cold. At the base. I was prepared for sudden death on the ski lift. I mean, I had spent the most uncomfortable 20 minutes of my life stuck on KT22 in Squaw Valley, dangling 100 feet above the rocks with a ferocious wind howling around me – but that was still in the 20s above!

I went to Amazon and looked for thermal protection. They have an amazing selection, and the reviews help sorting out what works and what doesn’t. I ended up with a set of Tesla thermals as base layer, followed by a set of merino wool thermals, and an additional red onesie for superprotection. I completed the collection with two pairs of wool socks made to make me think I was warm.

I didn’t need to buy any new gear: boots, board, bindings, helmet, and gloves were in perfect working order. I had six sets of Dragon goggles I could pick from. Love those goggles with their wide field of vision and perfect fit. Also, they do not fall apart at the seal like other brands I have bought.

I needed to decide on a new set of incidentals: stomp pad, lock, tools, and tether. In the end, I decided to do without the tools because my board is incredibly reliable. The board is also very pretty, so to heck with the falling and I wouldn’t put a stomp pad on. I got a cheap spiral tether that doesn’t get in the way, although I have to question its utility – or that of all tethers. I mean, the bindings don’t just pop open, so your board is going to run away only if you take them off. But if you do, you generally hold the board under your arm, which is of course when you don’t have the tether on.

The last item I needed was a lock. I opted for the Kryptonite lock, since it looked the easiest to use with frozen fingers. When I got it, I was surprised at how big it was, but also at how light and easy to use. I absolutely recommend. I should mention that many of the reviews on Amazon complain about how insecure this lock really is. That’s definitely the case: it’s a cable lock, and those are notoriously easy to crack. Just cut the cable.

The thing is, though, that barely anyone has a lock at those resorts. So if someone wants to steal a board, they don’t need fancy equipment, they simply take what’s unsecured. Also, the more common reason for a board to disappear is for someone to take it mistakenly. If the board is locked, they realize it’s not theirs. But if it isn’t, it might take them a while to figure it out, and by then you are already stuck without board somewhere by a board rack in the middle of the mountain.

I concluded my shopping spree on Amazon with rub on wax that I wouldn’t need, and a really great padded board bag. I can only recommend a padded bag, since an unpadded bag has the side effect of getting your edges dull. My beloved Custom X was so dull from years of shipping (and from the idiot in Whistler that shaved off the sharp edge) that I could barely ride it any more. The bag I bought is this one.

What gear would I need for travel?

Planning for such a trip is always major hassle. I decided I would go as easy on the stuff as possible. Three changes of clothes, one set of workout clothes, and only one sweater and pair of jeans. No extra jacket but the snow jacket. I figured that if I felt I needed something extra, I could buy it en route.

I always have a toiletry bag handy that has everything I need, including a first aid kit. Really, I mostly need the ibuprofen for the pain and antibiotic ointment for tree booboos. I also always include my portable waterpik, because you should never skip oral hygiene when you spend half your day taking yourself to the limits of your athletic abilities.

Computer gear was the minimum required. Which, since I am a geek, was a lot. I tried to keep the gadgets to a minimum, but ended up taking the following:

  • Bluetooth receiver/transmitter to be able to listen to BT audio from the phone on the helmet headset
  • Two phones, because if one craps out, you need a working sub
  • My gym MP3 player, which will become important in Sun Valley
  • A portable power bank for the days when you forgot to recharge the gear
  • The Contour camera that would record all the tumbles and conquests
  • A powered USB hub to connect the gadgets to the computer and recharge them independently
  • Cables for the assorted multitude
  • A StraightTalk LTE mobile hotspot. StraightTalk is Walmart’s brand of wireless service, and it’s offered as a partnership with the four big carriers. My phones are on the amazing T-Mobile network, but sometimes that amazing network falls flat in rural area. There, using AT&T or better Verizon gives you better coverage. You only pay for the data you use, there is no contract or commitment, so it’s exactly what you’d want on a trip.

I did not pack anything for the drive. I might need a scraper for the windshields, sunglasses for the drive, and chains for the wheels. Of course, I couldn’t buy chains in advance, since I didn’t know what car and hence what tires I’d get.

What I typically do is look for the closest Walmart en route. There I buy everything I will need, which is usually food and drink, and whatever else I forgot. This year, I introduced an interesting variant and bought a coffee maker for $10. I wake up early, much earlier than the breakfast buffet, and I love making my own coffee. At $10, I could afford buying the coffee maker and simply leave it behind, making some room service maid eternally grateful.

What to do with the cat?

One of the problems of living in Pacific Beach is that everyone moves all the time. Last summer, all the people I trusted to watch my cat left and I was left, too. But left without a cat minder. In fact, in hindsight I didn’t travel at all in the second half of 2015 because I had nobody to watch the cat.

You’ll say, there must be an app for that! And you would be right. Short story short: it is called rover.com. It is meant for dogs, but you can get a cat minder if you select the breed, “Cat.”

I checked the various sitters and found Susan. She had stellar reviews (unlike the one I gave my neighbors), had been doing it for years, and was willing to come for a modest price. Rover, you saved my trip!

The Grand Tour of the North: Seeking Fresh Powder Edition

2016 02 09 10.34.29For the past three years, I’ve started a collection of all Mountain Collective Pass resorts. For those who don’t know, the Mountain Collective is a group of resorts not owned by the big juggernaut, Vail Resorts. These banded together to offer an alternative.

The Pass works very simply: when you buy it, you get two “free” days at each of the participating resorts (and a third free days at one resort you designate when you buy). After that, you get 50% off tickets at the same resorts. It’s a fantastic deal whether you plan to go to many resorts or not, especially because it’s relatively cheap. Three years ago, it was $349 at the beginning of the season, this year $389.

The first trip I took was in 2014. My friend M flew in and we drove to the three Western resorts of the pass: Mammoth, Squaw/Alpine, and Whister. This trip is recorded here. In 2015, I joined M in Denver for the second round, a trip to Jackson Hole (newly added), Snowbird, and Aspen/Snowmass. That trip is recorded here.

2016 could have brought one of two trips. I may yet take off and do the second trip, but I selected a tour de force of colossal proportions. A daring feat of the ass, sitting in a car for endless hours to get to the three northernmost big resorts in the Rocky Mountains. That would be Sun Valley ID, Jackson Hole WY, and Big Sky MT. Of those, Big Sky is not in the Mountain Collective. But I am sort of running out of resorts to visit, and there was nothing close enough to the other two to make the trip worth it.

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