So famous are the Back Bowls of Vail in the skiing world that, this being America, you would expect them to be trademarked. To anyone who loves the rush of downhill skiing, these giant geological saucers 3.5 kilometres up the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, are the Holy Grail of winter sports. In size and scale they are unmatched by anything else on the continent, vast open expanses of ungroomed, almost treeless powder snowfields for strong intermediates.
This year kicked off with two metres of snow dumped right on top of them. I started an exhilarating day traversing from east to west, from Siberia Bowl to China Bowl, Teacup Bowl, Sun Up Bowl and finally Sun Down Bowl. Each run is fed by a web of high-speed gondolas with heated seats, and six-person chairlifts that distribute the crowds over this vast landscape. At 5,289 skiable acres Vail is the third largest single mountain ski resort in the US.
As well as the ultra-challenging terrain – Blue Sky Basin’s off-piste meadows and glades were added in 2000) – it’s the investment in Vail and the nearby Vail Resorts of Breckenridge (3,308 acres) and Beaver Creek (1,832 acres), that brings skiers back to the Rockies year after year. In the past five years, globally, Vail Resorts has spent $500m on new lift technology, mountain restaurants and upgrading its hotels and condos.
Colorado is famous for its top-grade powder. It’s so dry that you can’t make a snowball – the snow just crumbles rather than clumping together
I’m skiing in Vail and Breck alongside the legendary Arnie Wilson, who’s returned to Breck 25 times and visited over 700 of the world’s ski areas. I may have only a dozen to my name, but we have something in common: an appreciation of a toasty pair of slippers (courtesy of our Vail lunchspot The 10th restaurant), and a glass of Russian River Valley white with our gourmet mountain-side menu. This is skiing à la carte. You don’t get the crowded rough and tumble here that you do in parts of the Alps.
So, what about the snow? Well, it’s high and dry. Colorado is famous for its top-grade powder. It’s so dry that you can’t make a snowball – the snow just crumbles rather than clumping together – which makes for sugary, crystally, pillowy powder. A decent overnight snowfall in Breck meant Lee, my guide, could take me on a mini-adventure off-piste among the glades and tree-pipped wide-open black-diamond runs.
The tree-line is surprisingly high in Breck, and there’s even a chairlift up to 4,000 metres, the highest in the US and a selfie hotspot.
But snow like this does have a sinister characteristic. It is prone to avalanche above a certain gradient. Every morning the ski patrol has a team briefing and heads out to “bomb the heck” out of the slopes, so that there’s no danger within the ski boundary.
Expert skiers can book a private guide to explore the “in-bounds” back-country, which gives early-bird access to the lifts (and so to the untouched powder), plus guidance to Breck’s best trails and optional training in mountain safety with an avalanche-rescue pack.
If you fancy a break from skiing, a group snowmobile excursion with Nova Guides is way more fun than expected. Buzzing around US Forestry trails, opening up the throttle to hurtle around an improvised wilderness racetrack, is an icy blast, too. Both of the ski-in ski-out hotels I stayed in (One Ski Hill Place in Breck, and The Lodge at Vail) had hot tubs and pools. At One Ski Hill Place my apartment was conveniently next to the Aquatics Centre, a complete boon as the resort’s altitude combined with the seven-hour time difference meant I was up with the larks for a swim and a dip before breakfast.
A final word goes to the very different genesis of the towns. Although both Breck and Vail ski areas were opened within a year of each other (1961 and 1962 respectively), Breck is a historic mining town dating from the first gold rush there in 1859. Home to hip cafés, restaurants and shops, it feels very much like a lived-in town.
Vail village, on the other hand, was built from scratch, chalet-style. It’s car-free by design and has grown into its skin as a smart and pretty little mountain town, with twinkly lights, giant bronze street sculptures, and the requisite glut of sports shops and luxury boutiques.
Vail and Breckenridge are the twin stars of Colorado’s skiing scene, and it’s plain to see why skiers keep returning to this stunning and geographically unique location.