RESORT GUIDE FORMAT
I originally devised these detail area analyses for Powder's Resort Guides, which were published in October of 1995 and 1996. Powder used some of my information, plus those from many other contributors and their editors, in their own format. Inside Tracks found my format more to their liking, and the 14 Resort Guides on this website were published in the newsletters with minimal changes. The explanations on this page are much more detailed than in the newsletters.
Absolute Difficulty of Terrain: I recommend 5 gradations, a system which was actually used on Jackson Hole's trail map through the late 1980's.
Green: Comfortable runs making wedge turns.
Blue: Nearly always groomed. Comfortable for 'terminal intermediates': parallel skid turns, almost never carved, rarely with timed pole plants. Lift ratios (length to vertical) of 4 to 1 or 5 to 1. Examples: Most of Snow Summit, Chairs 2, 4 and 10 at Mammoth, most groomed runs at Snowmass and Keystone.
Red: Often groomed, but will develop moguls in a couple of days. Lift ratio of 3 to 1 up to 4 to 1. Accessible to intermediates, but they will get a workout from growing moguls or putting the brakes on to control speed. Examples: Chairs 3 and 5 at Mammoth, groomed area under the Summit lift at Mt. Bachelor, Warm Springs at Sun Valley, Starfire at Keystone, Chip's Run at Snowbird.
Black: Never groomed or not groomable except by a winch cat. Inaccessible to intermediates unless they are extremely masochistic. Examples: Classic mogul runs such as Gunbarrel at Heavenly, Exhibition at Sun Valley, Spiral Stairs at Telluride, Prima-Pronto at Vail. Steep open bowls such as Climax at Mammoth, Rendezvous Bowl at Jackson, Regulator Johnson at Snowbird, or Whistler Bowl. Steep glades such as South Bowl at Baldy, the Priest Creek trees at Steamboat.
Yellow: Defined succinctly in the Miles-Jaffe book I bought in the late 70's as any run where, if you fall, you'll slide unless it's deep powder. At least 35 degrees in slope, the snow released from edge-sets will often slide for several hundred feet. Wipe Out and Drop Out at Mammoth represent the minimum definition. Other examples: West Face and 75 Chute at Squaw Valley, Great Scott and Upper Cirque at Snowbird, High Rustler at Alta, and the areas which are still marked yellow on Jackson's map.
Snowfall and Snow Conditions: The statistics are the same as those published in October 1995. The commentary is more detailed. In addition to the best time of year for a visit, does the layout or crowd pattern suggest a preferred time of day to ski certain sections of the mountain?
Crowds: Congestion needs to be addressed in two ways.
1.) The first criterion is a general view of how much one can expect to ski per day. This is affected not only by the time spent waiting in line, but by the amount of time riding a lift rising how many vertical feet. For example, a 20 minute wait for Snowbird's tram is probably more efficient than riding two or three chairs with no lines to cover the same vertical. I have generally viewed 15,000 vertical for intermediates and 20,000 for advanced skiers as a typical minimum benchmark. At Sun Valley and Mt. Bachelor, with multiple high speed lifts and minimal lines, these benchmarks could easily be doubled, assuming adequate physical conditioning.
2.) The second issue is skier density. At some smaller areas near large cities, one can sometimes have get the feeling of skiing a human slalom course. At the destination resorts, there may be high skier density on certain popular runs or near the base facilities. For powder skiers, density is a more critical issue, as it must be very low for lift accessible runs not to get tracked out by lunch time.
3.) Another point of interest is whether a resort's business is primarily destination and spread throughout the week (most western Colorado resorts), predominantly weekend (Mammoth) or a combination (Whistler or Salt Lake).
Type of Terrain: Skiing is a multifaceted sport, and different aspects appeal to different people. It helps to capture the flavor of a mountain by discussing the following categories, with primarily the advanced skier (Inside Tracks' readership) in mind.
Cruising: Here we're looking for usually groomed runs with enough pitch to enjoy carving turns in a long and continuous fall line. Skier density should be low enough to make high speeds comfortable. Sun Valley is probably the standard in this category.
Moguls: Desirable qualities would be length, steepness and spacing, variety, and good snow conditions. Sun Valley, Telluride, Taos, Vail, Aspen and Stowe (by reputation as I haven't skied there) come to mind as leading areas.
Steeps: This would be mainly the terrain classified as Yellow above, but would also include the Black rated open bowls. Snow conditions are a critical factor both in terms of getting this terrain open and keeping it skiable. Squaw Valley and Jackson Hole set the standard, though Alta/Snowbird and Whistler/Blackcomb in combination are comparable.
Wide Open Spaces: Open bowls tend to offer more variety (a choice of numerous lines to ski) at both intermediate and advanced levels than cut trails. They also lower skier density and are more likely to have corn snow in the spring. I'm both spoiled and prejudiced on this subject due to my extensive skiing at Mammoth. Other leading areas would be Whistler/Blackcomb, Mt. Bachelor and Alta/Snowbird. Vail is the only area in Colorado with a comparable quantity of open terrain. There is a downside in that treeless areas must usually be closed during storms.
Trees: Spacing between trees is an obvious requirement for accessibility to skiing. Steepness and snow conditions are other important factors. Steamboat is probably the area most famous for tree skiing. The Kootenay areas on both sides of the U.S./Canada border have extensive well-spaced glades.
Powder: Several of the factors discussed above combine to indicate which areas are likely to have the best powder skiing. The snowfall and snow conditions section is the most important, but terrain type (primarily trees and secondarily open bowls) and skier density are also very important. In snow conditions, Alta, Snowbird and Grand Targhee stand out. However, most skiers will learn powder better at a more obscure area with extremely low skier density, such as Wolf Creek, Powder Mountain or Whitewater.
Hiking and Backcountry: Is there noteworthy terrain above the lifts, and how difficult is it to reach? The Ridge at Bridger Bowl and Kachina Peak at Taos are famous examples. The ability distribution at the beginning of the report does not include terrain requiring climbing more than about 100 vertical above the lifts. Hanging Valley at Snowmass and the summit area of Mt. Bachelor would be included, for example. Out of bounds terrain accessible from the lifts could be discussed, particularly with regard to safety issues and the ski area management's rules and regulations.
While Inside Tracks' readers are mostly advanced skiers, they may have friends and family who are not. I would therefore recommend the following sections.
Intermediates: Most skiers are evolving in their abilities and will want to spend some time skiing runs well within their comfort zone and other times challenging themselves in areas at the limits of their abilities. Therefore it is relevant if an area has an 'ability gap', with most runs being well above or below that level of difficulty. Mt. Waterman is a conspicuous example, and Kirkwood has a rather abrupt change in pitch between its upper and lower elevations.
Novices: In addition to the extent of easy terrain, are there any long runs, or runs from the top of the mountain with the best views and snow conditions? Low skier density, particularly regarding intersections with faster skiers, is also desirable. June Mountain is a standout area by all of these criteria.
Children: Can older children ski a few runs on their own without getting lost or in trouble? Are the children's lessons both instructive and fun? Terrain gardens like Vail's are a big plus. How well do the instructors accommodate children who are advanced for their age? (i.e. a 5 year old who skis blue runs but still needs assistance getting on the lifts, or an 8 year old who is ready to try double-black runs). Here, expert areas like Jackson Hole and Taos are often good choices because the instructors are used to working with hot local kids.
I occasionally mention lodging, transportation, and other off the mountain issues also.