Vail resident and ski instructor Allen Smith has a simple but effective piece of advice for anybody looking to beat the rush: Get out of bed early. Officially, Vail's lifts open at9 a.m.—although, in the heart of the season, you can often grab a chair as early as 8:30. Be there, or be prepared to share. "I've had some of my best experiences before 9:30, and most runs are consistently underskied until 10," Smith says. Your quest for first chair will be aided if you can skip the ticket window. Some of the longest, slowest lines every morning are at the resort's ticket offices. Avoid wasted time by purchasing multiday passes in advance. You can also buy tickets online at vail.com.
If you're driving in for the day, ride the bus (A). Resist the urge to follow the flow of traffic from I-70 to the large parking structures. Instead find a spot on the street, close to the in-town shuttle route. The largest free ski-bussystem in North America will take you straight to one of Vail's three base areas within minutes. While the sheep who parked in the garage are lugging gear down four flights of stairs and hoofing through the slippery streets of the village, you can scarf a granola bar and get dropped off close to the lifts. But which lifts?
Start from Golden Peak (B) if you can. The Vail Village (C) and LionsHead (D) base areas can be frenzied between 8:30 and 10 in the morning, so unless you're staying at one of the ski-in/ski-out lodges there, you're well-advised to avoid those spots. In any event, on your way to the chair, be sure to grab a daily grooming report, passed out liberally by mountain hosts at all base areas. "It's the best way to get the scoop for the day," says Vail Ski Patrol director Julie Rust. The report may direct you toward runs such as Riva Ridge (E), the mountain's longest trail at a whopping four miles, or Blue Ox (F). They're typically groomed top to bottom on Fridays and Saturdays, respectively, which makes them great places to start. If you're already on the mountain, you can always stop into the patrol hut (G) at the tops of lifts 4 and 11 and and ask about conditions.
Another highly effective—if not necessarily cheap—way to beat the crowds to the best of Vail is to hire a private instructor. Instructor Smith and his colleagues know the mountain intimately and—let's cut to the chase here—they can get you to the front of the liftline. Cost: $595 per day for up to six people. Reserve in advance (800-475-4543 or vail.com).
On the Hill
A great way to start is to take chair 6, the Riva Bahn Express (H), to chair 11, the Northwoods Express (I), which deposits skiers at the highest spot on the mountain. Get a warm-up run on Swingsville (J) or Expresso (K), then hop on chair 4, the Mountain Top Express (L). If you'd prefer to forgo a warm-up run and jump straight into the action, from the tops of chairs 4 and 11 you can drop right into Sun Up Bowl (M) by way of Headwall Ridge (N). "The time to catch it is when it's been groomed at night and then covered with a foot or two of fresh," says Smith. "It's a great place for advanced-intermediate skiers to experience untracked powder."
One key as you explore the mountain: Don't backtrack.
It could take you days if not weeks to ski every one of Vail's almost 200 runs, but if you plan wisely, you can hit all of the Back Bowls before lunch. "Navigate the mountain from west to east," suggests patrol director Rust. "And remember to keep moving." Chairs 5 (O) and 17 (P) provide the most efficient route up the Back Bowls but, Rust advises, "Hit it hard and hit it fast." Chair 5 is a local favorite, so it can get crowded.
Head east. Siberia Bowl and Inner and Outer Mongolia are aptly named—they're usually sparsely populated. Cut tracks on Bolshoi Ballroom (Q) before working your way down Silk Road (R) to the Orient Express Chair (S) and back into China Bowl. "My favorite is Jade Glade (T), meandering in and out of the sparse ttrees," says Smith. "This is what Vail is famous for: wide expanses of terrain where you can make 25-meter turns without worrying about skiing into anybody or anything."
Lunch early. You'll burn through that morning granola bar in a couple of hours and need to refuel. "Stop in early and skip the noon to 2 p.m. feeding frenzy," says Rust. She likes Belle's Camp in Blue Sky Basin (U) for a quick sandwich (and incredible views). Don't forget the frontside. The bowls get all the glory, but there are some great late-day conditions on the front of the mountain. You can find groomed intermediate runsoff the Wildwood Express lift (V), or if you haven't had enough of the bowls, drop into Game Creek via Ouzo Glade (W).
Kick back. If you're on the lift by 8:30 a.m., you can get in an intense four to five hours of skiing (the average skier only puts in three hours a day) and be on the deck at Garfinkles under the LionsHead gondola (X) for the Broncos kickoff at 2 p.m.As everyone else is surfing the afternoon slush on lower Born Free, you'll be enjoying some après cocktails—and planning tomorrow's attack.