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Have you ever found yourself mid-run and forgotten which area you’re at? Or wondering if you have skied the same run before? All over snow country, we have McTrails that look alike and ski alike.
Piste parallelism is a result of area managers all thinking the same industrial-strength thoughts over the past 30 years. Straight-down-the-fall-line, not-too-steep terrain is easy to groom and manufacture snow on. Wide, straight-sided slopes are better highways for snowcats and groomers. And they efficiently absorb the increased throngs of skiers disgorging from high-capacity detachable lifts. Trails have been bulldozed as much for cost efficiency as for skiing pleasure.
In creating déjà -vu trails, resorts may unconsciously have been aware of market research showing that travelers prefer to sleep in places and eat food that they’re familiar with. Hence ski vacationers might be happier if trails everywhere were similar. Heaven forbid, don’t surprise the customers with a narrow S-turn or a sudden, unfamiliar drop-off. And let’s not even begin to discuss the need for pantywaist trails that reduce the chance of injury and of lawsuits brought by ambulance-chasing attorneys.
It’s ironic. While resorts attempt to brand their base villages as different, they increasingly offer blue and green slopes, and even single-black diamonds, that are homogenous. Perhaps slope similarity is the consequence of 600 North American ski areas having more than 20,000 trails. How different can they be?
Happily, a couple of new intermediate trail layouts break the mold. Last winter at Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, I skied for a half-mile through a lovely, quiet fir forest called Big Rock Park. It’s a joyful, almost ethereal place to ski. In most such glades, the snow becomes chopped from skier traffic and remains that way for the winter. What’s nice about Big Big Rock Park is that tiller-equipped cats regularly groom the area. Vail’s terrain designers thinned the trees just enough to give the machines room to maneuver.
In Montana, the exclusive Yellowstone Club has cleared trees this past summer for back-to-the-future skiing. Manager Jon Reveal has designed a classic, twisting, narrow trail that follows the mountain’s natural contours in the manner of trails 50 years ago, such as Corkscrew at Aspen and the Seven Turns on Stowe’s Nosedive.
“For many years,” Reveal says, “grooming machines were underpowered. The tillers weren’t integrated with the cat; they dragged behind. There was the possibility of jackknifing if the operator didn’t stay in the fall line. The solution was to create straight up-and-down slopes.” That is why so many trails ski the same, all over the country.
“But there’s no longer an excuse to copy the past,” Reveal says. “Today’s sophisticated machines can climb and descend steep hills, cut corners, cross the fall line. The winding trail I’ve designed through the trees at the Yellowstone Club is only about 50 feet wide. On each side, we’re taking out half of the trees over a width about 50 to 75 feet. Then for another 50 or more feet, we’ll thin about 25 percent of the trees to the outer edges. The glades, as they expand on each side, become denser and denser.”
With snowboards and fatter, shorter carving skis, people’s ability to ski glades has improved. Reveal’s terrain will allow younger skiers to surf through the trees. Older or less able folks can ski the twisting, groomed trail. “Their skills may be different, but they’ll all meet at the bottom,” Reveal says.
One reason such terrain is possible at Yellowstone is that the Club’s $250,000 initiation fee limits skiers on its seven lifts and 43 trails to a crowd scarcely big enough to fill the smoking section of your local base lodge. Never mind, I want to believe that Yellowstone’s and Vail’s initiatives will inspire resorts everywhere to exercise their imaginations. Guys, put more ingenuity into your terrain. With mindless malls encroaching on our valleys, we don’t need more look-alike, ski-alike trails on our mountains.
Columnist Fry can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.