Three Tips to Navigate a Busy Mountain Like a Local

by Greg Colquitt | February 13, 2020

Most of the Western US and Canada is maintaining an excellent snowpack and California is getting hosed. The usual suspects like Alta, Steamboat, Jackson Hole and Revelstoke are sitting pretty around 110-140% above average for the season, and the prevailing weather pattern shows no signs of stopping.

But recently, those massive snow totals in the Rockies have been heavy and wet. Alta and Snowbird were shut down for 52 hours due to a series of avalanches completely clogging up the main road into both mountains. I-70 in Colorado was closed at various points last week for the same reasons. Yet, the mountains (ehem, Vail) still managed to get swamped. So what to do? Here’s some food for thought if you find yourself in a sardine box of a resort crowd.

A Perfect Storm

In most situations, this is Shangri-La for skiers. If you’re one of the lucky few to get to the mountain before they close the roads, you’re in for a mountain devoid of people but swimming in pow. However, this past week things got weird.

The conditions were conducive to face shots (unless you’re in California), and as a consequence, traffic was miserable. On top of that, January is sandwiched in between two public holidays, meaning families and old buddies from across the globe are headed to the mountains. So this, combined with heaps of wet and heavy snow, means ski country infrastructure starts to crumble.

Is Help on the Way?

The hope for relief is limited. The number of political, geographical, and practical obstacles in the way of any new resorts opening are, in most states, insurmountable. While there are attempts to introduce new resorts without lifts, the majority enjoy the speed and comfort of taking a chair up, no matter how good hiking up a whole mountain makes your legs look.

Obviously this congestion translates to the slopes, too: over the weekend, some unlucky folks at Vail spent upwards of one and a half hours in line for both the base Gondola and the main lift servicing the coveted Sun Down/Sun up bowls. Let’s be clear–over three feet of snow fell in 48 hours. It was a feat to have the mountain open in the first place. Still, the tourist in everyone dies a little bit hearing about it. Can you imagine spending upwards of $200 on a lift ticket (which, ehem, you can avoid by finding tickets with us), not to mention flights, lodging, rental car etc., all to stand in a line for 2 hours? Woof. Pass.

What to Do

Unless you’d prefer getting to know your neighbors in line and lose feeling in your legs and/or heart, I’d keep these tips in mind for making the best of apocalyptically busy resort days:

– Seek out the lifts servicing a limited number of runs.

While some people at Vail’s lines swallowed some folks, others headed to the Highline Express Lift and bombed down long lines of a different sort via the 3 expert runs snaking the chair. Meanwhile, their novice companions found refuge in the easy-skiing zone immediately skier’s left of the lift. In other words, there is almost always (not counting the early season ribbon of death here) a way around lots of traffic on a mountain, but you may have to sacrifice the “glory runs” and high-alpine thrills in favor of the sleeper, sheltered tree runs and lazy, mazy groomers.* There are many tracks to be had in open bowls, but demand quickly outstrips supply. Therefore, you’ll have better success if you (drumroll, please)…

– Find snow hiding in the trees.

Channel your inner Lorax—the trees are the place to be on a busy day. Once the freshies have been wiped off all the main runs, the trees are a great store of snow and they offer an escape route when the moguls start to resemble VW Beetles. Just do us a favor and take time to plan out your route in there—you don’t want to smoke your melon on a cool low-lying branch.

Not all mountains are blessed with good tree skiing, but for the ones that are, head to the trees that face north (if you’re not sure, remember that the sun rises in the East, right?). And those good tree runs? Keep reading.

Perfectly preserved pow on a busy Saturday in Colorado

– Locate the old two-seater fixed grip chairs.

These are the secret weapon on a powder day. Yes, there are fewer of these than there used to be, but the ones that still in operation often have the most tolerable lines. Yeah, they’re a little older and slower, but you are too now, aren’t you? Maybe you can catch your breath and relax your legs that are on absolute fire from skiing heavy wet pow. Also, rather than brave the zoo that is the cafeteria, why not eat lunch on the lift? Moreover, if fewer people see the terrain under the lift, it stays softer throughout the day. Oh, and don’t overlook the lift line as a source for late-day low-hanging powder fruit.

The Final Word

Next time you find yourself in holiday-resort-traffic hell, take a minute to look at the trail map and identify parts of the mountain with the features listed above. And please, do not pay window prices for lift tickets. We’ve got you covered.

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