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Skiing In Colorado | How I Accidentally Convinced Myself To Never Ski In Europe Again

With cheaper flights and super affordable lift passes, Colorado ski resorts are yours for the taking

With dirt cheap flights, a new insanely priced super pass, and more variety than you can handle, it’s now impossible to ignore the call of Colorado’s mountains. Chris Sayer flew out to see if a snow break there can ever replace the sacred yearly winter rush to the Alps…

It was the morning I awoke to learn that a local trail runner had strangled a mountain lion to death with his bare hands to stop it eating his head, that my ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment arrived. Rolling through the Rocky Mountains a few days earlier after landing in Denver, I’d romantically imagined it might have been the dream-like tree runs through never-ending aspens, or the super fine ‘Champagne Powder’, the tyre-sized apres pancakes, the hop-stacked lunchtime IPAs or the Stetson-wearing ski cowboys that’d have me feeling every single one of the 8,000 kilometres between me and the familiarity of a winter week in the Alps. Not a big feral cat’s attempt to sink its teeth into the skull of a guy named Travis – who was almost totally fine, by the way – just a little further along Colorado’s State Highway 14.

“I awoke to learn that a local trail runner had strangled a mountain lion to death with his bare hands to stop it eating his head”

Wild encounters like this, it turns out, are outrageously ‘normal’ occurrences for the Colorado natives. “Yeah, it happens,” an 81-year-old rancher named Ray, complete with homemade elk-and beaver-skin trench coat, told me later that afternoon. “Just yesterday a mountain lion ate our neighbour’s dog.” For me, who has only ever skied in America, The Land of Things With Massive Teeth and Massiver Claws, once before… this is anything but normal.

The novelty of life-threateningly calorific meals, the awkwardness of embarrassing tipping faux pas, and the odd feline fist-fight, have only ever occurred on once-a-decade, budget-blowing, bucket-list winter breaks to the US – holidays kept very much in their exceptional place by annual low-cost EasyJet rides to Europe at the first sign of snow. With a chronic fear of spending big sums of money, it’d take something pretty massive to get between me and my habit for bagging those glorious forty quid flights to Geneva once a year.

Pictured: Perfect slice of corduroy in Colorado

Or, as it turns out, something pretty small. A one-way flight to Denver, the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, now only threatens to put a £129-sized dent in our credit cards (big up, Norwegian!) or cost £487 for a return with optional extended (hint: do it) stopover in Iceland with Icelandair. By the grace of the aviation gods, the financial ringfence that stopped all us normal non-billionaires from lugging our gear to the States more than once a year has been trampled down, allowing me, my terminal terror of parting with excessive cash, and my fellow on-a-budget folk, the very real opportunity to sail on by the short-haul check-ins and bumrush the transatlantic terminal for annual – even bi-annual – snow trips instead.

Cheap flights, of course, are only half the battle. Every winter rider knows that, no matter where you’re pointing your skis, there is a whole host of spicy financial meatballs to swallow once you arrive on your mountain. And none more so than the suck-it-up-and-just-spend-it essential lift pass. Yeah, I’d also heard horror stories of American passes spiralling to as high as $169 per day in super luxe Vail or hyper posh Aspen. Per. Day. Chriiist. But, to be honest, you’d need rocks in your head to pay that in 2019, not least because, chriiist, but because an Ikon Pass – a super-massive-hyper season pass new just last year – has shaken up the game by unlocking a whopping 28 world-class North American ski resorts for as little as $949 for the 2019/20 season (roughly £713 at the time of publication). There’s also, fyi, a slightly more limited Ikon Base Pass available for $649 (£488).

“Dumb and Dumber’s Harry… got his freakishly pink and stretchy tongue stuck to an icy lift here back in the early nineties”

That’s unlimited access to the likes of Mammoth, Winter Park and Squaw Valley, and seven days each at epic spots like Jackson Hole, Revelstoke, Sugarloaf and more – plenty enough to convince you to rebook your next flight across the pond as soon as you land back on home soil.

Oh, and if you casually happen to find yourself riding in Japan, Australia, New Zealand or Chile, your enthusiastic little pass will get you up hills there too, adding to a total of 78,716 skiable acres around the world. Compare that to the 1599CHF (£1250) you’d cough up for one of the most popular multi-resort season passes in Switzerland/Europe, the 4 Vallees Pass which grants you access to 410km of piste, and, well, yes, once you carry the one and divide that by the square root of itself and add the decimal point, that sure is some attractive maths, right there.

Pictured: The Woodward at Copper Barn. Credit: Tripp Fay

Cool, so that’s your internal bank manager convinced. Now to just feed your inner stoke machine – the one that eats fast runs and pristine Euro pow for breakfast. And hoo boy, does a US trip give it an epic menu, filled with extras, to order from.

“You could spend the entire winter at this place and not hit all the tree lines you’d like to”

Growing up riding the slopes of France or Switzerland once a year, my brain and legs have been conditioned from a young age to think that a ski holiday was just that – a holiday of skiing. Wake, piste, cheese, piste, meat, sleep, repeat. That’s how it went (with the discovery of booze throwing a couple of wheat beers into the daily schedule from the age of 16). It’s only now, as I pretend to be absolutely okay, no really, totally fine I’m totally fine with leaving my twenties next month, that I learned there’s a different way, too. The super-charged, super varied, yet somehow still super chill Colorado way that allows you to get a whole lot more winter for your wedge. And reader, I gotta tell you, it’s enough to make me want to slide into some cowboy boots and belt out a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

I started my shotgun assault on the Rockies by high-tailing it for little over an hour from Denver airport to Copper Mountain – a locals’ favourite made famous not only by the US Ski Team, who use its high altitude and early snow as pre-season training hill, but by Dumb and Dumber’s Harry, who got his freakishly pink and stretchy tongue stuck to an icy lift here back in the early nineties. And whilst I must advise you to keep yours well inside your food hole and to not recreate such profoundly formative scenes, it is outside of my power from stopping it wagging, drooling and panting over Copper Mountain’s mecca of radness, Woodward Barn.

Pictured: Nice bit o’ Colorado sky

After a day of channelling your inner Lindsey Vonn on the top section of the superfast ‘Andy’s Encore’ groomer, or taking advantage of the totally free snowcat rides over to Tucker Mountain and Copper Bowl, where 273 acres and 12,000 vertical feet of high alpine backcountry are crying out for your fresh tracks, hit this legendary indoor facility, where the great and the good come to add to their gravity-challenging arsenal. Foam pits, multiple Olympic-grade trampolines, a huge selection of booters, jumps and rollers, and one of the sexiest skate bowls I’ve ever seen, will having you feeling like a kid in soft play as soon as you strap your helmet on and set foot inside this 20,000sqft stoke den.

Oh, yes, without a shadow of a doubt, the little shredders stomping double backs off the Big Ramp will make you feel like the dork at the school disco if, like me, your ‘adult mode’ forces you to weigh up the wrist-risking dangers of the 0.2secs of airtime the baby bumps will give you. It’s a small price to pay for coming down on that spin you always knew you had in you, and with your tibia and fibia still very much inside of your skin suit. If this isn’t the coolest way to earn yourself a taster flight of Colorado whiskies at the nearby High Rockies Bar after dark, we dunno what the heck is, partner.

Pictured: Slope taco (left), Red Dead Redemption 2 (right)

With any evidence of my sesh on the local fire water expunged from my bloodstream and breath by Chef Susan and her outrageous breakfast banana bread at Copper Mountain’s Toast & Co, I next wanted to track down the mythical ‘champagne powder’ that lay in, and only in, the nearby resort of Steamboat. Exactly why this high-end must-hit (which is the homegrown getaway of choice for Coloradan fart gag connoisseurs, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame) gets super-light powder with just 6% water content, rather than the 15% other resorts have to slum it with, is still causing science boffins to scratch their beards.

One thing I didn’t need a test tube or Bunsen burner to discover, was just how insanely good it felt under skis while sliding through Steamboat’s famously never-ending aspen runs, even three days after the most recent dump. For real, you could spend the entire winter at this place and not hit all the tree lines you’d like to. And where once that privilege would have cost you a chunky $1400 to do, that Ikon Pass – with its unlimited days at Steamboat – has slashed the full season lift spend here by $451 (about £338).

“It’s enough to make me want to slide into some cowboy boots and belt out a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner”

Despite the near infinite dreamy trees, icing sugar powder and the ‘Taco Beast’ – the world’s first on-piste street food truck/snowcat serving elk and chorizo tacos for just five bucks – there were still plenty of American heritage-soaked activities off the hill to tempt me out of my bindings.

Making like the people of the Ute Tribe, Colorado’s oldest inhabitants and stewing your muscles at one of the state’s plentiful natural hot springs is a gotta-do (the nearby Strawberry Park gets two thumbs up from me, although rumour has it that after dark things get a little more, er, nudey in there). Another absolute must is using everything you learned about horsecare in Red Dead Redemption 2 (feed it, whisper nice things in its ear, don’t park it on a railroad while you fish for the Legendary Sturgeon) to tread through knee-high wilderness powder on the back of a lazy steed.

Do that at Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch ($95 per rider), just 20 miles out from Steamboat, and you’ll meet real-life Colorado ski cowboys (like Ray, who informed me of the gory fate of his neighbour’s pooch) who lead lives that’ll make you question every single career, and every winter holiday, decision you’ve ever made.

Do It Yourself

Find more information about the Ikon Pass at ikonpass.com. Return winter flights with Icelandair from London Heathrow to Denver (via Reykjavik) start at £487 per person.

Rooms at Copper Mountain’s Tucker Mountain Lodge start at $173 per night. Four-bed luxury lodges at Steamboat’s One Steamboat Place start at $1,816 per night.

Car hire in Colorado can be made through rentalcars.com

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