Ski Smarts: Making the Most of the Slopes

Story by Anne Z. Cooke Photography by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

Never adverse to a tip from an expert, I like to think of this one as the law of Inverse Timing, one of those light-bulb moments sure to make your day.

Heading home on Stampede trail, Steamboat Resort, CO.

“In the early season start skiing late, and the late season, start early,” said John, the mountain host and our guide for the morning, as we assembled at the base of chair lift at Whistler Ski Resort, in Canada’s British Columbia. “You’ll ski better and feel better if you set your clock to match the calendar.”

Fresh corduroy snow near Squaw Valley USA Resort’s Gold Coast Express lift. he means is that if you’re skiing in December or January, when the days are shortest and coldest, stay in bed longer, hit the slopes after the sun has softened the icy patches, and ski until the ski lifts close. But if you’re skiing in spring, say mid to late-March and into April, rise early and be the first one riding the chairlift. When the sun turns the snow to slush, find the best restaurant on the mountain and linger over a late lunch.

That’s good advice if, as John does, you live in a ski town like Whistler, or near Colorado’s Snowmass, Stowe in Vermont, or New Mexico’s Taos. Any place, in fact, where the slopes are within an hour’s drive and you’re skiing on a locals-only, bargain-priced lift pass. When dark clouds roil overhead, you can stay home or run errands.

But show me a typical recreational skier, somebody who lives hundreds of miles from a mountain and has just spent three hours in an airplane and I’ll show you a go-getter determined to cram a year’s worth of skiing into a single week, no matter what the sky looks like. When time is short, smart skiers know how to maximize every day.

”Hey guys – let’s eat lunch in Nevada,” Heavenly Ski Resort, CA&NV.READ THE DAILY GROOMING MAP:

Most ski resorts can’t groom every slope, every night. With most resorts continuing to add more skiable acreage, there’s often just too much terrain to cover. So the snow cat drivers groom selectively, often leaving baby bumps runs to grow into giant moguls before they plow them flat again.

To find out which runs are freshly groomed (or not, if you’re crazy for thrills), get a copy of the daily grooming map, usually a list available by early morning at ticket windows or at on-slope information kiosks. If you’re an intermediate, ski the groomed runs in the morning and try the bump runs later, after the snow’s softened up.


Okay, quit if you want to. Skip the blizzard, head back to the lodge and relax with a cup of cocoa. But if you refuse to miss a single minute of skiing, swap those poster-boy fashions – lightweight bomber jackets, rad sun glasses and baseball caps – for warmer clothes. Layering with fleece, adding a neck gaiter with a pull-up face mask and ditching sunglasses for goggles will make you as impervious as a snowman in a storm. Most experts like amber lenses not just because they keep the snow out of your eyes, but because they work in a white-out, sharpening the shadows.


Most ski slopes in North American face north, northeast, northwest or a combination thereof. And for a reason. These are the slopes where the sun shines the least and the snow, where the snow piles up and lasts longest. If it’s a warm day, ski the shadiest slopes, staying ahead of the sun. Sometimes, though, in spots where the sun never shines, the snow turns to ice. If it’s very cold out, follow the sun as it moves across the resort, skiing each run as the sun hits it, then moving on to the next. Do it right and you’ll catch peak conditions.

Snowboarders and skiers stop at the top of the mountain, Ski Santa Fe, NM.


When spring breezes blow and crocuses push up next to the gondola,

head for the clouds where temperatures stay low and the snow lasts longest. Back in the day, resorts put the easy runs on the lower slopes and the double-black-diamond mind-benders above timberline. Never-ever skiers took lessons on the bunny slopes beside the lodge and the hot shots pumped air off the cornice. But all that’s changed. To accommodate today’s recreational skiers, resorts are creating easy-to-navigate intermediate runs (marked with blue lines) that begin at the summit and track all the way back down to the base area. And what a treat they are.


If you can’t change the weather, change your plans. Skiing isn’t the only winter sport offered at today’s ski resorts, most of them weather-proof. Tubing hills, snowmobile tours, snowshoe treks, cross country skiing, alpine slides, the Alpine Coaster (an over-snow roller coaster, like the one installed at Utah’s Park City Resort), ice skating, bobsledding, sleigh rides and dog sledding are among the more popular possibilities. Others run from fly fishing and ice fishing to historic walking tours and horseback rides (yes, even in the snow),


At your wits end? Ride up the lifts and eat at the summit. Find a sports bar and watch a ball game. Shop on main street. Tour the local microbrewery. Visit the history museum. Go to a movie. And wait for the sun to shine.


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