Getting Comfortable With the New Vail

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In the late 1950s, Pete Seibert, who dreamed of building a major ski resort in Colorado, spent seven hours hiking to the top of what is now Vail Mountain. At the crest of the obscure, unpopulated hill, he glimpsed a rare landscape of largely treeless bowls, a vast panorama of seemingly boundless, perfect skiing terrain.

Mr. Seibert, a former member of the United States ski team, turned to his hiking partner, Earl Eaton, a local uranium prospector who had led him to the site, and said: "My God, we've climbed all the way to heaven." They sat in the grass, ate a lunch of cold cuts, then spent another four hours hiking back down.

Five years later the Vail resort opened for the winter of 1962-63 with $5 lift tickets and crowds so small that one day only 12 people showed up.

Fifty years later the resort can attract 1.7 million people to its slopes per season, and it is a seven-and-one-half-minute ascent up the mountain in the resort's new 10-person gondola, equipped with heated seats and Wi-Fi access. Steps from the top of the gondola, one dining choice of several is a restaurant in which guests can exchange ski boots for slippers before looking over a menu that includes things like hazelnut and ginger buffalo carpaccio and selections from a 2,200-bottle on-site wine cellar.

Just outside the restaurant door, Vail photographers will take your picture, and using the chip embedded in your $106 lift ticket (the online purchase price) send it to friends through the social network of your choice. The same chip can chart and digest every detail of your day: the number of vertical feet skied, trails visited and your top speed. Later, you will also be able to watch video from the day, if you are one of the many on the mountain who have affixed a tiny camera to your helmet.

Suffice it to say, the Vail founders, both deceased, would hardly recognize the resort today. The truth is, late last year, in my first extended visit to the resort in a decade, I often felt out of place, too. Large new hotels towered over old landmarks, pedestrian walkways had replaced ordinary streets, new restaurants lured visitors away from the ones I remembered.

Vail is far from the only large resort to have infused the traditional ski trip with technologically advanced creature comforts and luxuries. As vacationers have become more accustomed to the kinds of bespoke experience hotels and restaurants are offering across the globe, ski resorts have been trying to shed their rough edges. No longer is it enough to appeal to ski purists who simply crave the mountain. Today's experience must also be comfortable, and, for those who want it, feel exclusive as well. And no resort has embraced this more than Vail.

But what happens when a hallmark resort retools? Can a historic mountain be modern too? And would I like it as much?

Arriving on Christmas night, it didn't take long to get some answers. That's when I met the ski valet, a novel new service professional creating dependents at resorts from Vermont to Utah.

Many hotels at ski areas take a guest's skis or snowboards at check-in, store them and hand them back when it's time to hit the mountain. The ski valet goes much further. The ski valet does everything but ski for you.

When I checked in at the new Ritz-Carlton residences with my wife and three children, the valet took our skis, poles and boots. The next morning, in a lounge alongside the lobby, our boots, which had been heated overnight, were retrieved for us. If anyone needed help getting the boots on -- not unusual when small children are concerned -- attendants helped get the little feet into the little boots. They also handed out free hand-warming packets.

Coffee and snacks were available in an unrushed atmosphere that was nothing like the noisy, crowded crush of the typical day lodge. Then, when we were ready to leave, our skis and poles were loaded on a van which shuttled us the few hundred yards to the lifts. When we finished at the end of the day, the ski valet was waiting at the bottom of the trails and the entire process was reversed, right down to our boots being dried and warmed again. It is a service provided by the hotel, although the valet is usually tipped $2 to $5 in each direction.

For someone who has spent decades trudging from parking lots to mountain lifts carrying skis and poles, along with children's skis, poles, helmets, mittens, scarfs and hand-warmers, I consider the ski valet the greatest winter sports asset since snow itself.

It did feel decadent at times. After all, skiing is about communing with -- and to some extent mastering -- nature. Is something lost if you're not even carrying your own gear to face the challenge? I can't imagine what my father, who learned to ski as a boy by hiking to the top of Vermont's mountains, would have thought had he glimpsed his son strolling behind a personal valet lugging his gear. But the fact is, even if you have been escorted to a gondola with heated seats, once you are deposited at the top of the lift, you're on your own. And Vail's many taxing trails -- more than half are rated black diamond expert runs -- have not gotten any easier.

At the end of the day, I did notice that everyone in my family -- raised on no-frills Eastern ski areas -- lugged their equipment past the valet station. It was not a coincidence. It just seemed right to walk the skis home.

But for every family like ours there were 10 families who were delighted not to have to wrestle with the cumbersome accouterments of skiing. "We ski five to seven days a year," said Jerry Farmer, a lawyer from the Baltimore area who was visiting Vail with his family of four in December. "That's not often enough to ever feel comfortable getting all the gear together. If they've figured out a way to ease the stress, I'm all for it.

"Go ahead, take my skis and poles."

In short, ski gear is an annoyance and it is good business for the hotels to make it less of one.

"Thirty years ago, our clientele was hard-core outdoors types and hard-core athletes," said Christopher E. Jarnot, Vail's senior vice president and chief operating officer. "If you got them to the mountain, they would take care of the rest. But we can appeal to a much larger market by easing the entry points."

Once on the mountain, how you choose to navigate your way around it has been transformed as well. At an area as big as Vail (at 5,289 acres it is the nation's largest), even with fast lifts it can take a long time to traverse to some of the famed back bowls. That has always made it an imperative to know which of the 31 lifts are open and what the lines are like at each lift. You don't want to take 25 minutes to get to Blue Sky Basin and discover that three-fourths of the people on the mountain have had the same idea.

In the past, the only way to gauge the flow of the crowd was to ask lift operators, which was not highly reliable because they were as far from the back bowls as you. You could also monitor summaries the resort posted on chalkboards and bulletin boards at the bottom of the lifts. Again, not exactly up-to-the-minute information.

Today, thanks to social networking, streaming alerts and the resort's own Twitter account, skiers have up-to-the minute updates.

This kind of technological progress is beginning to suffuse every part of the modern ski trip. Ski rental companies can now receive your specifications online days before your arrival so the appropriate gear can be waiting for you. If you're a regular guest at the same slopeside condo year after year, the unit can be stocked on each trip with your preferred cookies and Scotch. Even your lift ticket can be a gateway to multipurpose, personal service. At Vail, the ticket gives you access to a platform called EpicMix, which uses radio frequency technology to help you locate a friend or family member on the mountain, send pictures back home, and if you're feeling daring, let you challenge the Olympic champion Lindsey Vonn in a racecourse.

She sets the pace at various courses on the mountain early in the season and recreational skiers can compete against her -- and others -- with all the times recorded.

"It's about competition and social interaction," said Ms. Vonn, who maintains a home in Vail. "There's a handicapping system for age groups so whole families can get involved. But let's face it, it's about bragging rights."

But do all the updates make the experience better?

I wondered that anew at the end of one day as I walked past the ski valet, propped my skis on a public rack and went in search of Garfinkel's, my favorite Vail apres-ski bar. I wove around the massive Arrabelle, a new, Vail-owned hotel and adjacent public square with a skating rink, shops, restaurants, water fountains and outdoor concert arena. It is a sparkling architectural addition, designed to look like an unspoiled Alpine village. My heart sank, though, with the thought that Garfinkel's, a gritty, unsophisticated place, was probably a casualty of all the renewal. But around a curve and down an alley, there it was in all its unworldly glory, packed with skiers and riders. Ten years later, the only change seemed to be that the beer and nachos had each gone up a dollar.

Wandering around afterward I found other old favorites: Bart and Yeti's, an economical and rustic lunch place, and Vendetta's, a pizza and beer joint filled with locals, instructors and staff just off work.

The next day, something else had not changed: Knowing it had snowed 10 inches the night before, we were at the gondola waiting for it to start running at 8:30 a.m.

Intent on getting to Blue Sky Basin by its 9 a.m. lift opening, we hustled along the catwalks and connecting tracks. Finally, at the top of the Blue Sky Basin trail called Big Rock Park, we were off.

Big Rock Park is not so much a trail as it is a suggestion. A varied mix of pine tree islands creates twisting corridors laced with assorted dips, knolls, hillocks and hidden, fall-away slopes, Big Rock Park is a make-your-own adventure ride -- left, right, faster, slower, in the air, on the snow. It is what the best ski trails, and the best resorts, are supposed to be: a playground. And once you are in the midst of it, whatever lies at the foot of the mountain is distant and displaced -- beside the point compared to the wind in your face, the trees gliding by, the sound of skis on snow, as you float down the mountain.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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