The Edge: Westword's Winter Activity Guide 2010-2011

Winter storms have been hammering the mountains, and early-season sliding is already afoot: Ski and snowboard season is upon us. Our annual winter activity guide is here to help. We tracked down more than two dozen intrepid explorers with expertise on each local mountain to give you the inside edge. New terrain, new technology and new temptations await at all 25 Colorado ski areas and surrounding environs, so wax your sticks, tighten your bindings, stuff this copy of The Edge in your gear bag and head for the hills, where your winter wonderland awaits. — Colin Bane

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Arapahoe Basin Ski Area

Arapahoe Basin scored a coup this year when SkiResorts.com named it number one on its 2010 list of Top Mom & Pop Ski Areas, especially since A-Basin has been owned by Toronto-based Dundee Resort Development since 1997. But it's mostly true all the same: A-Basin hasn't changed a whole lot in 65 years. It's still steep, deep and (relatively) cheap, still boasts some of the most challenging terrain in the state, and you can still get a hot toddy at the A-frame base lodge or BYOB to the anarchic party at the parking lot "beach." "The legend is still going strong after all these years," says mountain spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer. "Our history, our terrain, and our old-school hometown ski-area vibe are all very important to us."

A-Basin is always one of the first to open and will assuredly be the last to close, some time in late spring, but the best time to hit the mountain is after a big winter snow, when the East Wall chutes on Lenawee Mountain and back bowls serviced by the Zuma lift are open.

The biggest news this season is the opening of the new Black Mountain Express lift, a high-speed quad replacing the old Expedition lift (circa 1978), which will halve the ride to the Black Mountain Lodge at midway. "The new lift is the single biggest improvement we've made to the skiing experience at A-Basin since we opened the back bowls," says Hierholzer. "It's faster, more efficient, more kid-friendly, and will have less stops and starts."

And as usual, the famed Pallavicini run will attract a lot of attention from skiers practicing for the annual Enduro race, in which skiers compete to see who can make the most laps down in a single day. A-Basin ski patroller Jamie Ober is the current record-holder, but you can challenge him on April 13, 2011. "We've got a lot of great terrain here, but when it comes to bragging rights, it always seems to come back to Pallavicini," Hierholzer says. "And when it comes to Pallavicini, you'll have to get through Jamie Ober. He's some kind of superhuman."

Although A-Basin is short on amenities, its Black Mountain Lodge, at 11,500 feet — specializing in all things smoked and grilled — is still the best bargain in on-mountain dining anywhere in the state. For a more glamorous experience, sign up now for one of five Full-Moon Snowshoe dinners at the lodge — December 31, January 19, February 19, March 19, April 16 — prepared by chef Christopher Rybak ($89, gratuity included). You'll ride the Black Mountain Express up, stuff yourself silly, then prowl down on snowshoes like a contented yeti. Last year's Full-Moon dinners all sold out in advance, so don't sleep on making reservations.

General Information: www.ArapahoeBasin.com; 888-ARAPAHOE.

Location: 68 miles west of Denver via  I-70, exit 205, then twelve miles east on U.S. Hwy. 6.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekends.

Snow Report: 888-ARAPAHOE.

Lift Rates: Adult day pass: $54 through December 17; regular-season rates TBA.

Terrain: 900 acres with 105 trails; 10 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 37 percent advanced, 23 percent expert. Base is 10,780', with a 2,270' vertical rise; summit: 13,050'.

 

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Aspen Highlands

As a teenager from Basalt, Mac Smith loved to terrorize ski-schoolers and out-of-towners at Aspen Highlands. "I guess my reputation's preceding me," Smith says. "I was always a bit of a hell-raiser, and I was brought up around a lot of cowboys and didn't have a lot of boundaries back then." Smith's biggest pet peeve was the large groups of people in ski schools sidewinding their way down the mountain. "My friends and I figured out that if you dropped in fast and skied right over somebody's skis, you could get the whole line of them to go down like dominoes," he recalls. "It only took doing that a couple of times for a patroller to grab me by the scruff of the neck and tell me, 'I never want to see you on this mountain again as long as you live.'"

So it's only fitting that Smith is now Aspen Highlands' ski patrol director. "Sometimes fate likes to have a little fun with you," Smith says. But he still thinks Aspen Highlands is best left to the locals and serious skiers. "People who ski well love it here, and people who don't, don't," Smith says. "It's a mountain for advanced skiers, and you either have to know it really well or come up here ready to explore and seek out all its hidden secrets."

For starters, take the Loge Peak lift to Steeplechase and Temerity, two of Smith's favorite lift-serviced areas, and try not to sidewind your way down the steep terrain in case the next generation of future ski patrollers are out raising hell. The Exhibition lift from the base serves up some green and blue runs, but you'll be on blue, black and double-black runs just about everywhere else. When the snow comes in, head for the hiking trail up to Highland Bowl.

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