Opinion » Editorial

Warren Miller

After the madness

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I think I just heard a collective sigh of relief coming from all of the ski resorts in the nation, as the last tourists just departed. Most of the locals in ski towns have a love/hate relationship with the holidays. The influx of tourists during the holidays may be good for the local economy, but the crowds can be overwhelming for tiny ski towns.

Now that the madness is over, the locals can get back to enjoying their own little stashes of powder. Fortunately for the locals, most tourists don’t realize that the best time to take a ski vacation is now, right after the holidays. In fact, those locals probably won’t appreciate me for publicizing the fact that people who really just want to ski should take their vacation right after the holidays. Let me explain what the week after New Year’s is like in a ski resort if you have never experienced it.

Most importantly, there are no guests around. All of the ski runs have been groomed until they are just exactly right. There are no lift lines. The vacancy factor all over the resort is half full and at half price.

The service at a ski resort is typically better after the holidays, too, because all of the people in the service industry have already had their baptism by fire. They have survived angry guests whose luggage went on to Thailand and whiny penthouse renters who complain about their blisters and the shortcomings of their ski instructor. They have placated the self-important tourists who think they can get a table at a restaurant that has been booked for three months. They have seen it all and will now be content to provide great service to tourists who are actually there to ski.

Those who take the first week of January for their ski holiday have been around long enough to get up early for first tracks, eat an early dinner, sleep a lot and save their partying for when they get back to Wausau, Bloomington Hills or Santa Monica. Nowhere is that age-old adage, "You can’t hoot with the owls and soar with the eagles" more applicable than at a ski resort. The guests usually live at or near sea level. Suddenly, they are above 9,000 feet where one alcoholic beverage is the equivalent of two at sea level. Hangovers don’t make great ski companions.

If you want great skiing without the crowds, pack up the family about January 3 and head to your resort of choice. That’s what I did when my kids were growing up. I always told their teachers, "A day skiing in powder with their parents is much more important than a day in their geometry or English class." In those days, I had to hang around the hotel room at night to clean cameras and package film that I had shot that day, so I could help my kids with their homework at the same time. They usually came home from those ski trips with a brain full of experiences that no one else in their class would ever have, as well as a greater thirst for knowledge.

In February 1963, I filmed in Vail with my 10-year-old son Scott tagging along. It was hard to find three or four skiers to ski for me in the deep powder snow in the back bowls because they were all working. Finally, I phoned Bob Smith and got him to drive over from Aspen and ski in that untracked powder snow for my camera. (Bob later invented the Smith goggle.) While I would ski to another location to get a different angle for the next shot, Bob would teach Scott to make a turn in powder snow that was way above his knees.

Just try to imagine it: only four or five people in all of the back bowls of Vail at one time. That just can’t happen anymore. I sure hope all of your wonderful first-track experiences aren’t going to waste in this frantic e-mail, cell phone, instant messaging world! Of course, the numbers are working against you. Ponder this: In 1946, the single chairs climbing up Baldy in Sun Valley, Idaho only carried 426 people an hour to the summit. Today there are four lifts that carry 2,500 people an hour to the summit of that same mountain. That’s 10,000 people an hour trying to get first tracks!

We used to be able to ski in untracked powder snow from one storm until the next. Today you’re lucky if you get a second untracked run after the lifts are open.

Some savvy skiers are currently enjoying good snow and sunshine without the crowds. This is the only week of the year when they are guaranteed not to hear the words we all dread, "You should have been here last week."

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