"Follow me, Mom."
The words hung in the air as my son plunged off the groomed trail and into the trees that border Cloud Nine trail.
Karen's plaintive "Wait" was swallowed up by the snowflakes as Drew disappeared into the pines. Muttering "smart aleck kid," she followed him, and I was right behind her.
Minutes later we popped out of the trees with a speed-happy 11-year-old grinning after having led his mother on a wild ride through the trees and deep snow. After a short pause, he pointed his skis downhill and headed toward the lift for another trip to the top of the mountain.
The high-speed, four-person chairlift whisked us to the 11,440-foot peak in about 10 minutes, including time spent in the lift line. Then we headed for Zoom Room and Polar Plunge with Mom's pleas to lead falling on deaf ears.
This was "family skiing," Beaver Creek style -- lots of runs with plenty of options for every ability level.
Beaver Creek opened 20 years ago and quickly earned a reputation as an expensive, ritzy, "cruiser's alternative" to the challenges of Vail. It has grown into a four-mountain complex and a destination resort with a personality all its own.
That personality includes a heavy dose of excellent service (on mountain and off), gourmet dining and high-end amenities, but two key ingredients have fed its development -- a focus on families and a little-known cache of superb expert trails. (See accompanying story.)
The four mountain areas that comprise Beaver Creek resort -- Beaver Creek, Grouse Mountain, Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead -- offer runs to satisfy every member of the family, at least according to all the publicity brochures. With more than 1,600 acres of skiable terrain (roughly the same size as Deer Valley, Utah), nobody should have to ski the same run over and over.
The off-the-mountain options in Beaver Creek echo the tone of the mountain. Apres-ski activity focuses on family fare -- restaurants, ice skating in the square, movies and plays at the Villar Center, the spa at the Hyatt. Most of the drinking establishments are too sedate to be called "bars." For rousing nightlife, you need to head into Vail.
In five days of skiing, we skied several of the runs more frequently than others, but none often enough that they seemed repetitive, although Drew did feel his ski class could have been a bit more adventurous.
He complained that for the first two days, his class had some members who should have been in a lower level and forced the class onto many trips down just a few of the easiest trails. When they left, he said things got to be more fun.
"I really like all the runs at the top of the mountain," he said. "We go all the way to the top where the snow is lots better than at the bottom."
In fact, almost all of the runs served by the Birds of Prey and Drink of Water lifts are novice or relatively easy intermediate trails. (Just don't take the run all the way to the left or take a left turn off of Flat Tops or you have to choose among three expert trails.)
Many of the trails are laid out so that skiers of different skill levels can still ski together. One morning Karen (a solid intermediate skier) and I skied down Pitchfork, an easy intermediate run. We took the lift back to the top, and she wanted to take Pitchfork again so she could get more accustomed to her new skis. I wanted a bit more challenge so I slid over to the left side of the slope and headed down Stacker, another intermediate trail, but one with a bit steeper pitch and more moguls.
The two runs are separated by a sparse stand of pines so I actually could watch her ski down Pitchfork while I tackled Stacker. About halfway down the slope, I skied around the stand of trees and caught up with her for the run to the bottom.
Many of the trails are laid out so family members of different abilities can ski together and still have options. Stacker trail, which really is just the left side of Pitchfork, is one example. Stacker has a few more trees and a bit steeper pitch, but except for a few spots, I could see my wife skiing down Pitchfork, and the two trails rejoin for the bottom half of the run.
Another example is the top of the Larkspur lift, where experts can get their blood pumping on Lupine or Loco while the less-daring souls tackle Larkspur Bowl. Then everybody heads down Larkspur trail or Bluebell to the lift.
Intermediate skiers dominate Beaver Creek's clientele. They come for the gold mine of cruising runs that cover more than three-quarters of the mountain (34 percent novice, 39 percent intermediate, 27 percent advanced).
Most of those intermediate skiers prefer their slopes groomed, and the resort's management tries to oblige by grooming 30 percent of the trails daily. That doesn't match Deer Valley's target of more than 70 percent grooming, but moguls seldom mar the intermediate trails except after a big storm.
Last year, storms sometimes put a serious crimp in meeting that goal, and many of the resort's skiers found it tough going. On our second day, an overnight storm left 10 to 15 inches of fresh powder on the mountain.
The grooming effort got off to a pretty good start, but it couldn't keep up when the snow resumed a little before noon. The novice trails and the areas designated "slow skiing zones" were kept smooth, but the rest of us found powder all over the mountain. My wife and I headed over to Bachelor Gulch to polish our powder skills.
We started on Grubstake and Gunder's, two open runs wide enough to be forgiving. As the storm picked up in the afternoon, we headed for Wolverine and Coyote Glade, tree-lined trails that offered shelter from the wind and better visibility.
As the grooming effort fell further behind, the "fair weather skiers" deserted the slopes, turning Bachelor Gulch into virtually our private playground. We skied where we wanted and never waited in a lift line the entire afternoon.
While we waited to be seated for dinner that night, we heard more than a few complaints about the lack of grooming on the intermediate trails.
Karen and I loved the runs on Bachelor Gulch, but we did encounter one drawback. When we decided to stop to warm up and get something hot to drink, we found out why few people ski Bachelor Gulch in a storm: Gundy's Camp was the only rest/food area on the mountain, and it isn't enclosed.
Since it wasn't cold, Karen and I sipped hot chocolate in the falling snow. That wasn't a problem for us, but still we didn't linger.
"I'm not cold now, but I will be if I keep sitting here," she said. "This place might be great on a sunny day, but I sure wouldn't want to be sitting here in a January storm."
And Gundy's Camp has been torn down for the 2000-2001 season.
"This season we are encouraging skiers to make more use of the ski patrol warming hut at the top of the Bachelor Gulch lift," said Jacob. "For lunch, skiers have to ski down to the enlarged Rendezvous Grill on Beaver Creek Mountain or to the Broken Arrow Cafe at Arrowhead."
This leaves a big gap in the on-mountain food and rest options. Some of the best cruising runs at the resort are on Bachelor Gulch, and detouring to Arrowhead or Beaver Creek Mountain would make a big dent in the time skiers can spend on the slopes. Not exactly the service you expect from Beaver Creek, and something the resort expects to be corrected when the Ritz-Carlton hotel is completed at Bachelor Gulch in 2002.
That glitch probably is the biggest failing in Beaver Creek's family orientation.
Generally, though, the resort achieves its goal of making families happy. The convenience-oriented trail layout even extends to the base of the mountain. Most Beaver Creek skiers end their days by coming down Haymeadow and Cinch, two novice slopes just above the base facilities.
These trails merge into a huge, open meadow, rather than the funnel-shaped runs common at most other resorts. The result is a less chaotic stampede to the base as the lifts start to close.
Even the weariest skier has plenty of room to slide into the apres-ski portion of the day without the fearsome crush of skiers that can mar the base of Little Nell at Aspen or the bridge at Vail's Lionshead.
IF YOU GO
Some airlines offer service into Eagle/Vail airport in ski season. The airport is 25 miles west of Beaver Creek resort. Most major airlines serve Denver International, which is a 120-mile, 3.5-hour drive from the resort.
Colorado Mountain Express (800-525-6363) is the only company that provides regularly scheduled trips to the resort. Prices are $60 each way from DIA; $38 from Eagle/Vail. Reservations are recommended. Timberline Express (800-288-1375) and Resort Express (800-334-7433) offer charter van transportation. Prices vary according to the size of the vehicle. A group could charter a 10-passenger van from Timberline Express from DIA to Beaver Creek for $350.
You don't really need a car in Beaver Creek. Shuttle service is available from Beaver Creek to Avon (free) at the base of the mountain and Vail ($2). However, rental cars are available at both the Eagle/Vail airport and at Denver International.
Daily price is $63 for an adult in peak season ($44 for half-day); $39 for a child 12 and under . An adult five-day pass ranges from $155 in low season to $305 in peak season; for children $95 to $195. But deals that reduce the price further are available. An example: If you can go before Dec. 22, you can buy one day of lifts and one night of lodging, and get a second day and night free. For details and other deals check www.beavercreek.com or Vail Resorts Central Reservations at 800-427-8308.
Various programs are offered for kids and adults. If possible, register the day before because crowds can be large in the mornings. All-day group lessons for adults cost $100-$110, including lifts. For kids the rate is $87-$99 and includes lifts. In an effort to get more young people to take lessons, children's rates include up to age 14. (Lunch is included for ages 3 through kindergarten. Lunch is $10 extra for older children.)