Tracking Down the Best Ski Resorts in the West

Pietschmann is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Don't let my wife, the cold-hating ski widow, in on this, but I already have my Rossignols propped next to my desk, bagged and ready to go on short notice.

I have the snow report telephone numbers of key ski resorts taped right where I can see them. Every day I forsake news and sports and turn first to the weather satellite photograph to see if those huge storms that dump snow in the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Wasatch, Tetons and the Front Range of the Rockies in Colorado are beginning to spin tightly, promisingly, in the Gulf of Alaska.

Hoping for Long Season

I will maintain this state of readiness from Thanksgiving until well past Easter. Lord help me.

Last season I spent a few days in December at Vail and a blissful week at Steamboat, Colo., and another four days at Lake Tahoe, where I skied Heavenly Valley, Kirkwood, Northstar and Squaw Valley in a whirlwind of downhill madness.

It wasn't perfect, though, unless you measure such things the way my wife does. She observed that for the first ski season in some time I had managed to escape without doing serious harm to my body.

She was more accustomed to the returning-warrior syndrome, such as the time I limped back from Snowbird with a bloated, disfigured and cracked finger suffered in a spectacular zero-visibility crash just below the top of the tram. The fellow skiing behind me swore I was airborne and horizontal for at least 10 yards.

Surveying the maimed and colorful finger, why, she wailed, didn't I have it looked at? Fixing her with what I hoped was the bored gaze of the nobly maimed, I explained that I had skipped the formality of having the digit examined and possibly splinted because that would have seriously hampered my ability to grasp a ski pole. Case closed, darling.

Freeing the Mind

But I do love the sport. It's one of the finest ways to absolutely forget everything else and have a whopping good time outdoors.

Just try thinking about spreadsheets, hostile takeovers, inventory control, the Southwestern region, crunching numbers or even unfortunate love affairs when crashing down a slope, just enough out of control to get the adrenaline flowing and the endorphins pumping.

Even so, I find my skiing interests shifting from early morning powder and steep-sided moguls to down-stuffed pillows and late-night brandy. I tend to eschew bone-chilling early cold, strenuous powder-busting mogul fields more appropriate to warfare than skiing and situations that require both skis being off the snow at the same time. I leave those macho activities to younger males.

I leave the hill early enough to get a good seat in a bar serving advanced elixirs.

As the astute reader can readily discern, there is a lot of solid experience packed into my years of skiing the Rockies. I am often asked that most naive and maddening of questions: Where is the best place to ski in the West?

The easiest answer is the flippest--where the snow is newest, deepest and piled up the highest mountain.

By now, of course, I realize that such a reply isn't even germane, given my gradually acquired interest in such things as comfort, warmth, sleep, pain, wine and fresh grilled salmon served in a puddle of Cabernet Sauvignon buerre blanc, with wild mushrooms and baby vegetables. It doesn't hurt, either, if the pastry chef is Austrian and there's a cognac lurking nearby.

Looking at the Stats

Oft-cited ski area statistics such as vertical drop, the number of miles in the longest run and the selection of black-diamond expert chutes, pale before information on crucial items of comfort and convenience.

It's always nice to have great skiing, of course, but that must be weighed against the availability of enclosed gondolas, trams or lifts, the presence of mid-mountain restaurants with sit-down service, good food and a decent wine list, the absence of lift lines with long waits, and accommodations that allow skiing right from the front door.

With these criteria in mind, it becomes easier to evaluate the West's many great ski resorts. Here is the best of the West when it comes to great skiing and the good life. Select what's most important to you and choose your Western ski resort accordingly.

Impress nearly everyone at home, even if you can't afford to eat: Aspen (Colorado), Deer Valley (Utah), Sun Valley (Idaho), Vail (Colorado).

Impress even those who know what kind of drink a negroni is: Alta (Utah), Beaver Creek (Colorado), Snowbird (Utah), Sundance (Utah), Taos (New Mexico), Telluride (Colorado).

Where you'll find the best slope accommodations: Beaver Creek, Deer Valley, Snowmass (Colorado), Steamboat (Colorado), Sunshine Village (Canadian Rockies), Telluride, Vail.

Great restaurants of the ski world: Aspen, Deer Valley, Vail.

Good times to go with great skiing: Park City (Utah), Steamboat, Telluride.

The best "undiscovered" mountains in the West: Beaver Creek, Brian Head (Utah), Crested Butte (Colorado), Grand Targhee (Wyoming), Kirkwood (Lake Tahoe), Lake Louise (Canadian Rockies), Mt. Bachelor (Oregon), Northstar-at-Tahoe, Powder Mountain and Snowbasin (both Utah, near Ogden), Sundance, Sunshine Village, Whistler/Blackcomb (Canadian coastal range), Winter Park (Colorado).

So big you never have to ski the same run twice in a week: Breckenridge (Colorado), Heavenly Valley (Lake Tahoe, Calif.), Mammoth Mountain (California), Park City, Squaw Valley (California), Steamboat, Sun Valley, Vail, Whistler/Blackcomb, Winter Park.

Where the life style often eclipses the skiing: Aspen, Breckenridge, Deer Valley, Sun Valley, Vail.

Small, remote, alpine, romantic: Alta, Brian Head, Kirkwood, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sundance, Taos, Telluride.

Best alpine villages and/or genuine Western towns: Aspen, Jackson Hole, Park City, Steamboat, Sun Valley, Taos, Telluride, Vail.

Friendly and perfect for families: Grand Targhee, Mammoth Mountain, Park West (Utah), Snowmass, Steamboat, Sun Valley.

Ego mountains for recreational cruisers: Deer Valley, Grand Targhee, Mt. Bachelor, Snowmass, Sunshine.

Where to learn and love it: Buttermilk (Aspen's learning mountain), Dollar (Sun Valley's learning mountain).

Practically guaranteed snow: Alta, Grand Targhee, Mammoth Mountain, Mt. Bachelor, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Whistler/Blackcomb.

Where to find those cozy alpine lodges: Alta, Deer Valley, Jackson Hole, Sun Valley, Taos.

Most overwhelming view from chairlift or top: Heavenly Valley (Lake Tahoe), Lake Louise, Powder Mountain, Snowbird, Squaw Valley, Sundance.

Night life rules: Aspen, Heavenly Valley.

For brochures about ski packages, many of which include air fares to Western resorts, contact Advance Reservations at (800) 453-4565; Central Reservations, (800) 635-4156; Continental Mountain Vacations, (800) 225-7995, and airlines serving the Western states.

The "Colorado Ski Country USA" brochure is available at (303) 837-0793. "Ski Utah Vacation Planner" may be obtained at (801) 534-1779. The "Lake Tahoe Travel Planner" is available at (800) 822-5922.

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