Sure, the Rockies are cold in winter, and the gondola ride to the summit made me feel like a city slicker way out of my league. But the experience of learning to ski with my family proved much warmer than I ever could have imagined.
A while back, I admitted in Budget Travel's “Ski Resort Survival Guide” (in our November/December 2013 issue) that I had never skied. I had no idea where my confession, tossed in to spice up a Trip Coach column, would lead. When the folks at a major Rocky Mountain ski resort read my story, they suggested that I pay them a visit and finally learn. I took about three minutes to consider their invitation. The potential drawbacks in learning to ski in the Rockies—I can’t see well enough to drive, I take an hour to learn dance steps that others master in seconds, I get migraines at altitude—seemed a little whiny. The potential benefit—that I would finally be one of those guys who gracefully glide down a mountain—was tantalizing. Of course I took them up on their offer. In February, my wife and two young daughters and I flew to Colorado for a week at Keystone Resort.
A FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORT
“Do we have to go all the way to Colorado?” was my daughters’ surprising first question. My next step was to find out if a western ski vacation was something we’d enjoy. Budget Travel’s photo editor, Whitney Tressel, gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up—her recent ski trips to Utah’s Snowbird, Deer Valley, and Park City, and Colorado’s Breckenridge had been unforgettable. Encouraged, my family and I found Keystone’s website an inspiring way to plan our visit. My daughters couldn’t get enough of the photos of snow-peaked mountains and pine forests. I, of course, eyeballed those slick families skiing together—that was gonna be us! My wife, Michele, a visual artist and native Californian, was drawn to the sheer beauty of the place—and to its menu of spa treatments involving hot stones, botanicals, and other delights.
AN UNBEATABLE DEAL
I needed to make sure the resort was a bargain, of course. Keystone participates in the extraordinary EPIC ski pass program—a season pass gets you on the slopes at Park City, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Canyons, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Afton Alps, Mt. Brighton, and Arapahoe Basin. In addition, Keystone has a “kids ski free” policy, with no blackout dates or exceptions. We learned that you can rent a gorgeous townhouse (with frequent free shuttles to the ski areas) or book a traditional hotel room for well under $200 at the Inn at Keystone (a very short walk from the ski runs!), with plenty of options in between.
We arrived at the airport in Denver late in the evening and boarded a shuttle for the two-hour ride up into the mountains. Considering that we were traveling with sleepy kids ages 6 and 11, the ride was smooth and scenic in a dark, we’re-not-in-New-York-anymore kind of way. The next morning, we hit River Run Village, the resort’s “downtown,” for breakfast, browsing for souvenirs, and getting used to the serious altitude. We giggled when we noticed that everybody seemed to be moving with a loping “moonwalk” stride thanks to their clunky ski boots.
When it was time for our lesson, my daughters and I opted for a private teacher. Experts often recommend that adults and kids take separate lessons because the teaching methods for big and little ones can differ greatly—and the kids’ ski programs at Keystone are clearly first-rate—but I felt strongly that I wanted to see my girls learn to ski, and that they might enjoy watching me conquer my fear of, um, everything and become one of those skiers I’d always secretly wanted to be. We met our teacher, Stephen, and spent about a half-hour getting fitted with helmets, boots, and ski rentals. Rather than tell you how to choose the best ski gear, I’ll suggest that you rely on an excellent, enthusiastic teacher like Stephen, who made the process look easy. I should also note that “extra” gear such as hand warmers, gaiters, and ski socks are not “extras” at all but absolutely necessary. During last winter’s polar vortex, I got sort of hooked on super-warm ski socks—some are wool, others are microfiber. Suited up, we were soon doing that loping moonwalk we’d found so amusing. (You get used to it pretty fast.)
Our first lesson was halfway up Dercum Mountain, a short ride on the River Run gondola. A far cry from the creaky wooden chairlifts I’d been worried we’d find, the gondola was completely enclosed and smooth, at least when the wind was mild. (In high winds, the gondola closes and the chairlift is the only way up—or down.) We hoppedoff at the mid-mountain bunny slope and Stephen showed us how to get in and out of our skis. My 11-year-old, Clara, a basketball and lacrosse player, got it in about two minutes. My 6-year-old, Rosalie, a dancer and gymnast, got it in about five minutes. Let’s just say I’m still obsessively reviewing in my 0mind how to master the fine art of stepping in and out of skis. This established a pattern for the remainder of our lessons. Stephen demonstrated how to glide down a gentle grade and stop by turning your skis inward, forming a triangle, or “pizza,” as they say in kids’ ski school. Clara? Got this. Rosalie? Got this. Me? Instead of stopping, I popped out of my skis and fell on my face in the snow. “Double ejection!” exclaimed Stephen, delighted. “I’ve never seen that before!” After a few hours, we took a lunch break with Michele in River Run Village and swapped stories: Her morning at Keystone’s spa was pretty much paradise. She also shared her drawings of the mountains—there’s nothing like the Rockies to inspire an artist to break out her sketch pad. (Lunch and all our other dining experiences at Keystone—from burgers to a fondue feast at the summit to a sleigh-ride dinner that took us up to an old homestead in the woods—were truly exceptional.) Because the girls had mastered gliding and stopping, post-lunch we hopped back on the gondola for the ride to the summit, where a more challenging learners’ slope awaited. Up there, with 360 views of the surrounding mountains, the kids got better and better, practicing run after run. I was content simply to remain vertical, mostly, and to practice easy turns and stops. I started snapping photos and enjoying watching my girls laughing and swooshing around, asking smart questions, and having a blast. After that first day, our week of lessons flew past—and just got better and better. Finally, it hit me: This trip was never about me. This was about giving my children the opportunity to become those girls—the ones who fearlessly glide down a mountain. Am I ever going to move beyond “beginner”? I still hope so. But I’ll tell you what: Clara and Rosalie are already asking on a regular basis, “When are we going back to Colorado?”
A KID’S VIEW OF THE MOUNTAIN
My daughter Clara loves to read (including Budget Travel) and write. On our visit to Keystone Resort, Clara, who was 11 at the time, took notes, and I suggested that if she took the “assignment” seriously, I would consider sharing her thoughts with BT readers. Here, Clara’s “kid’s-eye view” of Dercum Mountain and our skiing lessons:
What I remember most about Keystone and learning to ski is the gondola rides up and down the mountain. I felt like I was flying up higher and higher in a magic cube.
When we got out halfway up the mountain, I gazed at the gondolas, like little boxes, moving up, faster than I had felt in the actual vehicle. On the way down, I watched the antlike people and the toy-size buildings grow bigger and bigger as we made our way down. The gondolas were not only handy but magical, especially to me, a newbie. I will say that learning to ski was both fun and scary. Getting in and out of the skis was always tiresome, but the fun and exhilarating ride that came after made up for it!
On my first try, I fell over twice, but after learning more, I was more confident and comfortable going downhill.
At one point I questioned myself for trying to glide down a mountain on two thin slabs attached to my feet, but eventually I decided I was safe enough and not to question myself or my trainer any longer. At first I was scared to go flying down a hill very fast, but after learning simple tricks, like turning your head in the direction you want to go, I didn’t doubt my skill again. I certainly do appreciate the hard work that our teacher Stephen, my sister Rosie, Papa, and I had to go through so we could learn to ski, because it was really a fun, exciting, and lovely experience!