Olympians Dish on Their Favorite Spots to Ski & Snowboard
Nothing says winter fun like a crisp day, fresh powder, and sun glinting off the nearby peaks. So now is a good time to prep with the new book Fifty Places to Ski & Snowboard Before You Die, which asked leading experts in the sport to pick their favorite spots to hit the slopes. See six Olympians’ most beloved mountains, from tried-and-true resorts close to home (who doesn’t love Aspen and Deer Valley?) to the challenging and exotic (backcountry skiing in Japan, anyone?). Whether you’re an expert looking to hit the double diamond moguls or a beginner who wants a gentle slope just in case stopping is an issue, these spots have a little something for everyone.
So, book those lift tickets, strap on your skis, and get ready for the ride of a lifetime.
Deer Valley Resort, Utah
Recommended by Heidi Voelker
“I think that there’s a myth in the skiing world that people of different abilities can’t ski together,” Heidi Voelker began. “Deer Valley is the kind of area that dispels that myth.
There’s something for everyone off of each of the resort’s six mountains. Beginners or people getting back on skis are not stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Everyone can get up to the peaks and have a real outdoor experience.
Deer Valley is one of three ski areas in the Wasatch Mountain town of Park City, less than an hour east of Salt Lake City. The first trails at the area were cut by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the winter of 1936. Today, the resort encompasses six discrete segments spread over six mountains— Little Baldy, Bald Eagle, Bald, Flagstaff, Empire Canyon, and Lady Morgan. Deer Valley doesn’t see as much snow as its Cottonwood Canyon counterparts (Alta and Snowbird), but it still averages three hundred inches of The Greatest Snow On Earth ®, distributed across one hundred runs and more than two thousand skiable acres.
Since its inception, Deer Valley has differentiated itself from its neighbors (Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons) by delivering a high level of service—including ski valets and luxurious lodging (like the Stein Eriksen Lodge). “The resort aspires to be the equivalent of a five-star hotel, but on skis,” Heidi continued. Deer Valley also limits the number of tickets it sells on a given day to 7,500, even though its lift system can accommodate over fifty thousand skiers per hour. A plethora of grooming equipment assures no shortage of cruisers, though less-tamed terrain is certainly available, especially on Empire and Lady Morgan Mountains. (Deer Valley, incidentally, was the site of several events in the 2002 Olympics, including freestyle moguls, aerials, and alpine slalom.)
If you go:
Getting There: Deer Valley is less than an hour from Salt Lake City, which is served by most major carriers.
Season: Deer Valley is open early December through mid-April.
Lift Tickets: Day tickets begin at $102; multi-day tickets are available. Details are available at www.deervalley.com.
Level of Difficulty: Deer Valley is celebrated for having something for everyone. Terrain is classified as 27 percent easier; 41 percent intermediate; 32 percent most difficult.
Accommodations: A number of lodging options are available at Deer Valley (800-424-DEER; www.deervalley.com), and just down the road in Park City (800-453-1360; www.visitparkcity.com).
—Heidi Voelker was a twelve-year member (1985–97) of the U.S. Ski Team and has competed in the Olympics three times. She was named Deer Valley’s Ambassador of Skiing in 1997.
Niseko and Beyond, Japan
Recommended by Tommy Moe
“A lot of people call Japan ‘Japow,’” Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe offered. “I did a cool trip over there a few years ago to do a photo shoot with Spyder Clothing. We flew into Tokyo, and then on to Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. From there, we drove to Niseko. Between my skiing at the resorts at Niseko and nearby at Asahidake, I’d have to say that ‘Japow’ is pretty accurate!”
Niseko is in the southwest of Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island. It’s only a few miles inland from the island’s west coast; on rare clear days, the Sea of Japan is in view, and ever-so-faintly, the Russian coastline. Like the word “Aspen,” Niseko can mean different things to different people. For the skiing/snowboarding community, the term means the region’s five ski resorts and a seemingly endless supply of powder. Four resorts at Niseko—Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono—are interconnected (and co-marketed) under the rubric Niseko United; you can ski/board all four areas—a total of almost 2,200 acres and sixty-one runs—under one pass. Niseko Moiwa is a smaller resort on the western side of the mountain.
Skiing/boarding at Niseko is not about reaching vertiginous heights. Niseko Annupuri tops out at less than 4,300 feet, though its vertical approaches a considerable three thousand feet. Here—and throughout Hokkaido, for that matter—it’s about the snow. Winds that sweep across Siberia pick up moisture from the Sea of Japan, and that moisture is deposited as delicate powder on Niseko and other Hokkaido hillsides. (At Niseko, snowfall averages nearly six hundred inches a year.) Those Siberian winds are cold, and cold temperatures mean absurdly light powder.
The four areas at Niseko are not known for their incredible steeps. Instead, more advanced powderhounds head for the trees. “Skiing through the trees was an exotic experience,” Tommy recalled, “as the snow really clung to the birch trees…At the end of the day, we dropped into the onsen [hot springs] at our hotel. The water was close to 110 degrees. You get a little sweat going as you soak your bones.”
Onsen are widespread around Niseko, thanks to the volcanic activity in the region.
Braving the waters is an essential part of the Japanese ski experience—whether you espouse the health benefits many associate with the mineral waters or not.
If you go:
Getting There: Visitors to Niseko fly into Sapporo, which is served by many carriers, including All Nippon Airways (800-235-9262; www.ana.co.jp) and American Airlines (800-433-7300; www.aa.com).
Season: Niseko is generally open early December through early May.
Lift Tickets: Day tickets at Niseko (www.niseko.ne.jp) are 5,900 yen, during the high season; multi-day passes are available. Day tickets at Asahidake (www.wakasaresort.com) cost 4,000 yen.
Level of Difficulty: Niseko’s terrain is classified as 30 percent beginner; 40 percent intermediate; 30 percent advanced. Ideally, you’ll have some powder experience. Terrain at Asahidake is almost all off-piste, and better suited toward more advanced skiers/riders.
Accommodations: Niseko has a number of lodging options. Some information is available at www.niseko.ne.jp, though the Powderhounds (www.powderhounds.com) website is a bit easier to interpret. Lodging is more limited at Asahidake; Powderhounds also highlights options here.
—Tommy Moe took home the gold in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where he won the downhill by .04 of a second, followed by a silver in the Super-G.
Recommended by Billy Kidd
“When I was growing up in Vermont in the late 1950s, Buddy Werner was a hero of mine,” Billy Kidd recalled. “I had pictures of him on the wall of my room. When I made the U.S. Ski Team in 1962, I was suddenly skiing next to my hero. We raced in the 1964 Olympics together and became good friends. Sadly, Buddy died in an avalanche in St. Moritz later that year. I came to Steamboat the first time in 1964 for his memorial service, and raced here the following year.”
Steamboat Springs sits north of the many ski areas along the I-70 corridor, on the western face of the Rockies. The valleys around Steamboat are rife with hot springs; the story goes that the town got its name when early settlers heard the gurgling of the springs and mistook the sound for that of a steamboat chugging down the Yampa River. Modern-day visitors to Steamboat will encounter some of the world’s best powder. “For many, it’s powder that defines good skiing,” Billy continued. “The Rockies are blessed with it. Being a thousand miles from the ocean and at a ten thousand elevation, our snowflakes are mostly air. On those days when we get four or five feet of snow, you sink in up to your hat. We call them snorkel days.”
One fun facet of visiting Steamboat is that you can take pride in knowing that you’re skiing in the lines of many past and present Olympiads. The town of Steamboat Springs has fostered more Olympic skiers and snowboarders than any place in America . . . though this has more to do with humble Howelsen Hill than Werner Mountain. “The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club is coming up on its hundredth anniversary. The ski club—and Howelsen Hill—are the reasons Steamboat has produced so many great athletes. Carl Howelsen [born as Karl Hovelsen] was a Norwegian migrant who came to the United States in the early 1900s. He was an accomplished ski jumper, and for a time, he toured the country with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Howelsen wasn’t the first skier in America, but he probably exposed more people to skiing than anyone else. In 1913, he arrived in Steamboat and began work on what would become Howelsen Hill. Carl taught the local kids to ski, and they taught their kids, and so on.”
With almost 3,700 feet of vertical drop, nearly thirty feet of powder, freeskiing for children, an easy way down from the top of every lift, western exposure for afternoon sunshine, and free daily lessons from an Olympic silver medalist, Steamboat has something for everyone. (Billy’s one p.m. lesson is the stuff of Steamboat lore: “I try to show people how to apply Olympic techniques to their skiing,” Billy offered. “By the end of the run, you’ll be one step closer to making the Olympic team!”)
If you go:
Getting There: Steamboat is 160 miles northwest of Denver; several airlines serve Steamboat Springs, including American (800-433-7300; www.aa.com) and United (800-864-8331; www.united.com).
Season: Late November through mid-April
Lift Tickets: A day ticket at Steamboat runs $99; multi-day tickets are available.
Remember: Kids under twelve ski free if a parent purchases a five-day ticket. See details at www.steamboat.com.
Level of Difficulty: Steamboat has great terrain for everyone, designated 14 percent beginner; 42 percent intermediate; and 44 percent advanced.
Accommodations: A range of lodging options are available through Steamboat (877-783-2628; www.steamboat.com).
—In 1964, Billy Kidd became the first U.S. skier to medal in alpine skiing, when he finished second in the slalom at Innsbruck. Over the next few years, Billy laid claim to the title of America’s greatest ski racer of that era. However, a broken leg in 1967, and sprained ankles prior to the 1968 Olympics, hampered his chances at Grenoble.
Recommended by Chris Klug
“As a twenty-year professional snowboarder and Olympic medalist, I’ve had the unique opportunity of traveling the world on my snowboard,” Chris Klug declared. “I’ve ridden powder all over North America, Europe, South America, and Asia. I believe there’s no place like Aspen. We’ve got four large resorts in one place—this doesn’t exist elsewhere in North America. There’s incredible ski and snowboard acreage, from intermediate family friendly terrain to black diamond X Games stuff, and everything in between. You combine all this with the cultural and culinary opportunities that Aspen has to offer and you have something very special.”
Though the nascent Aspen Ski Club cut a course on Aspen Mountain in 1937, it would not be until after World War II that development would take hold. What was then the world’s longest ski lift opened in 1947. The other mountains—Buttermilk, Highlands, and Snowmass—came online over the next twenty years, and Aspen’s prosperity (and élan) were cemented.
Chris shared his ideal itinerary if he only had two days at Aspen. “I’d spend one day on Aspen Mountain and one day at Highlands. On day one, we’d walk across the street to Gondola Plaza and the Silver Queen lift, which zips you 3,267 vertical feet over 2.5 miles to the summit of Aspen Mountain in fifteen minutes. I’d do a bunch of laps off Silver Queen. If it’s a good powder day, I’d head over to ride ‘the Dumps’ [e.g., Short Snort, Zaugg Dump, Last Dollar, and Perry’s]. I might also ride off of Ruthie’s lift. This area really collects the powder, and you can sometimes find soft snow here a week after the last storm. If I want to hit some gladed terrain, I like Jackpot and Bingo.”
“On day two, it’s on to Aspen Highlands. I think the most unique experience at Highlands—maybe at all of Aspen—is a trip up to Highlands Bowl. It’s a world-class backcountry experience without really leaving the resort.”
There’s a thrill to be had in riding Highlands Bowl or the Dumps. But Chris finds a quieter kind of satisfaction in the huts that dot the Rockies around Aspen. “Three to five times each winter, I’ll head off to one of the huts that are spread from Aspen to Leadville, Crested Butte, and Vail. [The thirty huts, connected by 350 miles of suggested routes, are managed by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association.] You just take a sleeping bag and food; most of the huts have heat and light. It’s great to escape for a night, to be beyond cell phones and tablets.”
If you go:
Getting There: Direct air service to Aspen is available from United Airlines (800-864-8331; www.united.com). It’s a 220-mile drive from Denver to Aspen.
Season: The four areas at Aspen open between Thanksgiving and early December, and close for the season in mid-April.
Lift Tickets: Two-day lift tickets in prime season begin at $196. Multi-day packages are available; visit www.aspensnowmass.com for details. Your lift ticket gives you access to all four mountains.
Level of Difficulty: Between Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk, there’s something for everyone—including an extensive, X Game–worthy terrain park.
Accommodations: Aspen Snowmass (800-525-6200; www.aspensnowmass.com) lists the many lodging options available in town.
—Chris Klug’s snowboarding accomplishments include three-time Winter Olympian, bronze medalist in Salt Lake City in 2002, eleven-time U.S. National Champion, twenty-year veteran of theSnowboard World Cup, and five-time World Cup Champion.
Squaw Valley USA, California
Recommended by Jonny Moseley
Though he’s skied just about everywhere worth skiing, Jonny Moseley feels that Squaw Valley is in his blood.
“My dad grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula,” he explained, “and didn’t get to ski much as a kid. But in the little skiing he did, he took to it. When he was able to drive, or had friends who could, he’d rally up to Sugar Bowl—mainly because it was closer than Squaw to the Bay Area. It was another hour to get to Squaw at that time, on a tough road.
Squaw wasn’t a great option until the highway [I-80] was built.
“Later, after I made the U.S. Ski Team, I got to ski all around the world. Once I won in the Olympics (1998), I worked at a few other big resorts. Still, I always longed to get back to Squaw. I’ve often thought about why, and it’s tough to explain. It’s not the highest mountain, it doesn’t have the most snow, and it can have some extreme conditions, which can be trying. But still, there’s an essence about it. Part of it probably comes from having grown up there. I know the nooks and crannies so well, and it’s hard to get that same experience somewhere else.”
Squaw Valley rests between the towns of Truckee and Tahoe City, in the northern Lake Tahoe area; from some of Squaw’s higher peaks, you can spy the lake, renowned for its sparkling blue water. Squaw first opened in 1949, with a single chairlift. Thanks to the persuasive powers of cofounder (and longtime chairman) Alex Cushing during a presentation before the International Olympic Committee in 1955, Squaw was able to secure the 1960 Olympics, despite its lack of infrastructure. Today, Squaw’s terrain extends across six peaks and four thousand acres, with 2,850 feet of vertical drop.
Any discussion of Squaw Valley will eventually shift to KT-22 and its environs—“the Mothership,” in local parlance. Jonny Moseley has the distinction of having a run named in his honor off KT-22, though not all the regulars were happy about that. “There are lots of hard-core skiers at Squaw, and KT-22 is their territory,” Jonny continued. “I think my favorite run off the Mothership is Chute 75. It’s the kind of chute you’d normally have to hike to at other mountains, but here it’s right off the lift. Sometimes it’s powdery, sometimes icy, sometimes there are moguls. It’s always different in there.
One of Squaw’s little endearments is found at Wildflour, perhaps the area’s most renowned bakery. “Wildflour is in the old Olympic Plaza House,” Jonny said. “They make great cookies, cinnamon rolls, now sandwiches as well. The woman who owns Wildflour offers Squaw regulars who win a gold medal in the Olympics a ‘lifetime cookie pass’— that is, you get free cookies for life. If you win a silver medal, you get free cookies for a year; if you win a bronze, you don’t get anything.
If you go:
Getting There: Squaw Valley is roughly an hour drive from Reno, Nevada, and a two hour drive from Sacramento; both cities are served by many carriers.
Season: Squaw generally opens on Thanksgiving and remains in operation through the end of April.
Lift Tickets: Day passes begin at $84.
Level of Difficulty: Squaw offers terrain for everyone. Roughly 25 percent is rated beginner terrain; 45 percent intermediate; and 30 percent expert.
Accommodations: Lodging options in the Village at Squaw Valley and around Lake Tahoe are highlighted at www.squaw.com.
—In 1997, Jonny Moseley secured a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Jonny arrived in Nagano, Japan, in February 1998, and one week later, he won the first American gold medal of the Games with what had become his signature move, the360-degree mute-grab. The U.S. Olympic Committee named him Sportsman of the Year. In 2007, he was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame.
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
Recommended by Andrew Weibrecht
Andrew “Warhorse” Weibrecht arrived in British Columbia at Whistler Blackcomb in February 2010 with the goal of taking home a medal in the downhill or Super-G events.
Instead, he got to ski . . . and ski, and ski.
“We’d arrived and gotten settled,” he recalled, “and had a chance to do several training runs on the downhill course. We got ready to do the race, but it started snowing. It snowed all that night, and the next day, and the next. The racing kept getting postponed, and there was nothing left to do but to go powder skiing. Eventually the snow stopped enough to get the race off, but only after four or five days of freeskiing—some of the best day-after-day skiing I’ve ever had.”
Incidentally, Andrew also achieved his initial objective, winning a bronze in the Super-G!
Whistler Blackcomb sits roughly seventy miles due north of Vancouver, in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. The two mountains rise vertiginously, climbing nearly a mile from the floor of Pemberton Valley to heights of 7,160 feet (Whistler) and 7,494 feet (Blackcomb). If there’s a word to describe Whistler Blackcomb, it might be “vast.” The resort—North America’s largest—has a staggering 8,100 acres of terrain (including 1,100 acres of inbounds and out-of-bounds terrain and ninety-nine acres of terrain parks), two hundred marked trails (including two trails that stretch seven miles each), twelve bowls, an average snowfall of thirty feet, thirty-seven lifts (enough firepower to accommodate more than sixty thousand skiers/snowboarders an hour), and a mile of vertical drop. And to think it all started with a humble fishing lodge!
Whistler Blackcomb is known for its extensive intermediate terrain (more than 50 percent of the two mountains), with cruisers that seem to run forever. For experts, there’s something for everyone. With such terrain, it’s no wonder that Whistler Blackcomb has fostered many snow-sport heroes, including Eric Pehota, Shane Szocs, Ashleigh McIvor, and Steve Podborski.
Given its size and the number of visitors who make their way here (upwards of two million a season), it should come as no surprise that Whistler Village’s aprés-ski amenities are as alluring as the resort’s terrain. There are one hundred restaurants (give or take a few), ranging from pub grub to gastropub, to choose from, and some twenty bars and clubs. The village is pedestrian-only—a civilized touch typical of civilized British Columbia.
If You Go:
Getting There: Most visitors fly into Vancouver, which is served by most major carriers. From Vancouver, Whistler is a two-hour drive; bus and train transfers are available.
Season: Whistler Blackcomb is generally open from late November through late April.
Lift Tickets: Adult three-day passes begin at around $200 (CAD), depending on whenyou visit.
Level of Difficulty: The largest ski area in North America, Whistler Blackcomb has terrain suited to skiers/boarders of all levels of ability.
Accommodations: Whistler has a broad variety of lodging options; visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com or call 866-218-9690 for details
—Andrew Weibrecht was the 2010 Olympic Super-G bronze medalist.