Every year millions of people want to get high – so they head to the mountains, clamp on skis and boots, and whoosh down gracefully. At the bottom, they hop the lift and do it again. Then there are those of us who are clumsy yet … intrigued. What do we do? Go to ski school and inch down slopes that cater to beginners.
Just the name – Buttermilk Mountain – sounds deliciously enticing, like skiing through cheesecake. Within the White River National Forest in Colorado, Buttermilk is three miles outside the town of Aspen. Thirty-five percent of the terrain on its 41 trails is rated beginners. The Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen/Snowmass offers the “Beginner Magic” program, a world-renowned novice ski program for adults. Within three days, the school guarantees you’ll be able to ski on green-circle trails. Give them six days, and they’ll introduce you to parallel turns on blue slopes. A mining town in the late 1800s, Aspen morphed into a ski town in the 1940s. Its four mountains are Buttermilk, Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass. The Little Nell, a luxury inn, is the only ski-in ski-out property in town – though it’s linked to Aspen Mountain. With exactly zero percent beginner trails, Aspen Mountain is not exactly ideal for learning. The only hotel located at the base of Buttermilk Mountain is The Inn at Aspen. www.aspensnowmass.com.
A beginners’ favorite within the Vail area is Breckenridge. At first glance, the 15 percent statistic of terrain for beginners doesn’t seem so impressive. But Peak 9 (Breckenridge encompasses four peaks) has some well-known easy terrain, with gradual descents and wide-open trails. Quick learners will be rewarded: 33 percent of trails are rated intermediate. Founded in 1859, Breckenridge has the largest historic district in Colorado. The Village at Breckenridge is located at the base of Peak 9, with the ski school check-in on property. A nice benefit: Purchase a three-day or longer ticket to Breckenridge, and you can also ski Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Vail and Beaver Creek. www.breckenridge.snow.com.
In the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, there’s Whistler. Its two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, comprise the largest ski area on the continent, with more than 7,000 acres of skiable terrain (compared to 400 acres on Buttermilk and 2,200 in Breckenridge), 200 marked trails and 12 alpine bowl formations in the terrain. This is the Taj Mahal of ski resorts. Its high-speed gondola service, pedestrian-friendly village and ski school are top-notch. There are also enforced slow zones and a wide variety of runs for beginners, says Russ Wood, training coordinator at the Whistler-Blackcomb Ski School. On Whistler Mountain, the Burnt Stew trail offers beginners an opportunity to ski through an alpine bowl. You might want to visit before 2010, when the resort will play host to the Olympic alpine events. A nice touch at the Westin Resort is the ski valet, who will carry your equipment from the base of the mountain to the hotel. Other area resorts are Fairmont Chateau Whistler and a recently opened Four Seasons. www.whistlerblackcomb.com.
As an Upstate New York native, I learned how to ski in Vermont. My most vivid memory of ski school is my unintentional meandering from the group lesson. Since my wedge had yet to be perfected, I found myself headed, dangerously, toward a road, where there was a moving truck. Luckily, the driver saw me and braked. He got out of his cab, picked me up, skis dangling, and dropped me on the side of the road, leaving me with this advice: “Son, be careful!” That snapped me out of shell-shock: I was more upset about my mistaken gender than my near-death experience. But it’s never the good things that make an impression. For example, I did take lessons at one of the best beginner-friendly resorts, Stratton. Forty-two percent of the terrain on its 90 trails is for beginners. Stratton also has a learning park, with 45 acres of gentle teaching terrain, and it is home of the first snowboard school, which opened in 1983. Located in the Green Mountains, Stratton is a region of picturesque New England hamlets, midway between Bennington and Brattleboro. Most families stay in condos in Stratton. For a quintessential New England experience, head to the town of Manchester, 17 miles away. The luxurious 1769 Equinox Hotel and resort offers a shuttle service to Stratton. On property, there’s also an Avanyu spa, first-rate dining and a falconry school. www.stratton.com.
Buttermilk Mountain. Fly United to Denver and connect on United Express to Aspen’s airport.
Breckenridge. Fly Frontier or United to Denver. Drive the 104 miles to Breckenridge.
Whistler-Blackcomb. Fly Air Canada to Vancouver via Denver, or Continental to Vancouver via Houston. Shuttle to Whistler by ground transportation service or rent a car – the scenic road from Vancouver International Airport to Whistler is called the “Sea to Sky Highway.” Drive time is two to three hours.
Stratton. Fly Southwest Airlines into Albany, N.Y. Drive the 75 scenic miles to Stratton.