Sat, Jan 02, 2010 - Page 16 News List

East vs West: Which resorts have the best skiing?

Eastern and western North America offer vastly different skiing experiences

By Brett Martel  /  AP , BRECKENRIDGE, COLORADO

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Long before settling amid the soaring peaks of southwestern Colorado, where she helped create a ski experience unlike any other in North America, Jen Brill learned to carve turns on blue ice at some of the better known ski resorts in the east.

“I remember seeing sheets of ice for hundreds of feet [meters] and just trying to hold on,” Brill recalled.

No longer does Brill concern herself with what eastern skiers sometimes refer to with a bit of humor and hyperbole as “bullet proof” ice.

At Silverton — the ski area Brill opened with her husband, Aaron, 10 years ago — the only ice she sees is a snow-dusted frozen cascade she sometimes cruises past on her snowboard while in powder up to her waist.

Silverton is buried under about 1,000cm of natural snowfall each year, so the only question about conditions there each day concerns the depth of snow on hill — belt-high or only knee-deep? The differences between skiing in eastern and western North America are significant and many: altitude, acreage, snow and weather are all different, starkly so at times.

Eastern skiers all have stories of fighting through miserable, face-stinging icy winds and generally wetter conditions that are more common at Appalachian elevations (usually between 300m to 1,200m) than in the higher, drier climes of the Rockies, where lifts carry skiers well beyond 3,000m above sea level.

But some of the best competitive skiers the US has ever produced — World Cup champion and Olympic medalist Bode Miller, for example — grew up carving turns in the Northeast, where skiers learn by necessity at an early age the kind of knee angle and weight transfer required for setting an edge in hardpack or ice.

Brill grew up in New York and her parents normally drove north for ski vacations in New England at places like Killington, Vermont.

If the wind-chill factor dropped close to minus 18° Celsius, or if skiers were getting pelted with sleet or freezing rain, she bundled up and got out there anyway.

“We drove four hours ... so my parents were like, ‘You’re going skiing no matter what,’ and it made me tougher,” Brill recalled.

There are big-mountain experiences to be had in the east at places like Sugarloaf USA in Maine (860 vertical meters), where Miller and snowboard cross Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott trained.

Most of the trails in the east are carved out below the tree line and are well defined. Because eastern ski areas rely heavily on snowmaking, venturing into the trees, even for the best skiers, can be difficult and dangerous much of the year, though certainly possible after a blizzard or later in the season during a good snow year.

Snowmaking has made the conditions at larger eastern resorts like Sunday River in Maine, or Stowe or Sugarbush in Vermont, very dependable. At Sunday River, more than 90 percent of the resort is open for skiing for about four solid months. Although there is snowmaking in the west as well, if it’s a bad snow year, skiers may not be able to get to some of the best terrain in open bowls or in the trees, the things that make skiing in the west special.

Darcy Liberty, who grew up in Maine and now handles public relations for Sunday River, spent several years living in Colorado, working part of that time at Winter Park.

She describes eastern and western ski areas as “two different products.” “I don’t consider there to be direct competition between ski areas in the east and out west,” she said. “Every ski area in the world is competing for skiers and snowboarders interested in the sport, but when it comes to daily operations, you’re mostly looking for skiers in a specific radius.” With its 1,900 snow guns, Sunday River was able to open as early as October this season.

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