Colorado: Big chill without the frills

Tam Leach ventures beyond Colorado's chi-chi ski villages and finds a resort where the snow – and the parties – last practically the whole year

One thousand miles from the coast and 11,000 feet above sea level, the citizens of Colorado are sunning themselves. A girl in a bikini top passes a beer to a man in an oversized wig. Music blasts from the back of pick-up trucks, burgers crackle on portable grills, kids yell and tumble on the sparkling white expanse beyond the tailgates. The ocean of water that laps the shores of this beach might be frozen, but the atmosphere is anything but.

As ski resorts across the Northern Hemisphere gear down for the last few weeks of the season, March heralds the start of the silly season for Arapahoe Basin. On the western slope of the Continental Divide, the no-frills, no-village resort has the highest ski-able terrain in North America. It is regularly the first in the US to open, and one of the last to close. In an average year, this Colorado gem stays open until June; in a good year, skiers celebrate the fourth of July on the slopes.

This year, the closing date is as yet undetermined. But for Colorado, this season, like the last, has been very good; while the Alps have once again been blighted by warm spells, the 26 resorts of this Rocky Mountain state have been breaking records. And with March historically the region's snowiest month, it looks as if Arapahoe Basin may surpass last year's epic season, when the resort remained open for 234 consecutive days. That's almost eight months of skiing, snowboarding – and partying. Looking out across the revellers, it's hard to believe this all began with a war. As happens so often with progress, the greatest boost to skiing in Colorado came about through a necessity of battle.

The use of skis in this state of dry, high desert snows was first documented in the mid-19th century. Gold miners of Scandinavian descent strapped long wooden planks to their feet to transfer post and provisions throughout the harsh winters; when the weather was fine, they raced each other for trophies of oysters and beer. By the 1930s, ski clubs were hiking up the hills outside Denver to emulate this European fad.

Then in 1942, the US Army decided to create its own troop of soldiers on skis: the 10th Mountain Division. A high-altitude training ground was built at Camp Hale, and recruits included ski champions, instructors and athletes from both America and Europe; they were joined by the 99th Infantry Battalion from Norway. Far from the European arena, the soldiers had the time to do what they loved the most. While at camp, the 10th Mountain Division erected the longest T-bar the world had seen – all 6,000 feet of it – and regularly found themselves on the podium at local and national ski races.

So far, so cushy. But in January, 1945, the 10th Mountain were finally deployed to the Italian Apennines. Their first success was a night assault on Riva Ridge, considered impossible to scale by the defending German forces. Despite sustaining heavy losses, the 10th Mountain fought on. Mount Belvedere followed, then the Po Valley; finally, the German operations centre at Lake Garda. Days later, the war in Italy was over; by the end of the campaign, almost a quarter of the division had been killed. You would think that this might put soldiers off the mountains for life, but the men of the 10th went on to become instrumental in the development of the American ski industry. Veterans established 17 resorts and started 33 ski schools; they founded ski magazines, engineered lifts and designed skis.

Nowhere was their influence greater than in Colorado. Friedl Pfeifer created the ski school and installed the first chairlift at Aspen; Peter Siebert also worked at Aspen, and went on to develop Vail. Fritz Benedict was responsible for the ski villages' Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture, as well as Colorado's 10th Mountain backcountry hut and trail system.

And high on the Continental Divide, less than 70 miles from Denver, Larry Jump built Arapahoe Basin. An American serving with the French Army at the start of the war, Jump was captured by the Germans during the invasion of France and released to the American consulate in 1940, only to return to Europe as an intelligence officer with the 10th Mountain Division. After such a gruelling wartime experience, perhaps it is no surprise that lack of investment was brushed aside as a mere blip on the path to success.

A-Basin, as it's fondly known, opened in 1946, just a year after Jump's return from Europe. Chairlifts were not installed until the following season, so skiers were transported up the hill on one rope tow and in an army weapons carrier. Lift tickets, of which only 1,200 were sold during the entire year, cost $3 each.

Today, almost a lifetime later, some of the revellers here on the beach have paid only $9 more. Tickets for the beginner Molly Hogan chairlift cost just $12. This is possibly Colorado's best bargain, yet it's often overlooked by visitors in a hurry to get to the big-name resorts. That's not all they're missing: with its beach and Festival of the Brewpubs, the weekly terrain-park jams and ski-clinics, A-Basin exudes a laidback vibe.

It's not alone. Past the plains in the east, skiing in Colorado starts at the Rockies, and continues right on through Utah. While the more adventurous might make it to Crested Butte, Telluride or Steamboat, ski towns with Western charm and topped with challenging terrain, most tourists miss out on the trees of Monarch, the powder stash that is Wolf Creek, the sunny cruisers of Purgatory and the steeps of Silverton.

These resorts may have few lifts, limited facilities and no on-site accommodation, but the skiing is far from below-par. On the contrary, the steeps of A-Basin are a cultish favourite of the state's best skiers. Just opened in January is the 400-acre Montezuma Bowl, the largest expansion of any American ski area this season – created with minimal environmental impact, in keeping with a state-wide dedication to implementing green practices across the ski industry.

Cynics may point to hypocrisies and inconsistencies, but the resorts of Colorado are at least attempting to make a difference. Like every lift, hotel, restaurant and shop owned by Vail Resorts, A-Basin's new Montezuma lift is powered with wind-generated energy. Additionally, the resort runs a company-matched employee environmental charity; actively encourages car pooling with discounted tickets for four or more people in any one vehicle; and is currently working with the Aspen Skiing Company and the state to develop an environmental protection plan for the ski industry as a whole – along with implementing a growing collection of more mundane policies, from low-energy lighting to recycled coffee cups.

The battle to save the mountains from ourselves is quite a different challenge to the one faced by the 10th Mountain Division more than half a century ago, but it's one in which Coloradans are yet again blazing trails for others to follow.

Currently, the state's skiers are petitioning the powers-that-be for a new licence-plate. No more boring old Centennial State; the plates lined up along A-Basin's beach, if approved, will proudly proclaim "Colorado: Ski Country, USA". It's a bit of marketing spin for the resorts, sure, and unbridled Americana. But unlike World Famous Pizzas and other national claims, this one's not so far from the truth.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Denver; a ski or snowboard bag can be carried free in addition to the general baggage allowance. United (0845 8444 777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) starts flights on the same route on 30 March.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

SKIING THERE

Day tickets at Arapahoe Basin (001 970 468 0718; www.arapahoebasin.com) cost $58 (£31). Any multi-day pass purchased at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge or Keystone is also valid. The resort is served by the Summit Stage (001 970 668 0999; www.summitstage.com), a free county bus service that links the resorts of Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Keystone, and the towns of Silverthorne, Dillon and Frisco.

STAYING THERE

There is a huge variety of accommodation in the neighbouring Keystone resort (001 970 496 4500; www.keystone.snow.com) or in the towns of Silverthorne and Dillon (001 970 262 0817; www.summitchamber.org).

MORE INFORMATION

Colorado Tourism: 01564 794 999; www.colorado.com

Colorado Ski Country USA: 001 303 837 0793; www.coloradoski.com

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