America's Epic Pass offers a jam-packed ski holiday of a lifetime
The pass covers some of America's most famous and varied resorts
Saturday 20 March 2010
It was hard not to feel a little disoriented. Powdery sheets of pure, light snow were falling from the sky, dusting both Vail's vast expanse of skiable terrain and the three-inch thick juicy steaks that sizzled on the outdoor hot plates at Belle's Camp Warming Hut. The Hut offers basic food, free barbeques and – at 11,480ft above sea level – views of the vistas of Vail's Blue Sky Basin ski area.
I'd arrived in Colorado only the night before, landing in Denver, and had spent the morning skiing Vail's powdery back bowls. After tucking into lunch, I was due to embark upon a guided tour of the legendary Blue Sky Basin terrain that afternoon. If all went to plan and I survived the basin and the beef, there'd be just enough time for dinner and cocktails at The Arrabelle hotel. This luxury property and its gleaming wooden and stone grandeur wouldn't be out of place in any of the high-end European resorts. Jet lag? There was simply no time.
I was in Colorado to take advantage of the Epic Pass, an unrestricted, unlimited single pass that gives you access to an awesome, inter-state ski area comprising Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin and Keystone in Colorado and Heavenly in California. The Epic Pass was first offered last season. The affordable access it offers made it an immediate success with locals and tourists alike. With more time, I'd be intent on spending as long as possible in each of the available resorts: the more days on the mountain, the more value the seven-day $599 (£400) Epic Pass provides.
However, I had only five days; enough to get just a taste of the enormous treats the Epic Pass has to offer. The fact that Heavenly was located in California, about 700 miles from where I was in Vail, and that I planned to visit five of the six resorts, meant that my trip would certainly not be a leisurely stroll. This was to be a high-octane ski tour of some of North America's most famous ski resorts, packed with everything from casinos in Reno to cat skiing in Keystone.
The next morning's half-hour shuttle from Vail to the pedestrianised village and perfect pistes of Beaver Creek should have slowed my heart rate down a touch. But the decision of certain members of my group to attempt to tackle the Birds of Prey downhill course (widely recognised as one of the most difficult courses in the world, and the only US venue that held a men's World Cup event this winter) was enough to make me a little nervous. Hitting a steep, steep highway of ice as smooth and as hard as a Formica benchtop sounded decidedly silly, so I made do with some of Beaver Creek's immaculately groomed intermediate slopes instead. I may not have had the bragging rights during the tapas lunch at The Osprey restaurant, but at least my legs, arms and ligaments were all still approximately in their right positions.
Previously known as the Inn, a multi-million transformation two years ago has seen The Osprey reborn as a luxury resort hotel. The food, like the hotel, epitomises Beaver Creek as a whole; sleek, elegant and pricey.
The next day's skiing required every sinew of every muscle I possessed. A three-hour drive to Breckenridge the previous evening and a relatively early night saw me waking to a cloudless sky, indicating a "bluebird" day – blue skies, no wind and ideal skiing conditions. Three days of non-stop snow had cleared, providing ideal conditions for cat skiing in Keystone's famed powder bowls. We used the caterpillar tracks of the local piste-basher as our means of locomotion to Breckenridge's outer skiable limits. An outfit called Keystone Adventure Tours runs a day's worth of untracked runs through powder into the Independence Bowl, with lifts back up in a heated cat and some welcome fuel in the form of a picnic lunch. While munching on enormous sandwiches, you can then see the fresh tracks you've made way below.
However, despite the apparent remoteness, all the skiing is within the legal confines of Keystone, meaning you're in constant sight and contact with the resort's safety infrastructure. For me it added a comforting layer of security, helpful when dealing with steep drops, deep powder and fast tree runs.
This is what skiing and snowboarding should be all about: stunning views, glittering sunshine, untracked powder, experienced guides, a mix of fear, joy, exhilaration and exhaustion. The bonus is that it's easy to access, run efficiently as part of a large resort, and offered at one of the cheapest prices available in the US.
Three days down, and three resorts on the must-ski-before-I-die list already crossed off. Could they be bettered? Well, day four started with a fast descent on one of Breckenridge's highest pistes on the mountain Peak 7 and ended with a kryptonite-laced margarita at Harrah's Casino on the shores of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. In between, I sampled Breckenridge's four peaks above 12,000ft, ate lunch at the Breckenridge micro-brewery, and took a shuttle to Denver and flight to Reno.
With Nevada an hour behind Colorado, there was enough time for a classic all-American snack at the In-N-Out Burger joint on the way to Lake Tahoe, where I sat up late drinking margaritas on the state line of Nevada and California.
A hectic schedule, yet before I left Breckenridge a local named Dave Thomas still chastised me for not squeezing a visit to Arapahoe Basin. "A-Basin is what makes the Epic Pass," he growled at me through a thick, snow-laced moustache. "The longest ski season of all of 'em, some of the best terrain on the planet, no queues and free parking. It's the real deal." With Heavenly, my final stop on this whistlestop tour, still to come, I'd just have to take his word for it.
Any resort called Heavenly is going to conjure up a certain level of expectation. The resort's schizophrenic mix of huge mountain, incredible snow park, neon-lit Vegas-style casinos and Californian health food shops, all framed by contrasting views of Lake Tahoe and the Nevada Desert, was not really what I was expecting. It's almost ridiculous to compare it with any resorts in Europe: better just to revel in the extraordinary contrasts. The hill is criss-crossed by an extensive network of confidence-building cruisers – rolling blue runs groomed twice daily – all flanked by trees and with views of the sparkling lake below.
Five resorts in five days may be pushing it on the adrenalin front, but the chance to experience them all was, for me, the opportunity of a lifetime. The Epic Pass works out cheaper than seven individual day lift passes in high season, and with a few more days up your sleeve it's your best chance to experience the most varied and incredible ski trips anywhere in the world.
Travel essentials: The Epic Pass
* Ski Independence (0131 243 8097; ski-i.com) offers seven nights at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge, with United Airlines flights from Heathrow to Denver and shuttle transfers, from £1,009 per person.
* Denver is served by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and United Airlines (0845 8444 777; united.com) from Heathrow.
* Epic Pass (001 303 504 5870; epicpass.com): an unlimited, six mountain unrestricted pass costs $599 (£399). A seven-day pass costs $449 (£299).
* Keystone Adventure Tours (001 970 496 4386; bit.ly/keystonecatski), offers cat skiing from $225 (£150) per person, including lift ticket and lunch.
* Beaver Run Resort, Breckenridge (001 970 453 6000; beaverrun.com). Doubles from $133 (£89).
* The Arrabelle at Vail Square (001 970 754 7777; arrabelle.rock resorts.com). Doubles from $227 (£151).
* The Osprey at Beaver Creek (001 970 754 7400; ospreyatbeavercreek.rockresorts.com). Doubles from $195 (£130).
Eating & drinking there
* Breckenridge Brew Pub (001 970 453 1550; breckbrew.com).
* Harrah Casino, Lake Tahoe (001 775 588 6611; harrahslaketahoe.com).
* vail.com (001 877 204 7881); beavercreek.com (001 970 754 4636); keystoneresort.com (001 970 496 4500); breckenridge.com (001 970 453 5000);
arapahoebasin.com; (001 970 468 0718);
skiheavenly.com (001 775 586 7000)
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