Sometimes, a little surprise is all it takes to turn a great vacation into an exceptional experience.
First, the vacation. Each year, we try to arrange a mid-winter getaway, and this time, Steamboat Springs, Colo., was the choice. (We’re skiers … think we would go to a beach?) This was a first visit to the area that bills itself as “Ski Town USA.” It is also the adopted home of Billy Kidd, who, with his signature cowboy hat, is probably the most recognizable ski athlete in the U.S.
The flights were easy, the accommodations were walking distance to the slopes, and the weather was perfect — blue skies throughout and a weather inversion each day so it was warmer at the top of the mountain than at the base. There hadn’t been any fresh snow in a few days, but the base depth was substantial, and conditions were excellent packed powder.
Now, usually on the first day at a large western resort, we want a guide to show us around. And ski school veteran Dean Walker was just the guy for us. His motto was, “Let’s ski, be safe, and put a smile on your face.” Perfect!
After lunch though, he was off to his next appointment, and there we were, ready for more great skiing, but now on our own. Looking up the mountain at 165 trails and 16 lifts, we couldn’t remember a thing from just an hour before. The trail map? Intimidating! So what did we do? We ran with the herd, of course. We skied with the crowd on all the popular trails, making sure we never lost sight of the bottom for fear that otherwise we would end up somewhere in the back country desert for the night. The skiing was just fine. But find all those great trails we skied in the morning with our guide? Not a chance!
Now for the surprise … The Over the Hill Gang.
The gang is actually a group of 20 volunteers, sponsored by the resort, who — every day but Saturday — lead people around the mountain. Or, as they say to those they meet for the first time, “Like-minded people getting together with experienced local guides to find the best conditions on the mountain.”
And it’s free!
This is a great program. Whether you are a newcomer who is just being introduced to Steamboat Springs or you’re a mountain regular just looking for some people to ski with, it works unlike any program I’ve seen any place, any time in the past. (It is intended for people over 50. But with goggles and helmets, and face guards, who knows? No one checked.)
The volunteer guides gather at 8:45 in the morning in the area just outside the main gondola base. No reservations are required, and once you sign a liability waiver, you can ski as many days with the group as you please. Participants are divided up according to skiing ability, and two guides go with each group. The groups are a maximum of 10 people, usually less.
know the slopes
These volunteers are all longtime Steamboat skiers who have experience on the mountain and ski regularly, so they know not only the layout but also where the best conditions are on a daily basis. That, it turns out, is a big advantage. No trail map can give you that kind of information. And like last week, when there was plenty of snow but nothing recent, an insider’s look at conditions can turn a good day into a great one.
We skied with the gang for three days. The guides were different each day, but our core group remained the same: Kevin from Sidney, Australia, who was there on a family vacation; “NFS,” another Australian “not from Sidney” who was spending her summer in Steamboat; and Ellen from Brooklyn, a Hunter Mountain regular. We skied together, took breaks together, ate lunch with our guides together and skied together through 3 p.m. and later each day.
If it was skiable on the mountain, we were there — on groomers, in the bumps and in the trees. And worth mentioning again, it was free, and no advance registration was required.
The program was founded by six guys in the 1970s, who, as noted ski film maker Warren Miller says of all skiers, were looking for a way to get a free lift ticket. The program, which is independent of the widely known Over The Hill Gang Travel Club, has been in existence ever since. The Ski Company took over the program a few years ago but left the basics in place. Guides are provided with basic uniforms, most notably a black parka with “Over the Hill Gang” embossed on the back. All of the members are 50 years or older and all have been skiing the mountain for years. Each guide works at least one day per week.
As Over the Hill Gang guide Don Little noted: “The people who come with us don’t just like it. They love it.”
This is Steamboat’s 50th year of resort operation, although it has been an active winter sports venue for 100 years, and its annual sports carnival is the longest continuously held winter festival in the country.
Norwegian immigrant Carl Howelsen introduced skiing to the community in 1913, and his Howelsen Hill in town, which still hosts junior training along with ski jumping and Nordic combined events, is the oldest ski hill in Colorado.
Today’s Steamboat Springs resort is a couple of miles from downtown with regular shuttle service between the two. With a population of about 10,000, the town is something akin to Lake Placid in that there are grocery stores and hardware stores where people shop and schools that children attend, not just facilities for tourists. The ski area was founded in 1963 and is now part of the Intrawest group like Stratton in Vermont.
Kidd, the Stowe native and 1964 Olympic silver medalist, migrated to Steamboat in the late 1960s and has been the director of skiing at the mountain for more than 40 years.
And he doesn’t hide.
With his characteristic cowboy hat, he is easy to spot, and several afternoons a week, he gives an all-comers, free clinic that starts at 1 on the mountain.
Billy is not the only Olympian around. Steamboat Springs claims that 79 U.S. Olympians have close ties to the resort, and that number includes Saranac Lake’s Bill Demong, who lived there for several years while training for his gold-medal effort at the 2010 Winter Games. Debby Armstrong, the 1984 Winter Olympic giant slalom gold medalist, was with her 5-year- old daughter, Addie, on the chairlift behind us one afternoon.
Skiers in our area who have been “out west” find a different experience than in our neighborhood. One trip is often enough to make us want to go back for more.
The key question after one of these trips is always “would you go back?” In the case of Steamboat Springs, the answer is a resounding Yes! And the Over the Hill Gang is a significant part of the reason why.
It has been another tough year for 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid.
The 26-year-old, whose mom, Lisa, grew up in Scotia, has been hampered with a flu-like illness for most of the season and has not had the kind of results he would like, especially in his specialty, the super-G. He is well outside the results-based top 30 in his event this winter, and that ranking determines seedings in major races. He was an encouraging 34th in the very difficult downhill at Kitzbuhel last week but did not finish in the super-G.
Just a few years ago, Bryn Carey was an All-American skier competing for the University of New Hampshire. Today, the 31-year-old is the founder and operator of Ski Butlers, a great service for those heading west who want app-ropriate, top-of-the-line equipment, but don’t want to deal with either the hassle of lugging skis through airports and on buses or incur the baggage costs imposed by some airlines.
Once at your destination, there is no standing in line for gear. Ski Butlers delivers skis to your room and picks them up when your stay is over. If making plans to head west, check out this service at www.skibutlers.com.
DEAL OF THE WEEK
“Mom’s Day Off” is set for next Friday, Feb. 8 at Bromley Mountain near Manchester, Vt. Bring a picture of the kids, and the cost of a lift ticket is $15, all of which will be donated to the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center.