Thursday, February 16, 2017

While the Kat’s away

KAT terrain by  (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
You know the phrase “While the cat’s away, the mice will play”? Well, at Keystone it is “While the families flock, the experts rock" - meaning the families monopolize the fun zones, leaving the blacks and bowls to the more advanced skiers! 

When the snow falls and the ski snobs are fighting for a few frantic feet at the manly mainstream mountains nearby, this under-the-radical-radar resort is perfect for bumps bunnies and powder pigs who don’t like sharing.

We’ve all heard about Keystone’s Kidtopia focus with free skiing for the under-13s, the massive snow fort, the panoramic mid-mountain learning area and tubing park, Riperoo’s rollercoaster glades, and all the après ski family programs, adventures, parties and fireworks. Yes, they really do have the Keystone Kid-angle completely covered! 

But who talks about Keystone’s more advanced terrain? Within the 3000 skiable acres, straddling three imposing peaks, there is a plethora of pristine black, double black, cat and hike-in terrain. And it’s not a cookie-cutter layout – the Dercum, North and Outback Mountains, all juxtaposed to each other, give an undulating, front-to-back progressive playground, with unexpected turns and corners, complete with glades, bumps and bowls interspersing the more-renowned gentle groomers and carefree cruisers.

Keystone glades by Liam Doran (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
Accompanying me on this trip was my husband, Dr Simon Hudson, who wrote the book ‘Snow Business’ many years ago while living in Europe. He is an expert in the ski industry (and a sublime powder skier) and we also wrote Winter Sport Tourism together last year. In all our years in the Alps, we learnt to look for unheralded, secret ski spots among the ritzy resorts, which attract deluges of destination skiers from all over the globe as well as legions of locals driving up for weekends and holidays. Like lemmings they all flock to the same renowned radical runs on powder days, scoffing at the less steep slopes. In Verbier, Switzerland I called this ski snobbery the “Savoleyres Syndrome” after the humblest hill there, which was routinely ignored by the steep and deep brigade and the jetsetters and was, therefore, an relatively untrammeled treasure trove of fresh snow during powder panic peak periods. Guess where Simon and I skied on busy weekends?

Fireworks at River Run Village (where I stayed) - by Richard Spitzer (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
I had already sensed that Keystone might offer the same rat race-respite from a previous catskiing visit six years ago, so I made sure to include it on my Colorado ski spree this season. And, unlike many expert skiers who day-visit from nearby resorts just for the catskiing, I was lucky enough to spend three days and nights there.

KAT territory - by Jack Affleck (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
If you compare the regular resort rack rate ($136 per day ticket), Keystone Adventure Tours (KAT) catskiing is a no-brainer. For $285 you get high performance fat skis, expert guiding, transceivers, cushy heated transportation, Starbucks coffee in the morning, three-course gourmet lunch in the cutest yurt, aluminum water bottles to keep, a champagne salute at the end of the decadent day and a lift ticket to get up to the cat (which you could use at 3pm to ski a bit more of the resort if your legs can take more pounding and you want to forego the champagne). You hardly see another soul in the serene sidecountry setting of the Independence, Bergman and Erickson Bowls, just the odd hardy hiker who has to work so hard to get above the treeline for his powder patch. Snow quality and exclusivity are ‘Key’ elements of KATskiing here, with 800 acres to lap at leisure. The Indy Yurt, recently renovated to a high standard of comfort and cuteness, is also exclusive to KAT, which provides a substantial three-course spread including soup, chili, cold meats, cheeses, salads and desserts.
Keystone Katskiing Yurt - by Sean Boggs (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone
Me setting off - photo by JJ
One of my fellow KATskiers that day was JJ – aka Jonathan Keane, a prolific Colorado snowboarder who buys the EpicPass to ski the Vail Resorts all season and is also going on a sidetrip to Fernie and Whitefish later this year. “I've been to Keystone a few times, but this was my first guided cat ski,” JJ told me. “I booked it because I wanted to try cat skiing and it was close to where I live. It was also a great price.” His ‘bucket list’ experience was excellent value, he said, and he plans to do it again in the future. “Snow and lines were fantastic, staff was great,” he enthused. “I didn't like having to always go one at a time to ride, but that was a minor thing.” Skiers and riders descend individually, creating parallel tracks, for two reasons – firstly for safety as a whole bunch of boarders and skiers together could cause an avalanche, and secondly in order to regulate how much fresh snow is tracked out so that there is more for later on or for other groups on ensuing days (at least until the next snowfall when the slate is wiped clean!) JJ was already into hiking and sidecountry excursions. “This gave me some more valuable experience and confidence in the Rockies, which I plan on applying to more backcountry adventure,” he said. “I did view this as a stepping stone intro to heli-skiing, too. I do hope to do that - if I can afford it!” 

The Keystone Adventure Tours view - photo by JJ
The serenity of skiing almost alone extends to the black and double diamond resort runs which were nicely mogulled when I was there next day: a late January Sunday. In many resorts a multitude of aggressive – but not necessarily technique-oriented - skiers and boarders massacre the moguls with their inexpert tracks, making inconsistent bumps and whale-backs which throw even advanced skiers off their line. Not to mention their side-scraping which causes icy bases around each mound. But, not at Keystone that day, where it was obvious during my visit that the family focus means that far fewer people venture into the black areas so they remain pristine and perfectly paced. That sunny Sunday, Simon and I skied the blacks all day and didn’t see anyone else on our runs! Now that’s luxury! Best runs were Catdancer, Timberwolf and Bighorn all recommended by a former ski patroller in the hot tub the night before. 

North Peak advanced runs by Leisa Gibson (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone
Alpenglow Stube (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
I’m going to write about the Keystone après ski, the accommodation and the village amenities in other articles but I just want to give you an inkling – you could be surprised at the level of sophistication! After all, it is big sisters Vail, Breck and Beaver Creek who usually get the glitzy gourmet press coverage. I was expecting a small purpose-built utility-style village but Keystone spreads out across three base areas with amazing eateries everywhere, all linked by regular buses and on-demand shuttles. 

Ski Tip Lodge (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
Ski Tip Lodge, housed in an 1800s stagecoach stop (which used to be home to Keystone’s original owners and is now a boutique B & B), is unbeatable in terms of authentic architecture, heritage and history, topnotch service, elaborate menu and highbrow wine pairings. We sat next to a group who had come to Keystone not to ski at all but entirely for Ski Tip Lodge – after all, it is #6 on OpenTable’s Top 100 list. The Alpenglow Stube (the highest AAA Four-Diamond™ dining in North America) and Der Fondue Chessel are both gondola-accessed high-altitude gastronomic experiences. And even the more affordable fare at the Bighorn Bistro and Bar (which has a 3-6pm happy hour) is locally sourced and made from scratch – amazing charcuterie/cheese platters and steaks! (Yes, after three weeks giving up beef to honour Before the Flood, I finally caved on the first night of my Colorado trip). And don’t miss Zuma’s for happy appies 3-6pm and after 9pm!

Lakeside Village Ice Rink - by Jack Affleck (Courtesy of Vail Resorts/Keystone)
Saving the best news for last: Keystone is notching up record snowfalls, making it their snowiest winter for a decade, and it has already extended the season by one week to stay open until Easter Sunday (Apr 16) – so you still have time to book a visit!

Dr Simon Hudson and Louise Hudson after lunch at the Indy Yurt, Keystone

For an audio version of my experiences in Colorado, tune in to - a radio interview with Dan Shube for the Golf and Travel Show. Watch out for the error right at the beginning, though, where 'stage-fright' made me say Silver Tip Lodge instead of Ski Tip Lodge! Sorry about that!

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