As UK Ambassador for Vail Resorts, Martin Bell generally finds himself showing folks around Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone. Nice work. But at the end of April, when only Breckenridge is still open (just), we called him up and hit A Basin, or Arapahoe Basin to give it its official name, where locals and telemark types carry on well into June.
Visitors pitch up in their pick-ups at the mountain side of the car park, drag out their six packs, barbeques,TVs, half a ton of cow and get cookin’. Driver doors open, funky tunes and gaudy laughter fill the air and everyone among this goatee crowd was seemingly christened ‘Dude’ – obviously a very popular name pre-snowboard.
Apparently Dudette was elsewhere. This is the antithesis of Vail – no fancy bars, no fancy lodges, in fact no lodges, few females and not a shred of Descente in sight. I have no idea if these guys can ski at all but they are certainly part of the Arapahoe furniture and probably why the place is often simply referred to as The Beach.
The place has an honest air about it; it’s America ’s answer to Glencoe, an edge, a hard reputation, no pretence whatsoever. Not worth the trans-Atlantic slog all on its own but a place you’ve gotta say you’ve done – skied the highest skiable terrain in North America .
The only creature comforts here are the ‘base’ lodge, where you can mix with more dudes on the deck and enjoy an après-ski libation (actually some very tasty micro brews), and Midway Barbecue halfway up the mountain - more charred meat, funky music, yet more dudes and beach chairs facing the sun and the chutzpah and measured in everything but velocity. He still keeps himself in peak condition. Skis or boards all day, plays ice hockey for a local team, climbs 14,000 foot peaks for a laugh and enjoys a regular game of five-a-side. You may have seen him narrowly miss out on a final place in Superstars as well last summer and he manages to fit in a young family too. Worse, last night he got to bed early and hasn’t skied A Basin for ages. ‘How you feeling guys’, he grinned. ‘Super’, ‘Special’, ‘Dude’ came the replies and we had thereby sealed our collective fates. ‘Great. Better head up Pallavincini before everyone else does.’ Pallavincini sounds nice, a good warmer, I thought. Wrong. We’re taking a rickety chair up one of A Basin’s signature runs, one of Colorado ’s longest and steepest trails. Started innocuously enough, a spin-drifty schuss along the ridge before plunging into a narrow, steep section ofchopped up moguls leading into trees. I thought the run had petered out but ‘old Yellow Helmet’ was still churning out the turns through the trees. I couldn’t actually hear a maniacal cackling but I suspect that was going on. Hell of a run – a relentless, unforgiving son-of-a gun, but enjoyable nonetheless. We survived, but, if that’s the warm up, I’m back off to cruisy old Breck and the hot tub thanks very much. After a bit of a conference we managed to persuade Martin that we’d like to see more of his GS technique. So we headed for the sheltered blues that populate the mid mountain. Actually, this is where your average World Cup skier really differentiates themselves from the rest. Where Martin accelerates out of a turn, others decelerate. Only by trying to hang on to the tails of skiers like him do you get to visualize ‘the gap’ and improve.
We even ventured into the terrain park where young dudes lisped compliments through tongue studs and hair at the ‘old dude’s’ table tops and rail rides.They didn’t have a clue who this guy was of course, but ‘respect’. But we weren’t allowed to relax for long. A ride to the 13,050ft. top station was just the start of the next ordeal. Martin pointed out some of the routes down from the Upper East Wall. This would involve a hike. Mental note. If Martin Bell ever says to you, ‘We’ll take skis off here and it’s only a ten minute hike up the ridge’, I suggest you multiply the time estimate by about four! I guess we were half way to the summit of Everest so there is some excuse.
After a suitable rest we plunged into a 45 degree chute called North Pole, jump turned all the way through and collapsed in a heap back on piste below. More cruising, more chutes and our host left us tired but happy.We’d done A Basin and A Basin had done us. This is not a big ski area by most standards but it manages to be both cosy and gnarly and there’s plenty here to keep even world class skiers happy for days.With only five chairs, a few thousand feet of vertical you’d think that was stretching it but there’s an enormity of back country potential and plenty of dudes to share it with.