January 10, 1996
To most skiers, particularly those along Colorado’s Front Range, Winter Park is a welcoming, family-oriented ski hill without the pomp and circumstance of Colorado’s more famous resorts. Many Colorado skiers, including this one, hold fine memories of discovering the wonder of skiing on the slopes of Winter Park. Trails like White Rabbit, Jabberwocky and Butch’s Breezeway were the testing grounds for graduation from step-Christy turns to (almost) parallel turns. It’s always a thrill returning to Winter Park to recall the seductive allure of downhill skiing.
On the other hand, Winter Park’s alter-ego, Mary Jane, is less welcoming, especially for beginners. One look at either Drunken Frenchmen or Outhouse, two unrelenting mogul runs, quickly signals that this side of Winter Park is best approached cautiously. Mary Jane is an advanced-intermediate and expert skier’s paradise, with 78% of its terrain advanced or expert. It’s rarely crowded and contains acres of lonely glades and steeps. Not for the timid, Mary Jane is perhaps Colorado’s best-kept secret.
Together, Winter Park/Mary Jane combine to offer the best of two worlds: Beginner friendly and challenging. Add to the mix consistently good snowfall and it’s clear why Winter Park is so popular with Denver/Front Range skiers.
Winter Park’s location, on U.S. 40 about 1.5 hours from Denver (longer if it’s snowing), can be viewed as either a blessing or curse. While some consider the drive over Berthoud Pass to be precarious, it’s actually rather tame by Colorado standards. Locals, however, have always perceived Berthoud Pass to be a factor inhibiting Winter Park’s growth into a mega-resort, and boring a tunnel under the pass is an idea that pops up every few years. After this month’s huge snowstorms, which closed Berthoud Pass, thus isolating Winter Park, talk of a tunnel may arise again. The storms also pushed Winter Park’s base up to 74 inches (as of Jan. 6).
With an average annual snowfall of 350 inches, Winter Park claims to be the leader in this category among the major Colorado resorts. The resort’s spin on its weather patterns: “The great thing about Winter Park is that weather patterns coming from either the north or west often get trapped above the Fraser Valley,” said Jack Mason, director of the Winter Park Ski Patrol. “The result is that many of our storms leave anywhere from 4 to 16 inches of fresh snow in a 24-hour period.” Translation: When it snows in north-central Colorado, Winter Park usually receives the lion’s share of fresh powder.
Winter Park’s legacy as one of Colorado’s first ski areas has both its good and “evil” aspects. While firmly entrenched as a Colorado ski tradition, most of Winter Park’s trails were designed long before high-speed quad lifts and 2.5-3 mile-long runs became fashionable. Consequently, many of Winter Park’s lifts, particularly in the middle of the mountain, are slow and plodding, some leading seemingly nowhere. The savvy Winter Park skier will keep a close eye on the trail map, avoiding frustrating catwalks. At the same time, in this age of high-speed lifts, in which one can easily put in 15-20 runs before 2 in the afternoon, the slower pace at Winter Park is refreshing. Especially during the solitude of a mid-week visit, Winter Park reinforces the basic reasons why many of us ski – to experience the quiet and majesty of the Colorado alpine environment, not to chalk up as many runs as possible, or compare $1,000 ski suits in the lift lines.
The addition of the Vasquez Ridge area at Winter Park has added several intermediate and expert runs, serviced by the quad Pioneer Express chairlift. Both the Stagecoach and Sundance trails are long, satisfying cruisers and worth traversing Winter Park’s lift system to get to.
On the other side of Winter Park from Vasquez Ridge, the Zephyr Express quad lift delivers several advanced-intermediate and advanced runs that are often empty, as most skiers in search of the steep and deep head to Mary Jane.
Mary Jane is one of Colorado’s finest expert areas, and although just on the other side of the mountain from Winter Park, it seems worlds apart. Its most famous runs are the aforementioned Outhouse and Drunken Frenchmen, two long, brutal mogul runs. Mary Jane also has two excellent advanced-intermediate runs, Sleeper and Mary Jane. The Summit Express quad is a quick ride to the top of Mary Jane. But two old clunker lifts, Challenger and Iron Horse, are the passage to the Jane’s cherished glade skiing. The short Pony Express lift is a rewarding alternative when the lines at the Summit Express begin to grow. Rarely crowded, the Pony Express brings skiers to the top of three excellent trails: the expert, bumpy Riflesight Notch; and Rainbow Cut and Arrowhead Loop, both advanced intermediate runs well worth checking out.
Mary Jane recently added a new area, Sunnyside, which in this skier’s opinion, is best avoided. The intermediate runs on Sunnyside are often hit with direct sun, consequently on sunny, warm days, dry snow quickly becomes slush. This area is best skied first thing in the morning, although we can think of many other trails we’d rather be the first to ski after a snowfall.
Unfortunately, Winter Park has decided to start grooming some of Mary Jane’s expert trails, apparently in an attempt to offer more of the Jane’s terrain to intermediate skiers. With plenty of intermediate terrain at Winter Park and Sunnyside, it’s a shame the resort has compromised the Jane’s traditional challenge. To see some of the Jane’s best trails shaved into corduroy groomed trails is heartbreaking.
While Winter Park’s ski barons dream up new ways to turn Winter Park into a mega-resort, one hopes the area’s charm and tradition will somehow be spared. On a recent mid-week visit, I inadvertently found myself on one of Winter Park’s infamous mid-mountain catwalks. But with no one around, the azure Colorado sky peeking through statuesque pines, the wide Fraser Valley below, I forgot about high-speed quad lifts and 3,000-foot vertical drops. Instead, I paused to take a deep breath and marvel at the thought of being stuck on the side of a mountain full of snow on a Wednesday afternoon. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may have been vilified in times past, but with everyone trying to be all things to all people, what’s wrong with a little schizophrenia, even at a ski resort?