Arapahoe Basin vs Vail: On the Character of a Place

A-basin ski area whiteout

Spent the morning at Arapahoe Basin today.

(Feeling about 70 percent back from that concussion. It was a conservative day.)

A-basin is a small ski area tucked away on the backside of Loveland Pass. It’s well-known here in Colorado for its unusually long ski season— A-basin is often the first ski area in Colorado to open for the season and the last to close. “The snow sucks but the people watching’s great,” is usually the way locals will choose to describe late-season skiing to you as you make small talk on a chairlift. It’s not unusual to see people grilling and skiing in t-shirts at the A-basin base as summer slowly melts away the previous year’s ski season.

Arapahoe Basin is more of a local’s place

You don’t see much international tourism to A-basin; really, they don’t even want it. There’s no lodging at the base, and parking is free. There are only a few chairlifts. They don’t have the fancy RFID scanners that Vail does— here, a man in a parka needs to scan the barcode on your season pass. A day-pass lift ticket costs $60, not $160 like it does at Vail. It’s archaic.

There’s something purer about A-Basin

Vail Resorts (MTN) understands how to run a business— just look at their stock curve:

10 year MTN stock quote

Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz has been described to me as “Kind of a dick.” Not surprising his company’s doing so well then. I just bought some stock.

With that said, there’s a reason Vail Resorts let go of Arapahoe Basin in 1997, after previously owning the ski area. A-Basin is out of character for the Vail experience.

The people who ski Arapahoe Basin are relaxed in a different way than you find in a resort town. The people you find at A-basin are everyday folks who enjoy skiing and the outdoor lifestyle on their days off, not the forced veneer of cheer and polished service that you find in a resort town like Vail.

Although A-basin has a reputation as a difficult mountain which actively discourages beginners, I spent the day snowboarding with an old friend who had only been twice prior, and he looked like he was having the time of his life. No long lift lines, no expensive restaurants; nothing fancy. We had a great time.

A-basin base area black mountain express

A low-key guy who doesn’t use social media much, he asked me to take a picture of him at the base.

It was a purer day than any I’ve had at Vail.

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Early Season Skiing — Opening Day at Breck 2014

Arapahoe Basin vista

Things were looking a little scary there for Colorado’s ski season. A week into November, we had yet to receive any serious snow in the high country. Breckenridge Ski Resort pushed back their opening day indefinitely; skiers slipped and slid over artificial ice at Arapahoe Basin and Keystone, but no one looked like they were having much fun.

And then last week, three storms hit in such close succession that they may as well have been one week-long snowstorm. The mountains got drenched in powder; my arms got tired from shoveling so much snow; and ski season was officially upon us.

You can’t ask for a much better opening day than Breckenridge got in 2014.

I took a half day to go hit up the festivities— the storm pounding on Vail Pass didn’t provide me with much more opportunity. Vail Pass is a fairly gradual and well-engineered mountain road through the Gore Range, but it can still be quite dicey during a storm. Best to avoid traveling it, even for skiing.

Note that I say best to avoid it, not required.

This picture will NEVER stop being funny

Best picture of the Moab trip, for sure.

I bravely soared over the pass in the quintessential Colorado car, my Subaru Outback. I don’t fully trust this car— I’m pretty sure I purchased it from a recovering heroin addict, and the last time I took it on a major trip, it died about 20 miles into Arches National Park. But this was OPENING DAY, and I’d been itching to get some turns in.

It was well worth the 40-minute trip, and the pass turned out to be pretty OK. The Subaru pulled through. Maybe I just shouldn’t take it out of CO; it’s very comfortable in its natural habitat.

Breck was surprisingly empty for opening day, with plenty of room on the one run which was open. The brand-new Colorado Superchair was the only lift operating on Friday. There were mixed reviews among my fellow liftees as to the new “magic carpet” at the base of the chair, a high-tech conveyor belt which moves skiiers a grand total of about five feet, before letting them come to a stop and get picked up by the lift. “Designed by some MIT grad,” said one older snowboarder. “Probably looked great as a blueprint, just gonna cause more trouble.”

Top of the Colorado Superchair lift at Breckenridge Ski Resort

I was too busy hitting the slopes to wait for this guy’s butt to get out of my picture

The Colorado Superchair itself worked wonderfully, providing high-speed access to the middle of Breck’s Peak 8. We got nailed in the face by several gun blowing snow on the ride up, but that’s the price you pay to ski opening day. The resort did open several more chairlifts as the weekend progressed, as mother nature decided to make the snowmakers unnecessary. In fact, the ski patrol even opened some new runs around 1:30 p.m., which allowed me to get off the ice-packed main run and carve up some powder, which certainly made the trip more worthwhile.

Overall conditions were good and the atmosphere was sunny. A storm rolled in just as I was leaving, which ended up dumping another foot of snow on the mountain, which would have been awesome to play in had I not needed to traverse a mountain pass to get home.

***

Not feeling quite satiated with three hours of shredding, I headed to Arapahoe Basin on Sunday with my girlfriend; a Vail Resorts employee who was blacked out at the other resorts. (Although working for a ski resort will earn you a free season pass, you can be subject to blackouts at the resort’s discretion, sometimes without any real notice. Bummer.)

This was a weekend of questionable decision-making for questionable quality of skiing. We again traversed Vail Pass early in the morning, fought icy roads and heavy traffic near Keystone Ski Resort, before heading up the backside of Loveland Pass to reach the A-Basin parking lot, where the skies were a fierce blue and the temperatures below zero.

It was magnificent.

Arapahoe Basin vista

It’s hard to beat A-Basin for views// Luckily the Subaru is functioning here

A-Basin has much more of a fun feel to it than a big ski resort like Vail or Breckenridge. A-Basin is

Pow was there, tempting but off-limits.

Pow was there, tempting but off-limits.

actually a ski area, not a resort. (The difference is that a ski resort has lodging at the bottom or on the mountain, a ski area just has a parking lot).

Tourists don’t come to A-Basin. Although a Vail Resorts Epic Pass will get you entrance to Arapahoe Basin, this fact isn’t advertised very well, and Vail’s EpicMix technology, which gamifies your time on the mountain (and is actually pretty cool), does not work here. Arapahoe Basin is usually the first mountain in CO to open, and the last to close. Skiing for skiing’s sake is very much alive here.

Selfie game was NOT on point. Probably something to do with the zero-degree temperature

Selfie game was NOT on point. Probably something to do with the zero-degree temperature

Unfortunately, the snow was not. We met an old friend of mine at the base, who informed us that he thought he needed to get his board waxed. Terrain was icy and very early-season on Sunday, despite the several feet of snow that had fallen over the weekend. Freezing temperatures and the high winds inherent with the mountain pass location combined to eliminate some of the great fortune which Mother Nature had blessed us with. However, we still had a great time, logging another solid half day before responsibilities came calling.

All in all it was a great way to get my legs under me before Vail opens this Friday. Look for a condition report on Friday afternoon or evening.