Steamboat: Champagne Powder, Olympian Tracks
By William Triplett
In the middle of a ski season that has left a lot of North American resorts starved for snow, how lucky is this: The day I show up in Steamboat Springs in the Colorado Rockies, the mountain had just been buried the day before under 27 inches of fresh powder – setting a resort record for the most snowfall in a 24-hour period.
To boot, the massive storm went on to dump another 10 or so inches the next day, and only on the Steamboat area. No other resort in the state reported anything similar.
I’m from the East Coast, thus my experience with powder was limited, to say the least. I’d never really gotten what the fuss was about. But after a couple days knee-deep in the stuff, I got it. By turns (pun intended, sorry) light and airy but also demanding more stamina and different skills, Steamboat’s famous “Champagne Powder,” when I got the hang of it, made me feel like floating downhill at speed. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Not surprisingly, it drew hordes of powder hounds on a Monday to the slopes, according to Steamboat officials I talked to. On mountain, though, it was hard to tell how many bodies were about, probably because the mountain is so damn big – 165 trails crisscrossing almost 3,000 acres. And, once you ride up the main gondola, the resort spreads out over four peaks, each with its own set of lifts. Many of those lifts I was able to hop onto without a wait.
All that lovely snow wasn’t the only thing new in town. In the last couple years, Steamboat facilities have been getting a facelift. For instance, a brand new promenade joins together two previously separate slope-side base areas – Gondola Square and Torrian Plum Plaza. Instead of schlepping up to streets to go from one to the other, you can now stroll along the snow/ice-free promenade (it’s heated). The distance is shorter, the views much better.
There’s also One Steamboat Place, a toney new enclave right off of Gondola Square, offering deluxe condo residences as well as boutique shopping and a hip restaurant, the Truffle Pig (great for apres relaxation, I must say, and fairly reasonable). Up the slopes, on the gladed trails that have long been part of Steamboat’s storied reputation, the dead and dying trees that were starting to clutter things have been removed. I didn’t venture onto any of the trails, but those who did were whooping it up audibly.
Add in more than $15 million in improvements to Hayden Airport, mainly for a new arrivals area complete with another baggage claim carousel, and you’ve got a resort that’s looking pretty spiffed up as it approaches its 50th year in business.
Most every major resort has spas, but the other thing that makes this place special to me is that, well, they don’t call it Steamboat Springs for nothing – some 150 natural hot springs surround the area, many just a short drive away. I went to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, a collection of several pools that you might say are nestled in an Eden-like setting, had Eden been located in the mountains amid pine trees and rock slabs. The pools vary in temperature, the majority just slightly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s quiet, remote, unlighted, and, after dark, clothing is optional. I was there around dusk on a snowy evening, and I spent most of my time resting against one of the rock walls of a pool, head back, eyes closed, and enjoying the flakes landing on my face.
Lodging abounds, of course, from pricey ski-in/out accommodations to budget hotel rooms. I stayed in the Steamboat Grand, also fairly new, situated just across the street from Gondola Square. Grand it is, looking a lot like an oversized mountain lodge, heavy on natural wood and stone decor along with a water fall in the lobby. My room was cozy, with a gas fireplace and a marvelous direct view of the mountain.
Dining similarly runs the gamut, from small coffee shops and sandwich joints to upscale eateries. Laundry is the name of a new restaurant in town; the building was indeed a laundry around the turn of the previous century. It’s big on meat and fish with a nouvelle twist, and patrons are encouraged to share orders. Carl’s is a saloon/restaurant favored by a lot of locals. It takes its name from Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian Nordic skier who emigrated to Colorado in 1905 and is considered a pioneer of the sport in the U.S. Enjoy the ribs, a cold beer made locally, and the occasional bluegrass bands that play here.
My stay in Steamboat was brief – three days – but memorable, due mostly to what I’ve already told you. But what really made the trip special was the chance not only to meet but ski with one of the heroes of my youth. Billy Kidd, a two-time Olympian and former World Cup champion, has made his home at Steamboat since the 1970s. Other resorts boast similar stars you can ski with – but usually for a price. Billy regularly hosts a free clinic for anyone who meets him at the top of the gondola. There’s a sign that tells you whether he’ll be there on any particular day. Show up at 1:00, and he’ll give pointers to whoever shows up.
I skied with him alone for nearly two hours on a Wednesday afternoon. Funny, personable, and immensely patient, he helped me with what he says so many skiers still get wrong – the basics. “Do you just want survival tips, how-to-get-down-the-mountain kinds of things,” he asks at the start with a smile, “or do you want to learn how to ski like an Olympian?”
Talk about luck!
William Triplett is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and the former DC bureau chief for Variety. Triplett has written about various destinations, from Scotland’s Inverness and Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and the Beatles’ old haunts in Hamburg. His work has appeared in the The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Daily Beast and Capital Style.