Don't let the Europeans snow you with tales of skiing the Hahnenkamm, the Vallée Blanche and the Parsenn. America has in its enormously varied mountain terrain ski runs second to none in the world. To prove it, Sports Illustrated has selected the 10 top ski runs in the country after skiing them all, as well as a hundred others. They add up to more than 20 miles of powdered bowls and moguled slopes, of glacial heights and twisting trails that plunge through aisles of spruce and birch. No country can provide a wider variety of skiing, as well planned and as easily reached by excellent uphill facilities. A top ski run should thrill the superskier and challenge—without fear—the hardy weekend stemmer Its beauty should be nature's own, with man stepping in only to fell a tree or bulldoze a boulder. The 16 pages of color that follow not only illustrate in photographs and diagrams the 10 best runs, but also show how American ski resorts have developed in 30 years. Some of the runs have become legendary, and others are known only to a handful of skiing explorers. On the following page, the skiing begins where American skiing began, in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The runs sweep from there across Rockies, Sierras and Cascades—the glorious geography that makes American skiing so diverse.
THE NOSE DIVE, STOWE
There are two things to understand about eastern skiing: 1) the mountains are not Alps-high, which does not really matter, and 2) most of the skiing is below the tree line, which matters very much indeed. The result is trail-skiing—sailing down through aisles that cut across everything on the hill, including rocks—and the East over the years has developed it into a snowy art form. The chill, northern location of most eastern resorts means that plenty of snow, the fat, prepacked variety, makes up for any lack of height. And when skiing is as good as it is in the maple-syrup hills of Vermont, the trail means everything.
The Nose Dive is all that its name implies. For one thing, it starts at 3,600 feet on a rocky formation which—if you look at it just right—forms the profile of a sleeping giant. For another, it drops 2,025 vertical feet from the giant's nose at a sharpening pitch. And that's diving, brother.
November 14, 1966
But nose-diving is a venerable tradition in the East, and this run is the classic. It was opened in the winter of 1935-36, a pioneer U.S. racing run. For years the course snaked through the corkscrewlike Seven Turns and across Upper Schuss, then careened into Shambles Corner—which was usually just that. Early-day racers, seeking more speed than control, often took the high road—through the timber. The Dive had a reputation as the country's wickedest—the trail was only 25 feet wide in some spots—and just plain skiers stayed away.
They need not stay away any longer. The Nose has been remodeled, reworked, retooled in a massive earthen plastic-surgery project, and the result is one of the most majestic ski runs in the nation.
The chart at left shows Nose Dive revisited—with the trail mapped from the Octagon at the top. To one side are two chair-lift lines. That hook at the beginning is the start of the racing trail—which you may run by hiking up. And ahead lie a mile and a quarter of wider, smoother, steadier hillside.
In widening the run to 66 feet—to meet FIS downhill safety standards—Mansfield's Sepp Ruschp made a great run greater. The Seven Turns have been eased into a continuous wriggle. You can snake through them, as the Swiss racer does at right during last winter's international competition. Upper Schuss still schusses, and Shambles Corner (at midpoint on the map) can still undo you—if you let it. When Ruschp unveiled the new Nose last year, some of the first racers dived it at 60 mph, and for the first time in ski history the old belly-breaker also was full of intermediates.
Tradition has been served, not set aside. In those old days, eastern skiers were run-droppers. "I skied the Nose Dive," they would say proudly. A grand old custom. I skied the Nose Dive. And you should, too.
RIVA RIDGE, VAIL
It is quite possible that a vacationing skier at Vail, Colo. might drift by mistake onto Riva Ridge, then quit his job, sell house and car, abandon family, mail back the key to the men's room and never go home again. For Riva Ridge, full of humps, hollows and one tender trap, may be the best single ski run in the U.S.
Ever since that quiet gentleman, Peter Seibert, began to develop the area five years and about $25 million ago, Riva has been Vail's answer to Aspen. And with reason. It starts high on a backbone of the Rockies—at 11,250 feet—and drops off in gentle giant steps, 3,050 vertical feet and roughly four miles into the village. Through all this it swings easily, in silence and clean air, and there may not be a more scenic spot in the country in which to test all your skeletal structures.
Seibert named it Riva Ridge because his wartime regiment of the Tenth Mountain Division once captured a similar ridge in the Italian Apennines. Yet the run is full of peaceful intent. In fact, "it is all things to all skiers," says Bob Parker, Vail's marketing manager. "In its high slopes you can let your skis go and break the world land-speed record. Or you can ski along easily and build your ego. You set your own pace."
Whatever the pace, Riva carries you quickly—or lazily—down a 450-foot vertical drop across clear, polished snowfields. Then, with major swoop and minor G-force, it eases across the first step (the smart left turn shown at the top of the accompanying map) and drops off again. The pitch grows steeper for the next 500 vertical feet, but the mountain opens up, suddenly, to more than 400 yards of vast, flying hillside, a 150-foot-wide trail with the mood of a tilted ballroom.
Ahead, and far below, lies the village with its toy inns and chalets. Also ahead, and now directly under your feet, lies the Tourist Trap, Riva's great compressor. Everything you know about skiing is neatly squeezed into a quick, punishing 250-vertical-foot drop in 130 short yards. It is steep—45° in spots—and pocked with moguls, each one the size and shape of the Houston Astrodome. This is country you can fly over—like Olympic Medalist and Ski Instructor Roger Staub in the picture at left—or it is a section where you stem your uphill ski, kidney, rib, shoulder and ear just to stay on the hill.
I should not tell you this, but there is a way to avoid the Trap, around a shameful dogleg called Compromise, through the obscurity of thick trees. If they see you take it, they banish you to Aspen.
But the Trap is worth the trial—to ski it is to love it. Beyond it lie the Rolls, a series of mild, bottom-of-the-mountain bounces. And then Mill Creek, an easy catwalk that will take you back to the village, proudly swinging your tails.
AL'S RUN, TAOS
Give a thought-association test on Taos, N. Mex. and people will say: "Uh, pueblos. D. H. Lawrence. Deserts. Cracked red clay. Indian blankets. Silver belt buckles. Turquoise jewelry." It is a shame about that. They ought to be thinking: "Dry, unpackable powder snow. Steepest ski resort in North America. Giant conifers sheltering the snow all the way to the 12,000-foot peaks. No lift lines. Shirtsleeve skiing in stinging sunshine. Martini Trees."
A half-hour drive from Taos (which, incidentally, also is all of those things you first think about) is the world's most relaxed ski resort. Levi's are fine, white Levi's are formal. It is the personal preserve of Ernie Blake, a wry, handsome, benign tyrant who is being inexorably stalked by success.
Blake has kept Taos Ski Valley, which can sleep only 600 skiers, a marvel of the ski age. He found the place in 1953 by flying his own plane in ever-diminishing circles over Colorado and New Mexico, and contrary to ski-area-operator motivation, intends to keep it uncommercial. He has cut 28 ski runs down this high, dry land—the vertical drop is 2,600 feet—and installed six ski lifts. "There is still almost one acre of untouched powder snow for every skier at Taos," says Blake.
Blake named the runs as the moods moved him and tagged most of them superexpert. There are such swingers as R√ºbezahl, Zagava, Longhorn, Snake Dance and, simply, Al's Run. And why Al? Because Dr. Al Rosen, who is a cardiac patient and a brave man, was warned to stay off that lofty elevation. Not Dr. Rosen; he skis it every day in an oxygen mask. Which is good enough inspiration for Ernie Blake.
In its simplicity, falling straight down the No. 1 lift line, the run is typical of Taos skiing life. Spotted along the trails are Blake's famous Martini Trees, selected pines where Ernie and his friends have cached glass beakers of gin with a breath of vermouth (finders keepers). Martini Tree to Martini Tree, the run is 80 feet wide at the top, 80 feet at the base and fatly moguled in the middle. Al's Run also is a chute: a 1,800-vertical-foot drop along this bumping, 4,000-foot-long ride, one of the steepest in ski country. It feels at times as if you are certain to ski directly down Blake's chimney far below.
Al's Run is not for the vertiginous, but it is a jump-turning, heel-kicking delight for experts, like the swinging team at left. Because the lift is overhead you will feel the need to ski your very best; every chair contains critics watching you. Blake planned it that way. Once down, looking back up, you will feel wonderfully disheveled, knee-weary—and superexpert. After I skied Al's Run last March, Blake, who had bumped along with me, led me to the Martini Tree.
THE GLADES, SUGARBUSH
From its opening season of 1958-59, Sugar-bush, Vt. has had the reputation of being a place of ferocious chic and, in sheer stylishness, a sort of Sun Valley East. On clear days at Sugarbush the air is touched with a wisp of Diorissimo, from the trail of stunning girls flashing by, and in the lodge after dark the bartender will take an order for, say, a Negroni, and never flinch. Still, mink parkas do not a mountain make (Sugarbush is only 4,013 feet high). Sugarbush also has The Glades.
Fittingly in such a setting, of all the top ski runs in the U.S. The Glades is easily the most elegant. There is assuredly not another run like it, and everyone in the country should, just once, have the joy of taking a morning run through The Glades in about eight inches of light, new snow.
The charm of the run is uncomplicated. Each of the 10 superski runs stands for something: for example, conquering the deep powder at Warm Springs in Sun Valley, staying alive and intact while hurtling down the lift line at Taos Ski Valley. But The Glades has a more direct mystique. It is, simply, dancing down through stands of silver birch trees, punctuated with a few beeches, some spruces and an occasional lightning-charred stump. It is 1,200 feet of wide, wooded giant slalom, set to your own pace, where there are no moguls because nobody can ski the same path twice.
Its creation was a happy accident. "We cut the trail in 1958," says Jack Murphy, Sugarbush general manager, "and we wanted a certain glade effect. But it is hard to know when to stop cutting trees. One day, we simply took a chance and said, 'All right, stop,' and we had it."
Murphy's quarter mile, starting at about the 3,000-foot level, is one of the man-made wonders of eastern skiing. It is, he admits, one of the shortest runs around. No matter. The thing changes, magically, with every nuance of winter lighting: mornings, after a chill gondola ride to the top, The Glades is often hoarfrosted and coldly aglitter, as though stage-set by Van Cleef & Arpels. By midday, shafts of sun pour corridors of light into the trees, and by afternoon the scene changes again, into one of stark, etched shadows. The effect is visually striking: there are enough trees to let in the diffused light, but not enough trees to shut out the sky. Thus skiers around you seem to flicker from tree to tree, as though you are seeing them in an old silent movie. After heady stuff such as this, all else at Sugarbush pales. "Skiing through The Glades in this light," says one Sugarbush veteran, "is so damned poetic it gets embarrassing."
No need to blush. For one thing, The Glades is a reward for all the skiing it takes to get to it. The ski resort is spiderwebbed with trails, and this area is hard to find. This quick 1,200 feet of perfect skiing is part of a three-mile run down the mountain, most of which is pretty routine skiing. If you want to ski The Glades all day, you must work for it.
I skied The Glades several times last year, first following the kidney-shaped turns of Stein Eriksen and later, in powder, across ice and frost, through sun and shadow, slaloming around the trees, playing with all the pretty people of Sugarbush. And the guy was right when he said it. It is poetic.
PAYDAY, PARK CITY
Park City, Utah stirs in a lot of history with its skiing, and the one key trail in town rides right through an old mining camp complete with wind-scrubbed buildings and silent hoists, their ore buckets rusted into place. From atop the hill on a clear day you can see forever—which is all the way to Wyoming. Payday spills down the mountain for two and three-quarter miles—flying easily all the way—and finishes with a fine flourish in a steeper, headier, 6,000-foot dash to the front door of the lodge.
The payoff of Park City is in running the hill from its 9,270-foot peak, across high meadows, along catwalks (they are old pack trails, and riding them calls for a lot of tight checking), down into the camp. Then, after a 1,500-foot rope tow over a high saddle, comes the real Payday. You burst down a rolling slope into a revitalized ghost town, full of new life in an oldtime western setting.
CHARTREUSE TRAIL, ALTA
Big hills can be beautiful when they're up to your fanny packs in light, dry powder snow. Such is life at Alta, Utah, traditionally a land of steely-eyed experts. But take hope, intermediates. There is something you should know about the place. Around behind that monster mountain, in a lonely, silent curve, lies America's best all-powder playground. Further, it is a run everybody can ski, whooping along through an untracked, untouched, unexpert field of fluff.
From a 10,400-foot notch in the Wasatch Mountains (Alta's ski lifts are on the other side in the accompanying illustration), Chartreuse takes up an entire mountainside, floating down in rolling solitude across—pick your course—two, three, four miles of sailing. At the top, standing on the roof of Utah, it seems steep. It is, at first. But unlike the other side, where those experts are, here you can relax. Let your skis run; it eases off quickly, and there are rolling flats ahead that you can stroll across. Great place for a picnic. There is a view all around, a new ski world to see. If you time it right, it can take all day.
WARM SPRINGS, SUN VALLEY
Back in the days when Sun Valley was known as Hollywood in the Snow, it was Very Right to be seen there and all right to ski there—but don't go near the powder. First thing each day, while the socialites were wriggling out of their hangovers and into their ski clothes, patrolmen would swarm out over Bald Mountain and trample down all the fresh snow. Then at a given signal would come sunshine, followed by movie stars, followed by Steve Hannagan and photographers, followed by pictures in papers all over the country. And they all made it back to the lodge in time for tea.
But, inevitably, Sun Valley discovered skiing. The masses came to town and Hollywood moved to Klosters, which is Sun Valley in Switzerland. In the years since, the place has been taken over by the Janss brothers, Ed and Bill, who collect Rauschenbergs, de Koonings and ski resorts, and the emphasis now more than ever is on skiing, which is what Sun Valley is really all about. Mountain Manager Les Outzs controls Baldy by walkie-talkie from atop the hill, and every time a mogul appears he tunes in a Sno-Cat, which rolls out and smashes it down. And now there is an even more notable improvement—there is a whole mountainside devoted to powder snow.
Even in the Valley's old days small bands of skiers had discovered the north face of Baldy, that forbidding, pitching Warm Springs Run zooming down to Jim Patterson's front yard at the river. That oldtime run was not so much a run as it was a wild chase through the trees, and those pioneer boomers often ended up carrying sprigs of pine bough in their teeth. But the powder was there, touched only by shadows and Idaho's snowshoe rabbits. For years it was the secret slope. Then the Janss brothers, who know a great run when they ski one, called in the decorators and did the mountain over completely. The result: Son of Warm Springs, 50 acres of pure powder running down through smoothed, open flying hillsides.
From the 9,200-foot top, where the pitch rolls along at 21° to 28° (and where the girl in the picture opposite leans into her first turn), Warm Springs runs two and a half miles down to where Patterson's front yard used to be. It is fast company, doubling back and forth beside two new chair lifts and across plazas, kicking up feathery plumes all the way—a 3,200-foot vertical drop. And no more pioneer trailblazing. It is now possible to run Warm Springs all the way without once crossing another run or access trail.
The remodelers did it up right. Churning dips that used to pull skiers right out of their socks have been filled. The trail averages 200 feet in width, and is deliberately cut crooked, complete with scenic islands of trees for skiing around, through, under.
"And to think," said Outzs on the day we skied it, "of all those years spent on the other side of the mountain." At last Sun Valley has everything: manicured snow, hard skiing on one side and soft skiing on one of the country's smoothest slopes on the other side. And don't forget: tea about 5. Tea?
WEST FACE KT-22, SQUAW VALLEY
Everybody should know the history of KT-22, that dandy mountain in the Sierra Nevada. Kit Carson and John Sutter both slept at its base in the 19th century, and it never got much more crowded than that until Alex Cushing and the 1960 Olympics came to town. In the 1930s pioneer skiers had herringboned all over the hill, marveling at its snowy wonders, and the wife of one of them, Mrs. Sandy Poulsen, claimed it took her 22 kick-turns to get down it, hence the name. If that is how mountains are named, it is a good thing she did not try to ski the West Face.
"Actually, it is not a ski run at all," says Cushing. "It is really an avalanche chute. I have fallen from the top all the way to the bottom of that thing. I would imagine that not 5% of the people who come to Squaw Valley can ski the West Face of KT-22."
One slip on the West Face usually means you chute all the way to the bottom. There are stout pines spotted strategically all down the course, each one a potential lip-splitter. Still, the fact remains that the West Face of KT-22 is the ruggedest, fastest, most challenging and soul-searing ski run in the country.
From the top, at 8,200 feet, the face does not look all that tough. Its first humpback loops over rather modestly to a small staging area just atop the main face. It is on this snowy platform that some of winter's worst snap decisions are made. One chill morning last March, we made one.
"It's a bit icy," warned Californian Jim Tobin. "This run should only be skied in powder. But...if...you...are...careful, we'll make it." The face lay glazed in the 10 a.m. sun, glittering at a pitch of about 32°. We pushed off.
A quarter of the way down, I pulled up to look around at the view. Just magnificent. Breathtaking. I was awed. Scared. Below me, Tobin, Peter Paine, Photographer Marvin Newman (who took the photograph at left) and the others stood on their edges, looking back up. They were leaning in tightly to the hill, like the trees. Tobin glanced over at Newman. "I wouldn't turn just there if I were you," he said. "Me?" said Newman. "Me, I can make it." He turned, decorated with cameras, and fell. He began to slide, arms and legs spraddled, like a sky diver. Tobin wheeled quickly, raced below him and then threw himself over Newman's body, and their combined, tangled mass finally brought them to a stop. They got up carefully, having cut their own bobsled run halfway down the hill. It did a lot for my peace of mind.
I wanted a cigarette. But I was afraid to strike a match. Tobin hiked back up and stood guard below while I, like Mrs. Poulsen, kick-turned. Then I hacked my way down the shining run. Halfway, I stood very still, edges bit in, until I got my confidence back. It took all season.
GREEN VALLEY, CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN
The vast Pacific Northwest is populated by skiers who look pretty much like you and me. The same beaten boots, stretch pants and ribbed sweaters, the same driving eagerness to ski. Even now, in Tacoma and in Enumclaw, they stand tuned, hoping for the good year. But similarities end there. There is one vital difference. Nobody, but nobody, is more determined to ski—come rain or come shine—than those of the Pacific Northwest. And all too often, eyebrows dripping, they ski come rain.
It is an unhappy meteorological fact that when winter rains sweep in from the Pacific they soak everything west of the Cascade Range, occasionally turning entire snowfields into a substance like vanilla sherbet. Yet this condition only feeds the fierce fire that lies within Pacific Northwesters, and every skier, cinching the rack on top of his car in his driveway, takes off for the hills with the instincts of a riverboat gambler. For when skiing is good in the umbrella of Mt. Rainier—and that is much of the time, incidentally—it is very, very good.
The view of Rainier alone, rising in 14,408 feet of chill majesty, is worth the gamble. From the 6,877-foot saddle at Crystal Mountain, it is purest bonus: Rainier looks over the shoulder of one of America's top ski runs, the Green Valley.
Seventy-five miles out of Seattle, 1,000 vertical feet up over Snoqualmie National Forest, Green Valley sprawls for 80 acres of bowl, gap, canyon and mogul skiing, as though the run had been edited to include a chapter on everything. There is even powder snow, if you happen to be the first man on the mountain on the right morning. But no matter. Green Valley doesn't need powder.
Understandably, Green Valley is the most popular of Crystal's 8,000 square acres of ski slope, and of all the country's best runs this one has the most glacial mood, perhaps because the upper bowl is so big. From the saddle, where the skier in the accompanying picture is strolling, the Valley spills down into this monster bowl, which has some of the characteristics of Tuckerman's Ravine in the East. Always fatly smallpoxed with moguls, it is a bowl with bump and snap, flattening out into a schuss through the trees. Beyond, the run sails, if you would like, into a section of ridge run. And below that lies still another bowl, a shallower run beneath the lift, all of it heading for a swooshing finish, heady skiing down a slope they call the back side of Exterminator (the front side, they say, will really exterminate you). Over all, through all its swirls, the effect is like skiing through an hourglass. Every run is best made briskly—Pacific cold is damp and penetrating. And if there is fog below, don't worry. The sun surely shines on top.
Rain? Never! Well, almost never. But it's worth the gamble.
RUTHIES'S RUN, ASPEN
We take you now, by flashback, to an important but little-known moment in U.S. skiing history. It is the spring of 1946, the first year of Aspen, the old mining town, as Aspen, the new ski resort. And there in Spar Gulch—which is one of America's genuine gulches—stands Ruthie (Mrs. D.R.C.) Brown, the first of Aspen's intermediate skiers. "There ought to be," said Ruthie, sideslipping irritably, "an easier way to get off this mountain. I would give—no, I will give—$5,000 for just one trail that I can ski. A trail just for me." And she did. That, as every skier should know, is how Ruthie's Run was born.
Both Ruth and Darcy Brown were Aspen stockholders—stockholders were about the only people skiing Aspen in those days—and the rest of them chipped in another $5,000 to cut the new trail where she wanted it. The slope where Ruthie wanted the run was tougher than it looked. But Ruthie's skiing progressed while the run was being cut, and when it was ready she was ready to ski it. The result: one of the greatest ski runs in the country.
Ruthie's Run opened the winter of 1949. "It was," recalls Mrs. Brown, "a terrible day. A big crowd gathered around, and down we came, skiing through three feet of heavy powder. There was a Paramount newsreel camera, and I broke the ceremonial tape."
In the years since, Aspen has grown tremendously, Spar Gulch has been partially filled in to become less gulchy, but Ruthie's Run remains the local favorite.
And no wonder. Starting at 10,485 feet, the run does all these things in quick order: it snakes down through a corkscrew, 300 yards of tightly swinging, 22° slope; it chutes across a flat, into a funnel of trees to Zig-Zaugg (right), building tension and speed all the way; after another, 300-foot-wide, hollow, it dives smartly into Ruthie's Snow Bowl, then into Spring Pitch (where suddenly the world is tilted to 34°), swings sharply to a hard left turn onto a 250-foot catwalk and winds up barreling easily down Strawpile to happy exhaustion. There ought to be an Aspen law: Ruthie's should be skied twice at the minimum—once for skiing, all out, once just for looking, across all of Colorado, down at the town from the hillside.
On one of the days I skied Ruthie's last season, Mrs. Brown was waiting at the bottom. "Sadly, I don't have much time to ski the old run anymore," she said. "But always when I'm in Aspen I come by and look up at the skiers coming down it. It is quite a run." It is quite a run, indeed, Ruthie. Thank you.