It was said to be the worst snow for years in America, and the season to stay home and ski in the Alps. In fact, as I look at the snow overviews for Colorado from last season, they unanimously confirm the worst snow since 2001–02. Snowfall the previous season had been exceptional, so two bumper years might have been too much to ask. Knowing they needed more, I certainly couldn’t restrain my excitement when caught in a blizzard en route from Denver to Steamboat, “You’ve come at the right time” the mini-van driver tells us ecstatic skiers in the back.
We awake to almost a foot of fresh snow, and are all eager to get our skis on. Guiding me around the mountain is David Moon, a member of the Steamboat Ski and Snowboard School, and the go-to man when it comes to skiing for visitors to the resort. He tells me how he’s skied with the rich and famous, among them, Bill Jensen, the CEO of Intrawest (the company that owns Steamboat, along with eight other ski resorts). I ask him to take me to his favourite places on the mountain – what follows is a morning skiing trees, chutes and little time on the piste.
Moon takes me off-piste to ski Steamboat’s infamous Champagne Powder, trademarked by the resort in 2010, and so-named because of how light and dry the snow is, making it exceptionally easy to ride or ski. The exact science behind the snow is complex, but simplified; the snowflakes freeze in the cold atmosphere at 4000m and, therefore, remain dry.
The resort’s 18 lifts offer access to 165 pistes of varying difficulty: there’s something for everyone and the piste skiing is an intermediates heaven. The slopes near the base (served by a high-speed chairlift) are ideal beginners territory, and there are also designated zones for those making their first few turns. The steep chutes (1 and 2 having the highest gradients) at the top of the mountain are great in the days following a big snowfall; or for some tree skiing, hike up from Storm Peak Express to Christmas Tree Bowl, or head down the Shadows trail.
The next day we rise early (to another foot of powder – was I in heaven?) to ski the first tracks in the fresh snow. A “first tracks” pass allows access to the gondola at 8.00am, 30 minutes ahead of the crowds, and provides the perfect opportunity to track-out any fresh snow, or make carefree carves on the corduroy snow. The pass costs $29, and must be purchased in conjunction with a normal lift ticket. Breakfast on the mountain is a must: Stokers is the more informal option with its signature Storm Peak waffles, whilst Hazie’s is the pricier option, serving more delicate food from dawn until dusk.
This winter Steamboat celebrates its 50th year of operation, having opened for business in January 1963 – a peculiar month to start. The delay was caused because some parts of the first chairlift failed to be delivered, leaving only one option: Founder, John Fetcher had to drive his own truck to California to pick up the remaining pieces. The lift finally started turning on 12 January, a bitterly cold day, however only one person paid to ski Colorado’s newest ski area.
Once off the mountain, you should take a trip to the nearby Strawberry Park Hot Springs, with its three pools, all filled with natural mineral water at varying temperatures. Once darkness falls it’s clothes off, adult-only bathing. The springs are certainly the place to head if you’re looking for a romantic escape, especially when there’s snow falling all around.
The spa at the Steamboat Grand hotel also offers a range of treatments, including massages, as well as a heated outdoor pool and fitness centre. I stayed at The Grand where, despite its size, the staff are welcoming, the rooms are tastefully decorated and the service is second-to-none. There’s even a Starbucks within the hotel, which means (and I did) you can have a “proper” coffee in the bath!
Steamboat’s commitment to the environment and waste reduction is unprecedented in comparison to many resorts across the globe. Two years ago the resort produced ten trucks of waste per day, now with a 75% landfill reduction, it sends just three trucks every 2 weeks. All the cups, utensils, plates and straws used by the resort in their restaurants are biodegradable and compostable.
The resort of Steamboat is located a few miles from the old cattle town of Steamboat Springs, which to this day is typically Western. Make sure you pay a visit to FM Light & Son’s, a Western mercantile store that has served the town since 1905, to really get a feel for the character of the place. If you’re looking to experience a 1950s-style American diner then Jonny B Good’s is a must. Open from 7am–9pm, the restaurant is famed for its delicious ice creams and milkshakes, as well as their (American-sized) burgers and fries.
And what about the lack of snow? There was certainly ample whilst I was in town. I restrained from buying a cowboy hat, just, but I left the resort craving to ski more Champagne Powder, although for the time being all I can do is raise a glass of bubbly and say ”Happy 50th Steamboat!”
Ben Clatworthy flew with British Airways (ba.com) from London to Denver, and stayed at the Steamboat Grand (steamboatgrand.com). A 6-day ski pass for 1 December costs $420 when purchased at least 7 days in advance. Children aged under 12 ski for free with every adult lift pass purchased. Tuition can be booked on at steamboat.com.