The Road Warrior: Putting Vail’s Epic Pass to the test

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A man.  A van.  A  lift pass. ( er, ok & a girlfriend – thanks for the pics Claire! ) What else do you need for 3 months on the road skiing 8 of America’s finest? Probably money would have helped. But you can’t have it all & young Aussie freeskier Jodan Cook certainly didn’t last season.

Just cant wait to get on the road again photo © Claire Porter

As every diehard skier knows, as soon as the season starts to wind down in Australia and the rain clouds roll in, you start thinking of what summer will hold.

Where should you go? What are the seasonal patterns? If it was good last year will it be a crappy one this year? Where is the best value? Will it be difficult with language differences? And what the hell is the deal with visas for that country?

The decisions are numerous, and if you are going for a long time, it can be extremely daunting and expensive!

I faced all of these dilemmas at the end of our last season, and after much deliberation decided that the USA and the Epic Pass sounded like the go. Plus visas there are very easy for a 90 day stay, and the language is the same (even though Americans struggle to understand our accent).

However the main selling point was the Epic Pass, and when you consider that it costs $660 and covers Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Northstar, Keystone, Heavenly, Kirkwood and A-Basin, 8 of the most diverse resorts in America, all season with no blackout dates for $660, it makes Australian resort prices look like a joke. [ Aussie resorts did comeback with $699 season pass deals at home led by Perisher’s Freedom Pass]

Now when you have a pass that covers most of California and Colorado it makes little sense to tie yourself to one spot, right?

This spurred the decision that a van would make the perfect house in order to get maximum value for money out of them.

I picked up a brilliant E-150 Van for $3,300 and decked it out in high-loft blankets and doonas from Cabalas, which incidentally is the most amazing hunting and camping super store in the world.

I decided to start the skiing at Northstar, due to its super close location to Truckee, and because the village is amazing! The park is also pretty impressive in Northstar. Its jumps aren’t particularly awesome, but they do rails and jibs really well. So it’s the perfect place to get back into things and jib around.

The best thing about Northstar is probably its village though. It is such a pretty place, with a central ice rink that always has live music and something going on.

From there I went to Heavenly, which I pretty much got skunked out with rain the entire time, and couldn’t hit their park at all.

I did have one awesome run where I popped out under the clouds and Lake Tahoe was in a patch of sun. You would swear you were going to ski right into the lake.

Next was Kirkwood for a day, before the journey out east to Colorado. Kirkwood is an interesting hill. You kind of just drive up to this little bunch of ticket boxes and cafes. It was a pretty average day again, and the snow conditions were atrocious. I can imagine it would go off on powder days though.

Aside from the skiing and the village life, jibbing, and the obviously beautiful Lake Tahoe, my favorite part of Tahoe is Taco Jaliscos. They will serve you a giant plate full of AMAZING Mexican for $5. Word!

With the snow being so incredibly average that Squaw and Alpine were considering shutting down and cutting losses, I decided that it was time to head out to Colorado in search of better parks and hopefully more snow.

Around this time I was super stoked to figure out that my 5.2ltr. V8 van had a 650mile range on one tank, which is about 1046.07 Kms. The stoked attitude turned pretty quickly as we got to driving through Nevada.

 Words really are incapable of describing just how bland and horrible Nevada is to drive across. It is just flat, brown ground for as far as you can see, split up sparingly by tiny hills and the odd jail. There are stretches of about 100kms that you are not allowed to stop on in case of prison break attempts.

Not to mention, when you stop for gas you feel as though you might end up disappearing in some horror movie style incident.

Finally after 18 hours of driving, fearing for my life, and getting lost in Salt Lake City’s terrible road works, I arrived in Breckenridge ready to find a good parking spot and pass out.

What I woke up to in Breck was beyond perfect. The park was better than pristine, the jumps were big, the pipe was perfect, and there was more snow than in California, even if only a little.

Breck is one of the only places I can honestly say I would consider living in America. It has the most amazing little township that thrives just at the bottom of the gondola, which makes you feel like you are in a real town rather than being stranded somewhere up in the hills. It’s pretty much my definition of the perfect resort.

One thing that took me a while to get used to was how poppy the jumps were. They set you up so high that you feel as though the landing will be really rough. But the park gurus that craft that place have it all dialed, and the landings feel super smooth and fast.

From there I got the layout of the land and figured out how close everything is to Breck.

Keystone is just over a hill and up the valley a little. It only takes 10-15 minutes to drive there. The same goes for places like A-Basin, Beaver Creek and Vail. Everything is really close.

Keystone is basically on par with Breck, except their rails are better and their jumps are not quite as good.

It is the kind of place you can go and just jib around and get a bunch of shots lapping through rail lines, trees, jumps and pipe. It hasn’t got such a serious vibe like Breck, with every second kid trying doubles, and it definitely has a lot less people to clog up the lines.

One thing I had wisely planned for was how cold it gets in Colorado. Especially living and sleeping in a van. Luckily the interior was carpeted and the bed was a nice thick material, then with the 20 or so blankets and doonas, plus my wonderful girlfriend Claire, we were toasty even when the temperatures went below -26°C.

So when you are in Colorado rug up in proper gear and make damn sure that you load up on blankets if you’re going to be doing a van trip like mine. They are a key element to a satisfying van sleep.

We wouldn’t have been able to do it in Colorado without the help of laundromats. Not only did we obviously need them to wash clothes but they are key for boots. If you are thinking of doing something similar, make sure you stack up on quarters because there is nothing worse than wet ski boots the next day. Its well worth the 2 hours and $5 or so to dry them out.

The elements can catch you off guard in the mountains here, but it is always worth it for the quality of these hills.

And if the weather does turn sour or you just want a day off the hill, the place you NEED to eat breakfast at is Clints Bakery in Breckenridge. I stumbled upon it while roaming the main street of Breck and was blown away by how awesome everything is in there. Fruit smoothies, every flavor bagels, home made relishes, the list goes on.

Dinner is something you can get just down the road at Rita’s Tacos, or you can drive 10mins into Silverthorn City, where you can chow down on fast food, restaurants, just about anything. And that is also where the cinemas are. The perfect day off the hill: food and movies.

With everything so close it’s easy to become complacent, especially when you are there for 3 months! I have to admit, too many hours were spent inside Clint’s bakery eating the most incredible bagels known to man.

It is amazing how close everything is around this area and its super easy to shred on over to Vail when the snow starts to fall, and believe me, Vail is the place to be when its dumping out! It is the largest resort in America, and when you’re up there it feels like you are never going to be able to get to ‘that lift way the hell over there!’

I felt like I was skiing across borders it was so big, and the terrain was amazing pretty much everywhere. If you happen to like shopping before, during or after skiing, I can imagine it would be your jam as well. The village of Vail is full of crazy shops that I didn’t expect to see.

If it’s dumping and you can’t get over the Vail pass, then I would say that Arapahoe Basin is the next best option for powder shredding.

I only spent a couple of days in A-Basin because of the super average snow, and the fact that they don’t groom many runs, or build any park. What they also don’t do is care where you go on the hill. They literally have zones where you can just go hike and do what you want. If you are into hiking backcountry and not having to be on the look out for angry ski patrol the whole time, A-Basin is the way to go. Other than that, I wouldn’t really bother going. No park, only a few lifts and on the side of a highway. Not my favorite resort by any means.

The Colorado ski resort area is absolutely stunning, and with driving around trying to find places to park for the night we ended up stumbling over amazing places to wake up, and see the most amazing morning sunrises over the mountains.

From California to Colorado I had stopped and slept in some of the most amazing places and discovered some of the coolest things. All of this while shredding some of the best parks in the world.

The trip allowed me to see America and its ski culture from a completely unique perspective. Definitely got to see things that your average tourist doesn’t. The little things that go wrong along the way, like snow chains chewing through fiberglass, or waking up to find half of your ski jacket spent the night outside, all fade away when you look back on it.

I honestly couldn’t say I would change a thing about the trip. The good and the bad, it will be an epic story to tell people for a long time. With technology and the general increase of soul-less communications and second hand information, this journey was an amazing awakening experience which I wish everyone could experience at least once in their life time.

Well there is maybe one thing I’d do different next time, take some money.

Still time to get your 2012 – 2013 Epic Pass – for downunderers only $AUD 644 from Travelplan.com.au 1300 754 754 or $USD 679 at Snow.com

Jodan throws an early season misty 9 at Northstar’s Pinball Park © Claire Porter