Skiing still offers the same high feelings

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Keystone Resort in Colorado has upgraded the traditional skiing experience with 21st century technology.
Keystone Resort in Colorado has upgraded the traditional skiing experience with 21st century technology. Photo Credit: Danny King
Danny King
Danny King

By my own semiscientific count, John Denver, in "Rocky Mountain High," his seminal hit from 1973, sang the word "high" 17 times.

It's a concept I thought about regularly during my three-day stay in Colorado earlier this month. And it's not necessarily because of the cannabis cloud I'd occasionally (though not unhappily) wander through while visiting the Rocky Mountain State, which legalized recreational pot use in November 2012.

No, it was the way Colorado and its mountain resorts west of Denver distill a ski culture that at one moment can take a skier's thoughts back decades to his or her first (and usually painful) days on the mountain, and in the next moment show how quickly things are changing.

In this case, the occasion was the 41st annual Mountain Travel Symposium (MTS), which brought about 1,200 attendees to the mountain-resort town of Keystone, elevation 9,173 feet. As advertised, the MTS' two-day Forum sessions (full disclosure: MTS is owned by Travel Weekly's parent company, Northstar Travel Group) afforded me the chance to get something of a handle on the players, trends and technology that are shaping winter sports.

That sector is in a state of flux. Trading stories over a preconference buffet breakfast, representatives from California to Vermont mixed their generally laid-back and stoked attitude with bewilderment over weather patterns that have delivered wildly fluctuating levels of snowfall, forcing managers in recent years to scramble to properly staff their mountains and serve their guests.

Meanwhile, symposium panelists spoke of the challenges of catering to the all-important millennials. That generation, which is viewed as the future of winter sports (not to mention travel in general), is less prone to get behind the wheel to support the drive-up business that is the backbone of most U.S. ski resorts. They are also prone to, in the words of MTS speaker and HotelTonight executive (and millennial) Donnie Schumann, "plan less and share more."

The real education, though, was on the hills and in the towns that dot the Rockies. Having taken about a dozen years off from skiing (parenthood will do that to some people) before rejoining the ranks a couple of years ago, I still experience a Rip Van Winkle effect when dusting off the ski pants, breaking out the super-wrinkly wool socks and taking to the slopes for some spring skiing.

For starters, that means being a bit bewildered by the elaborate production involved in merely buying or redeeming a lift ticket. In this case, Vail Resorts (which owns Keystone) collects about as much information on the customer as the local Department of Motor Vehicles before issuing its RFID-enabled tags, eliminating the need for the old clip-and-ride method, and can pretty much track every move on the mountain. Think of it as George Orwell meets Warren Miller.

Then, of course, there are trends that already perplex a 40-something in day-to-day life. For many, that means not just being satisfied with glorying in the ambient sounds and sights, in this case the bliss of connecting S-turns over a forgiving blanket of packed powder, but needing to accentuate the experience with music blasting from earbuds and an iPod. (After overhearing a couple of girls on a gondola talking about the music on their "old" iPods, I wanted to tell them that my goggles were older than them).

So why just commit a mountaintop view or a straight shot down an intermediate run to memory when the experience can be recorded and relived later via either a selfie or a GoPro camera affixed to a ski helmet? (Ski helmet? What's that?)

Meanwhile, more technology is in store. One MTS speaker cited a ski-boot brand called Carv, which records weight-shifting data from a skier's run that can be used to improve form and technique. That might be a bit too much information for someone who leans back on his skis too often for his own good.

The good news for the more traditional folks on the mountain is that, like a Southern Californian always needing a couple days to adjust to life and breathing at high altitude, some things don't change. On the lodging front, that meant that the woodsy trim, angular architecture and loft vibe of the Keystone Resort condo I stayed at was pretty similar to the places I had stayed at near California's Mammoth Mountain as a kid.

From a personal standpoint, that means the familiar dread that sets in when you take inventory of your burning thighs and lungs, peer down the endless mountain and realize that if you can't make it through this mogul field within the next hour or so you're going to miss tonight's flight back home.

Or trading the solitude of a solo chairlift ride (many could be had at Keystone two days prior to its 2015-16 seasonal closing) for an accompanied one in order to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler or local, learn a little more about the mountain and distract yourself from a fear of heights that remains untreated.

Then there are the local traditions. That means foregoing the late-season semi-ghost-town feel of Keystone's River Run Village for a nine-mile drive down the road to Dillon (elevation 9,111 feet), where a visit to the Arapahoe Cafe and Pub (est. 1945) can still get you a pulled-pork sandwich for $6.50, a free beer (or two) from a local and a treatise on how those rich Texans are more likely to visit Aspen or Vail to pose than to ski.

And for someone who first strapped on skis in the Reagan administration, there's still old-school mountain terminology to be learned.

That means a fellow chairlift rider advising me to stay on the upper part of the mountain in order to avoid the "mashed potatoes" of springtime slush near the base.

When a 20-something fellow gondola rider referred to opening day at nearby Arapahoe Basin (base elevation 10,780 feet) and its annual fall crush of Coloradans on its scant, skiable slopes as "the White Ribbon of Death," the older local gentleman on the gondola said that term had been in use since he was a kid.

Still, even this skier had to give in to at least one product of new-school technology. Told by a local snowboarder and fellow chairlift rider that the ski passes keep tabs on how many chairlifts are taken on a particular day as well as how many vertical feet are being skied, I couldn't resist.

And at the end of the day on the mountain, I gave in and checked the Epic Pass stats to find out that during my five-plus hours on the mountain, I took 21 lifts and skied more than 33,000 vertical feet.

And only a few hundred of those were spent on my face.

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