Call it a mini-crisis. It was my fourth day of skiing — ever — and Vail Mountain was getting pounded with snow.
Standing at the base, I watched my buddies charge hard for the iconic back bowls. As a newbie and still unsure on skis, I struggled to make sense of the trail map with its spider web of green, blue and black runs.
"Big day for powder," someone in the lift line said.
Another guy told his friend, "Not a great day to learn how to ski."
True on both counts. Because Vail is so large and I wasn't sure where the terrain and my skill level coincided, I was frustrated much of the day, although I still count it as a success. But as I developed into a skier, I realized that navigating a mountain is more than just memorizing a trail map.
The real skill is the ability to assess terrain and mountain infrastructure and relate it to your skiing ability.
"Skiing a mountain can be intimidating," Vail ski patroller Chris Reeder told me recently while we huddled next to a mid-mountain fireplace as a blizzard raged outside. "Especially a mountain for the first time."
The 5,239 acres of Vail are a good example. The resort has 31 lifts that service 193 conventional trails. Fifty-three percent of the trails are expert or advanced, 29% intermediate and 18% beginner. Add in the mountain's seven bowls, and you have virtually an infinite number of runs, thanks to the wide-open terrain.
"I've been skiing at Vail for years, and I still find new stuff," longtime Vail resident Jack Hunn told me. "The mountain just has so many ways to get around."
That brings me back to standing alone as the snow piled up faster than I would have liked. New skiers and those who might be looking at the mountain for the first time can easily become overwhelmed as they try to choose the best runs without getting in over their heads.
With each season I learned the art of skiing (or boarding) was more than just showing up and heading to a favorite run. It is about choosing the ideal way to approach the mountain to get fresh powder in the morning, untouched stashes by lunchtime and to avoid ice during the afternoon.
Then there is the art of avoiding the half-hour lines that form around well-used lifts that inexperienced skiers use. (These are usually the same people who have trouble getting on and off the lifts).
"Many times people don't think about what went into all the infrastructure and planning of a resort and how it helps them get around the mountain," said Kent Sharp of the ski resort design firm SE Group.
Before I got into skiing, I also never imagined that I would be chatting about the fine art of grooming styles, lift placements, fall lines and the not-so-subtle differences between fixed and detachable lifts.
First, let's talk about the lifts. Both types — fixed and detachable — put skiers on the mountain, but they do so in a slightly different way.
Take, for example, this year's new high-speed lift at Arapahoe Basin, a resort on the Continental Divide in Colorado.
The old fixed lift, which operated by using only one cable to move skiers up and down the mountain, caused bottlenecks and skier error, mostly with the beginner and intermediate ski crowd. The one-cable system meant skiers were loaded and unloaded at the same speed at which they were transported up the mountain. Essentially if the chair was moving at a speed of 500 feet per second, skiers had to be comfortable navigating the load/unload process with a chair moving that fast.
Here's the rub: At Arapahoe Basin (and many other resorts with fixed lifts) skiers want to spend as little time as possible on the lift, but not all skiers can load and unload safely if the cable is moving that fast.