Colorado's snowy sisters offer skiing nirvana
By Heike Schmidt Oct 18, 2011, 3:06 GMT
Breckenridge, Colorado - Even Che Guevara has been spotted in Breckenridge, with a pair of ski goggles perched on his nose - albeit just as an image emblazoned on a bright red T-shirt in a shop window on Main Street.
'Powder for the People' reads the slogan in capital letters under the face of the revolutionary. It's a reference to the default consistency of snow in these parts. Draped next to it is a smart designer anorak decorated with glittering rhinestones.
The picture is apt for this little town west of Denver in the US state of Colorado, which is among North America's top ski holiday destinations.
Like the other resorts in the Rocky Mountains, Breckenridge has its share of million-dollar holiday chalets, but the outlaw image counts for more. Mariah Carey and Kevin Costner are welcome to stick to the pistes in upmarket Aspen. 'Breck' feels more at ease with daredevils like Olympic winner Bode Miller.
'After all, we do have a reputation to live up to,' said Gail Westwood of the local Heritage Alliance history society. She scrunches through the snow in a long skirt, her hair tied up in a bun, passing colourful Wild West buildings with crooked facades.
Westwood recalls the turbulent beginnings at the Gold Rush camp 150 years ago, with tales of golden nuggets, gunslingers and red light districts. The ghost of Sylvia the widow is still said to haunt a Victorian mansion at 130 South Main Street, roaming the rooms in search of a new husband.
Breckenbridge ski resort seems tamely civilised by comparison to its Wild West past.
A carpet of conifers reaches almost up to the valley stations of the ski lifts. Although the peaks are all around 4,000 metres high they are not particularly jagged. The Rocky Mountains are a few million years older than the dramatic Swiss Alps and their surfaces have been worn away by eons of erosion caused by wind and weather.
Breckenridge's diverse network of 155 slopes is grouped around four adjacent mountains of the Ten Mile range - pragmatically named Peak 7 to 10. The season lasts from November through to April, with the best snow to be found from January to March.
A range of lifts and the celebrated Breck Connect gondola take skiers to the base of Peak 8 in style. While traversing the Cucumber Gulch nature reserve, travellers should keep a lookout for a bad-tempered elk said to hang out at the base of Peak 7.
Broad, well-groomed intermediate slopes await ski beginners, especially around the base of Peak 9. Some visitors will want to whirr up the Imperial Express Superchair at Peak 8 - the highest lift in North America, rising to 3,910 metres.
For those who like it a little wilder, there are a number of dramatic chasms leading up to Peak 7.
For snowboarders and freestyle ski fans there five terrain parks with big halfpipes. Breckenridge is proud of keeping up with the times, as one of the first Colorado resorts to embrace new-fangled snowboards 25 years ago, allowing them on its hallowed slopes. These days, snow bikes are the big hit in neighbouring Keystone.
Keystone is a ski territory without a discernible centre. Only 300 people live here the whole year round and the community is made up solely of hotels, lodging houses and apartment complexes.
The driving force behind the creation of Keystone was pioneer Max Dercum, whose bulldozers started cutting runs in 1971. The first were dug where Dercum and his co-founders had a hunch that they would turn out to be good - today there are 135 trails, half of which feature challenging terrain suitable for advanced athletes only.
Unlike in Breckenridge, the ski areas are not sited conveniently next to each other but lie around Dercum Mountain, North Peak and The Outback. Behind Dercum Mountain lies The Outpost, a blockhouse lodge with a well-regarded restaurant.
Keystone is cheaper than Breckenridge and more suitable for family vacations. One of the attractions for youngsters is a life-size snow castle complete with towers and a labyrinth. The town features sledge runs, snow tubing and a skating rink along with a magical forest of mineshafts, tunnels and bridges.