Trying to Ski and Stay Sober in Colorado's Winter Sports Capital

16/05/2016 12:27 | Updated 16 May 2016

Unlike Europeans in the Alps, Americans tend to look at you disapprovingly when you drink on the slopes - but boy , do they sometimes make up for it in the evenings! But we'll deal with that later. First let's talk about Vail, the HQ of the largest ski resort conglomerate in the world.
Vail continues to expand its global empire, but it's always nice to be back on home turf.

One of our Vail guides - Michael Biggs, from Huntington Beach, Southern California (not much skiing there!) - enjoys his nickname of Biggsy and even, it seemed, the idea that people made jokes about his late namesake, Ronald Biggs, the infamous British Great Train robber. Michael could almost, I felt, have had an alternative career as a stand-up comedian.

He'd started the day in fine form at Vail's "One" gondola, suggesting: "Let's catch the lift while we're still young". And before our skis had even touched the snow, he was anxious to pass on some unusual skiing tips. "Turn left every other turn" was a good start. But then came the Biggsy rules for a day's encounter with the slopes.

"Number one, always look cool" he said. "Two - always have an excuse: weather, health or equipment. If you get lost meet at the bar.

"Three - you'd better be good at rule two!"

"My wife is from Boston" he told us gleefully over lunch at The 10th, the recently constructed and rather grand restaurant named after the celebrated US 10th Mountain Division of WW2 alpine troops. "She's half Italian and half Irish. You don't want to get between her and a lobster in the kitchen!"

When it came to lunchtime refreshments, Biggsy turned to me and asked: "Are you having an adult drink?" I certainly was. And Biggsy at least was not judgemental. Luckily I didn't put on any weight after an excellent meal. But then why would I? As Mike had explained: "There are no calories over 8,000 feet".

But talking of adult drinks, we were treated to serious alcoholic tastings on two consecutive nights - the previous night at one of Vail's many sister resorts, Breckenridge, and later that evening in Vail itself.

Back in Breckenridge, after the lifts had closed, we found ourselves somewhat seduced by the charms of Leah Ringer, who at the tender age of 19, had just been promoted to "office co-ordinator" after somehow grasping what seemed to be every conceivable aspect of the machinations of Breckenridge Distillery (the highest in the world?). Here we sampled a wonderful variety of spirits, including whiskey, vodka - and bourbon actually made from snowmelt! We all agreed - after only a month at the distillery, she had emerged as a brilliant and knowledgeable VIP tour guide.

Not to be outdone, at Vail's 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit Company, we found it hard to resist the Bourbon (92 Proof) Rye Whiskey (86 Proof)Vodka (80 proof) Cordial (70Proof) and even , yes, Moonshine (80 proof).

What on earth would they have thought of us almost a century ago when Prohibition was just getting under way?

So how did all this alcoholic self-indulgence affect our skiing the following mornings? Well apart from racking my brains to remember what I'd eaten - and even struggling to remember our hosts - things went remarkably smoothly, considering.

Vail is pretty huge, especially by American standards. As well as wonderful cruising, on runs like Lodgepole, Ledges and Born Free, and serious bumps on Blue Ox or Roger's Run, the resort has a unique selling point: its legendary 'back bowls' - huge bowl-shaped areas where the snow is left to nature's whim, and not groomed. The 2,700 acre bowl system incorporates Game Creek, Sun Up, Sun Down, Tea Cup, China, Siberia and Mongolia Bowls.

Minturn Mile - a backcountry descent from Game Creek (it's actually four miles) - starts with a steep and exhilarating gladed bowl running into a remote river valley. Eventually you reach the small town of Minturn. Have a beer at The Saloon, which was once occasionally visited by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

During the mid-1970s, Vail became known as the Western White House. President Gerald Ford, who had a home in nearby Beaver Creek, conducted much of the nation's business from The Lodge at Vail. His wife Betty - herself a reformed alcoholic - famously started a clinic, the Betty Ford Center, to help fellow sufferers. She would not have approved of our alcoholic indulgences!
At the time of writing (May 2016) the UK tour operator Ski Independence were offering a weekly Vail Epic Season Pass at the Early Bird rate of £533. Epic Local Passes (valid for a maximum of 10 days skiing at Vail, with some blackout dates) cost £401.