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Vail - Formerly Known As Colorado

24/03/2016 11:54 GMT | Updated 24/03/2017 09:12 GMT

If Vail is the Holy Grail, in "Breck" it's what the heck (let's do it anyway!) That's another way of saying that in Colorado (look away now, Aspen - but we still love you) skiers can be divided into two distinct camps - Vail or Breckenridge aficionados.

Both are owned by Vail Resorts, probably the largest ski conglomerate in the world. The most ambitious version of its "Epic" pass entitles holders to ski at not only five Colorado resorts, but also in Utah, California, less ambitiously in Michigan and Minnesota, and - wait for it - Perisher, in New South Wales, Australia. But let's not get side-tracked. It is after all Vail Resorts and Colorado we are talking about, not its global conquests!

Vail Resorts' burgeoning empire really got going in 1996 when Vail and its sister resort of Beaver Creek purchased near neighbours Breckenridge and Keystone (long before it started eyeing up California, Utah and - eventually - even Australia).

It was a good move: the attractive old mining town of Breckenridge has always been popular with British skiers, many of whom even bought properties there before the credit crunch of the early 1990s dampened the market. Although it didn't open as a ski area until 1961, Breck was well established as a historic community. Vail, on the other hand, had exploded into existence just a year later from a picturesque valley in the wilderness - modelled on a traditional European mountain resort. Back in 1962, it looked slightly ersatz, but more than half a century later it has aged and matured into the kind of community it set out to be - a charming if slightly sprawling alpine village.

Surprisingly perhaps, in spite of Breckenridge's five peaks and superior altitude (with skiing as high as almost 4,000 metres compared with Vail's 3,500) Vail has a considerable edge in the extent of its skiing terrain: 5289 acres compared with Breck's 3308 metres. But who's counting? You won't run out of skiing in either resort, and Breckenridge, with such gung-ho runs as Psychopath, Mineshaft and Devil's Crotch, plus new "hike-to" skiing on the recently opened Peak 6, arguably has the more challenging slopes!

Breckenridge has recently started something of a European guiding system, in which qualified mountain guides offer "back-country" terrain, although it's "in bounds" (i.e. not outside the ski area boundary). Although you can exit the ski area through controlled gates if you want to, unlike in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, your guide can't accompany you.

But then as Kristen Petitt Stewart, Breckenridge's Senior Communications Manager says: "We launched this unique programme when we opened Peak 6 to help give our guests an opportunity to explore the new terrain (and our other expert terrain) with the help of our local experts - our Breck Ski and Snowboard Pros - in conjunction with the ski patrol. There's plenty of in-bounds backcountry skiing in Breck, much of it high above the treeline - it's terrific!

"Now you can explore the best trails at Breck with your own private guide, plus get on the mountain earlier by loading the chairlift before the public. You can create your own experience by choosing the skills and terrain you'll learn that day; from the basics of avalanche awareness, to the high alpine travel and avalanche rescue - your Breck guide will train you to enjoy the mountain safely. Each participant has the option to carry his or her own pack with a beacon, shovel, and probe. Group sizes are limited to a maximum of six participants per guide. The minimum skiing or riding level is a PSIA/AASI Level 8 - which means you can ski or ride black diamond terrain confidently."

As it happens our group was quite happy "just" skiing on piste with occasional forays into some of the big powder bowls on Peaks 6, 7 and 8. Our guide, Matt Belleville - an instructor for more than 30 years - set great store by telling us that to ensure maximum safety, some of the resort's 120 ski patrollers "bomb the crap out of" any avalanche-prone slopes.

The good news for UK-based skiers and snowboarders wanting to visit Vail Resorts' Park City resort in Utah - claimed to be the biggest in the USA following its link with Canyons - is the launch of direct flights from London's Heathrow airport (three times a week) with Delta to Salt Lake City. The resort is just 45 minutes' drive from the slopes.

Arnie Wilson

Seven nights booked with Ski Independence at One Ski Hill Place in Breckenridge costs from £1797 per person, based on two sharing a one-bedroom condo, including British Airways flights from Heathrow to Denver and shared Colorado Mountain Express transfers, departing December 2, 2016.

Ski Independence: 21 Logie Mill, Edinburgh, EH7 4HG Email: ski@ski-i.com

+44 (0) 131 243 8097 http://www.ski-i.com

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