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Winter Park Wonderland

It seems almost unfair to call Winter Park the prettiest resort I’ve visited in my quest to get back into skiing after 25 years away. With fresh snow having fallen overnight, every tree was dusted with picture-perfect powder, but even setting aside the unfair advantage the new snow provided, Winter Park is just pretty. I thought it entirely possible that I was imagining it or exaggerating the case, but no—Winter Park won Best Ski Resort in North America in 2018 and #1 Ski Resort in North America the following year. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who saw something special on these slopes.

With more than 80 years under its belt, Winter Park is Colorado’s longest continually operated ski resort and offers more than 3,000 skiable acres across 166 designated trails. And if that weren’t enough, the truly dedicated can find an additional 1,200 acres of off-piste options—that is, terrain without designated runs or marked trails. Off-piste is situated far from grooming equipment, but equally far from crowds. The overwhelming majority of Winter Park’s offerings are for those that know their way around a mountain—a full 74% of its slopes are designated for advanced skiers and up.

Despite being heavily weighted toward more experienced boarders and skiers, the remaining quarter of the park was more than enough to keep someone like me busy. A particular favorite was the all-too short Wildwood Glade run.  Accessible from three(!) different lifts (Sunnyside, Super Gauge Express, and High Lonesome Express), this blue run cuts down a narrow pathway with a steep slope on the uphill side and what I took to be an impassable drop-off through thick trees on the downhill side. I was quickly disabused of that notion when a group of boarders dropped over the lip with hoots of glee and quickly disappeared out of sight. Maybe someday, I thought. But for the moment, I was perfectly content to stick to the track and enjoy the tranquil bliss of gliding through a just-shaken snow globe.

Rising up, straight to the top

Knowing full well that I wasn’t as resilient as I was as a 20-year-old, I’d spent a fair bit of time trying to prepare myself for the rigors of the sport.

As part of a larger goal to get in better shape, I’d spent two months leading up to this winter of ski adventures performing daily strength and cardio exercises; I’ve been fortunate to be working from home for the duration of the pandemic, so breaking away for a few minutes of home exercises has been logistically easy. It was nothing too intense and rarely more than 10 minutes a day, but I was committed to keeping up my streak and was definitely seeing results by the time I set out on my first trip.

Alas, it wasn’t enough.

I’d wracked my brain for long-ago memories of what body parts hurt after skiing so that I’d know what to work on—but I honestly couldn’t remember anything hurting back then (oh, to be 20 again!). Without a good idea of what I should be doing to prepare, I went with a gut feeling: squats for my quadriceps, sit-ups and jackknives for my core, a stair stepper machine for cardio, and the occasional wobbleboard while at my sit-stand desk for pretty much everything from the stomach on down.

The attempt to prepare was valiant, but ultimately insufficient. As anyone who shreds the gnar on the regular can attest, skiing is like, hard work, man. With how much I ached after my first day, I was happy I’d done at least something to prepare. I could only imagine the pain I would have been in had I hit the slopes cold.

Perhaps the most surprising ache was in my calves, and along with them, the muscle opposite them, a jerky-thin strip of muscle running alongside the shinbone called the tibialis anterior. Just as the calf pulls the foot into a tiptoe position, the tibialis anterior works the opposite way, lifting the toes off the ground. Both muscles are vital for balancing, but I would have thought that being encased in a rigid boot would render them immobile and more or less unused on the slopes. Nope. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent more time on my wobble board preparing these balancing muscles for the rigors ahead.

There and back again

Like most resorts, Winter Park’s main parking lot can accommodate only a fraction of the skiers that the mountain can, and so relies upon satellite parking and shuttle buses to ferry skiers from remote lots to the base of the mountain. It goes without saying that you should pay close attention to which satellite lot you parked in—and yet, here I am saying it. Winter Park seemingly has more individual parking lots than it has ski lifts, and it has a lot of ski lifts.

After parking, I had dashed to the incoming shuttle bus moments before it departed and completely failed to note which lot I’d parked in. I was the last one to board the packed shuttle bus, and as a standee, my view for the duration of the short trip was the back of a fellow rider’s helmet. I couldn’t see out a window and honestly had no idea how I’d gotten to the base village—nor precisely where I’d come from. Several hours of skiing later, I realized my mistake.

So it both goes without saying and yet also bears repeating: note which lot you parked in. It’ll save a lot of heartache later in the day, as well as a wasted bus ride visiting several of the lots that aren’t the one you’re looking for. Ask me how I know.

It was only after I got back home that I learned of what may well be a much better way to get there: the Amtrak Winter Park Express. The train makes the 56-mile run from Union Station in Denver without stops, and drops passengers off at Winter Park’s doorstep. Ski and board transport are included in the fare, which starts at $29 for a one-way trip. Travelers can kick back and relax in wide, reclining seats and drink in the scenery as they avoid all the I-70 and US-40 traffic. The train’s route passes through 29 tunnels as it makes the climb from Denver, culminating in the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel under the Continental Divide. It’s both the highest railroad tunnel and third longest in the US.

…With powder skiing for all

The National Sports Center for the Disabled helps athletes of all stripes embrace the great outdoors with adaptive innovations. From kayakers and rock climbers to skiers and equestrians, the NSCD provides more than 1,800 lessons to participants annually.

At Winter Park, that takes the form of private and group lessons in alpine skiing, ski biking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

The NSCD has helped train nine US athletes participating in the Winter Paralympics, as well as athletes from New Zealand, Japan, Chile, Israel, and Great Britain—so don’t be surprised if someone in a sit-ski blasts past you with Olympian-level skills!