With Tour Costs Comparable, Skiers Face the Challenge of
Choosing between the American West or the European Alps
by Dan Leeth
Some decisions are tough. For about the price of a winter's week in the West, you can fly to Europe and schuss the very slopes where Alpine skiing began.
Dollars or euros? Apple pie or apple strudel? A short hop across the plains or a long haul over the pole? There is so much to consider, and it starts with getting there.
One advantage of the West is its proximity. It takes only a few hours to fly to Denver or Salt Lake City, and nonstop flights connect major cities with the regional airports for Vail, Steamboat Springs, Telluride and others. Commuter flights lead to more.
"Here, people can spend their vacation on the hill, not traveling," says Dave Fields of Utah's Snowbird Resort. "Most of our guests fly and ski the same day,"
Reaching Europe, on the other hand, typically takes eight airborne hours or more, and for many destinations, requires a plane change. Watches and bodies spring six to nine time zones ahead. At least on the overnight flight, you can dream about how to spend 10,000 frequent flyer miles.
After the wheels hit the tarmac, the next difference emerges. In the West, you're still in the United States -- same language, same money, same customs, same anytime minutes. In Europe, you've landed in a foreign world.
"You're going to have a totally different experience," says Daniela Gugliotta of SkiEurope. "You're not just going for the skiing. You're going there to experience the culture, taste the food, and see things you won't find here."
The charm hits immediately. You find women dressed in dirndls and men wearing knickers and felt hats. Gingerbread-style chalets sport drooping roofs and flower-boxed balconies. Storefront bakeries flavor the air with the scent of freshly baked bread. Narrow cobblestone streets meander like passages through a fairy tale.
"You're seeing the Old World and Old World charm," says John Frasca of Central Holidays. "The food and the hospitality don't compare to anything out West."
Being in a foreign land, of course, brings certain deprivations. Electrical appliances require converters, televisions don't show favorite programs and menus lack familiar fare. Hotel rooms tend to be smaller and more spartan than their American counterparts. When it comes to mattresses, Europe can be royally lacking.
"We don't have king beds," says Italian-born Gugliotta. "We have a big bed that sometimes is just one mattress, or it's twin beds next to each other. You don't find two queen beds in a room."
Regardless, after a good night's sleep it's time to hit the slopes. In America, generally chairlifts or gondolas whisk skiers from base areas. In Europe, access to the slopes often begins with a ride on a train, funicular or aerial tramway with passengers packed in like chips in a Pringles can. Your nose may remind you that in some cultures, bathing is optional.
On the slopes, U.S. and European lift lines move differently. With minimal prompting, Americans form disciplined queues, keeping their distance and taking turns merging. Such is not the Alpine custom.
"It's a free for all," says Andrea Taylor, who lived in Europe and traveled with the International Ski Club. "There are no real lines. You just walk over people's skis."
Major American resorts employ chairlifts and gondolas almost exclusively. In Europe you find the same high-tech, high-speed lifts as here, but you may find them interspersed with an array of rope tows, platter pulls (Poma lifts) and T-bars. For those who have never tried them, being yanked upward on a surface lift can be daunting.
From high up, the mountains of the American West appear grand. Snow-covered peaks jut from forested hills. Cliffs and canyons plunge into shadowy valleys. Horizons disappear behind distant crests and ridges. You may imagine this to be the best rooftop view on earth. That is, until you see the Alps.
Far above the last stunted tree, Alpine peaks, crags, horns, knobs, points, needles and spires rise like frozen waves in a churning white sea. This is a bold land where snow covers rock and palisades touch glaciers. Bounded only by the sky, its grandeur seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
"You feel like you're standing on top of the world," says Jeff Evans of Utah's Snowbird Resort. "The mountains are just spectacular."
Although U.S. areas may have slopes above timberline, most American skiing takes place on trails cut through forest. Trees line routes and shelter skiers from wind and weather. Area boundaries are usually well designated, minimizing the worry about skiing out of bounds or dropping to the wrong valley.
Alpine runs often start and stop above timberline. Ski trails on the map may be nothing more than machine-groomed swaths down a white expanse, marked only by occasional wands. Some find the unbridled openness exhilarating. To others it's intimidating.
When storms hit, that treeless terrain offers no protection from howling winds. Groomed routes become featureless hillsides when blanketed under fresh snowfall. Shadow-killing clouds flatten light and destroy depth perception. As fog descends, even world-class skiers can become disoriented.
"When I was on the U.S. ski team, I got caught above tree line in a total whiteout," says Steamboat's Billy Kidd. "I could see the outline of my skis, but I couldn't tell which way was up or down. There was a cliff I had to avoid, but I didn't know which way to turn. I kept feeling I was going faster and faster. Finally, I had to do something, so I sat down. Only then did I find out I hadn't even been moving."
European runs cross the farmlands and hillsides that separate distant valleys. While domestic skiers yo-yo up and down in short spurts, Alpine skiers can enjoy long cruisers that stretch for miles. They sometimes connect village with village, and in places you can even ski from country to country.
"I used to take a group of Americans over to Zermat to ski glaciers on the side of the Matterhorn," says Kidd. "We would stay in Switzerland, but then ski down to Italy and have spaghetti for lunch."
Trail grooming, the art of scraping, smoothing and packing powder into ribbons of white corduroy, is less prevalent in Europe than in the States. Over here, nearly every beginner and intermediate run is manicured into a uniform, easy to negotiate surface. European resorts boast excellent groomed trails, too, but they also leave plenty of terrain unpacked for what is called "off piste" skiing, and most allow adventurers to venture where they want. Experts love it.
"They don't have the same rules and regulations we do because they don't have same issues with insurance," points out Ski Utah's president Kip Pitou."
European snow tends to be a bit heavier and bears higher moisture content. It reminds some of the East. A thousand miles from the nearest ocean, Rocky Mountain snow falls dry, light and fluffy. Not only is it great untracked, but it also packs into ice-free runs that make skis sing.
"You can get days in Europe when the snow is outstanding, even similar to the champagne powder we have in the Rockies," says Steamboat's Billy Kidd. "It's just that you don't get many of those days."
When it comes time for lunch at most Western resorts, you either drop to the base area or head for a cafeteria-style meal at an on-mountain eatery. The goal for American skiers is to return quickly to the slopes for more action. It's different for Europeans. They treat skiing as a total experience, and dining is part of the package.
"There are little farm houses where you can have your schnapps, eat a plate of speck and have some hot soup," says World Cup competitor Cory Carlson, now ski ambassador at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Colorado's Beaver Creek. "You kick your skis off and sit. That's part of the ambiance. We don't have that in the States"
At day's end, some Americans stop at bars for music and munchies while others, preferring more sedate activities, soothe muscles with a soak, sauna or massage. Apres ski in Europe is less tame.
"In Austria, everyone from young to old jams their skis into snow banks and walks into the bars," says Charles Leocha, author of "Ski Europe." "They whoop it up, yodel and dance and until it's time for dinner."
When alcohol is poured, Europe provides what some might consider another advantage. Its altitudes are lower. In a 9,000-foot-high American ski town, not only are dehydration and fatigue more of a problem, but a few rounds of brews can yield a head-splitting hangover.
So what is a skier to do? The West offers perhaps better skiing and a familiar environment. The Alps counter with ambiance and Old World culture. Perhaps Billy Kidd has the best plan.
"You definitely want to try skiing in Europe," he says. "The adventure of it is great -- the languages, the food and the views. But make sure when you go, you've got another flight booked to somewhere here in the West. When you realize what you're missing over there, you'll be ready to come here."