Everybody loves lists. They take the deciding out of wanting. They provide the validation for desire. Want to confirm that those magnificent, good-looking big, fat, easy-turning skis are the best you could buy? Find them on a best five list.
Dry, sweat-wicking tops, steep and deeps, groomers, ski stores, ski schools, on-mountain restaurants, après ski? Same thing. Find a list and pick. No need to think, the list does your thinking for you.
But fun though they are, lists are biased, unreliable and often wrong. They give the illusion of democratic process but increasingly they are part of the fabric of our shopping and travelling lives. Lists like the ones in this edition of “Ski & Bike Magazine” at least have the benefit of having been selected by real people and so, they have some validity representing the passions of readers who cared to submit and, gloriously, they are an expression of a subjective, collective wish to present the truly great top choices as opposed to the algorithms that try to control our online experiences.
You know those lists: “selected for you”, “you liked that so we recommend this”, “people that chose that also chose,” and so on, endlessly directing us along a path that reinforces the choices we have made in the past.
What’s the problem with that? Well, it favours mass opinion over the eclectic, the interesting, fascinating and out-of-the way. Five favourite runs, whether chosen by real people or algorithms will favour the view of the majority. It will produce runs from Mt. Tremblant and Whistler over Owl’s Head and Bromont. Couloir Extreme at Blackcomb over Ptarmigan Chutes at Lake Louise. Which provides the better experience? Try them!
Perhaps the best part of lists is what they miss: the hidden gems, The Deer Lodge at Lake Louise, powder days at Jay Peak and, courtesy of the Travel Ski edition of the “New York Times”, the Hotel Minturn, just five minutes from Vail, Colorado and around half the price of staying at the resort itself.
If I were to make my own Top Five list, it would include the tiny, 400-metre Asessippi Ski Area in Manitoba, a good four-drive from Winnipeg. Yes. A ski hill on the prairies approached along a gravel track by a grain silo in a farmer’s field, Asessippi opens as you travel not up, but down into a glaciated valley. It’s another world, well-known to your one-time Manitoban “Ski & Bike Magazine” editor Jean-François Ravenelle: a piece of quite steep, beautiful Alpine magic in a sea of flatness. It’s a resort that keeps going because the next best mountain needs an airplane to get there.
Other jewels are the glades at Sutton after a snowfall, the windswept top of Owl’s Head and Stowe, and the Alta Lodge at Alta, Utah.
The Alta Lodge is one of those magic places that you don’t know about unless someone tells you. Like winter and medicines advertised on American television, it’s not for everyone. It’s not cheap even in American dollars, but it has remained miraculously old school as is the ski area which doesn’t allow snowboards (head over to the linked Snowbird with your board and cruise through high level cloud). Alta Lodge is like a club. You see the same people, at the same time every year. Those that went when it first opened in 1959 are thinning out now, but their children go for the rustic experience, wonderful dinners and instant friendships with skiers from all over North America. Where else do you gather in the avalanche strengthened lounge to wait out the danger on the slopes opposite? Where else does it snow so much that your tracks have disappeared by the time you have skied to the lift and returned?
But my Top of any Top Five would be five reasons to never stop skiing. I’m an old guy who tried NOT to get a pass that said “Senior” on it because of the attitudes of younger skiers. What’s that old guy doing on this slope? Best skiing lesson I ever had was from a 72-year-old. Fittest recreational skier I have come across was 69. If you can still ski double-blacks, fall and get up without damage, why stop? I’ve skied better as I’ve gotten older (is that reason number four?)
When I raced masters with the Toronto Ski Club, the fastest guy was a 61-year-old ex-Austrian ski team member who we used in the fastest, youngest age category.
He was just better than the rest of us and would never have been picked in a Top Five local skiers list, but he, like the very best in skiing, was a hidden gem. Top Five “hidden gems” may be a contradiction, but it may be the best Top Five list and the East is full of them.