It's the snow, stupid. � Colorado ski marketers can rave all they want about the state's 24 resorts, 2,062 trails and 296 lifts. They can bust a gut bragging about Vail's 5,289 skiable acres, Snow-mass's 4,406-foot vertical drop and Arapahoe Basin's 13,050-foot elevation, all tops among North American resorts. They can crow about Aspen's night owls and endless apr�s-ski options, with nearly 100 restaurants and bars for the beautiful folks. The bump runs at Telluride, the Head Wall at Crested Butte, the Freeway Terrain Park on Peak 8 at Breckenridge—fantabulous, one and all. Small wonder that in SKI magazine's 2003 survey of its readers' favorite mountains, Colorado had 11 of the top 20 resorts in North America. ( Vail was No. 1, Snowmass No. 4.) All one really has to do is count the sunburned noses: Last season Colorado had 11.6 million skiers on its slopes, almost as many as No. 2 California (7.4 million) and No. 3 Vermont (4.5 million) combined.
Still, beyond the numbers and mythology lies an honest-to-goodness secret why Colorado—not Utah, not Idaho, not Vermont—is America's capital of winter skiing. The snow rocks. "We're 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean at altitudes ranging from 7,000 to 13,000 feet," says former Olympian Billy Kidd, the director of skiing at Steamboat Springs, who grew up in Stowe, Vt., but has lived in Colorado for more than 30 years. "The combination of 300 sunny days a year and an average of 300 inches of light, fluffy powder makes Colorado a dream environment for a skier. When I go to Europe and tell people where I live, they can't believe I'd leave the Rocky Mountains, which has the best powder skiing in the world."
The miracle behind the sublime conditions? A chemical process called sublimation, nature's recipe for champagne powder. In the high, dry, pine-scented Rocky Mountain air, what little moisture is in the snow quickly evaporates, leaving flakes as fine as diamond dust—more a gas than a solid—white parachutes of powder that can be blown away like dandelion seeds. A faceful of it at the bottom of a turn is the purest form of Colorado Rocky Mountain high. It is the only snow in the world you can breathe.
And breathe it people do. World Cup racers (the first downhill of the season was held last weekend at Beaver Creek), toddlers in harnesses, halfpipe daredevils and arthritic baby boomers with Vioxx in their veins all love it here. In 2002, between the Oct. 16 opening of the season and Dec. 31, Colorado attracted nearly as many skiers (2.9 million) as neighboring Utah did the entire season (3.0 million).
Recreational skiing didn't originate in Colorado, though people have skied in the Rockies for well over a century. In the late 1800s miners used to strap on boards and race to town, turning by means of a single pole dragged between their legs. Crested Butte had a ski club as early as 1886, and a ski jump was built at Howlesen Hill in 1914. But these were for local enthusiasts. No one traveled to Colorado from out of state to ski.
The concept of a destination ski resort was introduced to America by Averell Harriman, who in 1936 built Sun Valley, a grand complex in Idaho, as a way to increase ticket sales on his Union Pacific railway. Sun Valley was an instant success, and entrepreneurs familiar with the mountains of Colorado began to look for suitable locations near Denver. A ski trail was built on Ajax Mountain, above the old silver-mining town of Aspen, in 1937, but the only lift servicing it was an eight-man "boat tow," which consisted of two counterbalanced sleds pulled by a hoist from an abandoned mine.
America's entry into World War II suspended all talk of ski-resort development, but in a twist of fate, the war led to the skiing boom. Looking for a place to train troops for fighting in the Alps, the Army selected Camp Hale, about 140 miles west of Denver, as the base for its newly formed 10th Mountain Division. That decision would change the face of American skiing.
The all-volunteer 10th Mountain Division was made up of troops who had either been born and brought up in the mountains or been recruited from the top ranks of the National Ski Association. All were expert skiers, their skills further honed during maneuvers in the snow-covered mountains around Camp Hale. In January 1945 they were called into action in Italy's Apennine Mountains and later fought in the Italian Alps. Their heroism in driving the Germans out of fortified positions in the Alps moved commanding officer Major General George P. Hays, a World War I veteran and a participant in D Day, to write, "The battles of the 10th Mountain were as strongly contested and as bitter, and in many instances more intense, than any I had experienced hitherto.... We completely destroyed five divisions."
After the war many members of the 10th Mountain Division moved back to Colorado, where they helped boost a fledgling recreational ski industry. Friedl Pfeifer, a naturalized Austrian who'd instructed the 10th Mountain troops at Camp Hale, teamed up with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepacke to develop Aspen, which opened on Jan. 11, 1947. It boasted the world's longest chair lift, but Paepacke's vision was to make the town a cultural destination too. Paepacke financed the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, and in 1949 he persuaded 74-year-old Albert Schweitzer, a renowned theologian who would win the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, to make his first U.S. visit, to speak at the institute during its celebration of the 200th birthday of German writer Johann Goethe. Schweitzer's visit drew worldwide attention, and suddenly Aspen was the second-most famous town in Colorado, after Denver. The prestigious F�d�ration Internationale de Ski World Championships came to Aspen in 1950, cementing its reputation as a ski venue.
Postwar skiers were unlike the ski pioneers. They wore flattering stretch pants and demanded comforts and amenities-ski lifts, chalets, fancy restaurants and bars. Filmmaker John Jay helped glorify Aspen with a series of movies espousing the pleasures of Colorado skiing that were shown at ski clubs in Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta. Suddenly the mountains of Colorado were swarming with scouts looking to find other locations that could mimic Aspen's success.