What are all those people doing up there? There are just about 100 of them, shoulder to shoulder and stacked deep, being held back by the rope stretched taut by a ski patrolman. They are restless, stamping their skis. From this point, at the top of Colorado's Vail Mountain, peaks of the Rockies extend as far as the eye can see. Beyond the assemblage, on the other side of the rope, there is not a mark on the fresh snow of the night before. It is approximately 9 a.m. And then, without warning, the patrolman lets the rope fall. He wisely stays off to one side. What happens next is pure whoopee.
The skiers surge forward as if someone had sounded a cavalry charge. They spill over the edge and down into the powder snow, creating white explosions as they go. Individual skiers swoop and bounce ecstatically. The individuals soon become small dots, each surrounded by its own cloud of powder. The dots move down and down into what seems to be an eternity of slope. Then they are out of sight, swallowed in the vastness of the back bowls of Vail.
This is the moon landing, the Hope Diamond, the World Series of skiing. Hyperbole? Not to confirmed powder hounds and bowl freaks. And there is, indeed, a special madness to bowl skiing. Some say it is wrought by the disorientation brought on by sheer open expanse and steepness, a sense of being adrift in a universe of ungroomed snow. There is in some bowl skiers a kind of freneticism that is not entirely attractive. Herb Eaton, Vail's slope maintenance supervisor, says, "The type of skier who lines up to charge down first—the skier who insists on his tracks being the first in the snow—well, that type can be a little weird. I've seen people actually climb up and over the hood of a Snowcat—while wearing skis—to get to the hill first." Eaton is wary of such skiers. "We stay out of the bowls when there's a crowd of those guys straining at the rope. There are too many dummies and daredevils on the hill on those days."
This is not to say that bowl skiing attracts only chargers. At Park City, Utah, where the stunning Jupiter Peak Bowl complex opened two seasons ago, there are rarely crowds. Craig Badami, marketing manager, says, "Jupiter is too steep and too deep for a lot of skiers. So almost everyone who gets over there early in the morning can end up on his own private course where no one else goes."
Bowl skiing is at its best in the West, and most resorts have a bowl or two to sell. Sun Valley, Idaho has the long runs of Christmas Bowl. At Alta, Utah a large and swooping bowl called Devil's Castle beyond the main ski area can be reached only by a slightly strenuous climb. Snowbird, down the road a piece from Alta, offers five lift-served bowls and, like many other ski areas, has a number of back bowls than can be reached by helicopter or a bit of hiking.
But locating the bowls is one thing; explaining what they are is another. Jackson Hole, Wyo. has some of the finest bowls anywhere in the West, both in the ski area and far out into the mountains beyond. Paul McCollister, the founder and principal owner, and a group of Jackson Hole ski patrolmen, talked for half an hour about the properties of a true bowl. Some insisted it had to be concave in shape, with a lip or cornice at the top. Others said no, a bowl could merely be a broad gully with sides that curve upward. Others allowed that perhaps any sloping terrain that was open and constant, unbroken by ridges, could be called a bowl. Some included long steep snowfields, perhaps burned over years ago. Could such terrain be passed off as a bowl? Yes, that was proper enough, too.
Indeed, the celebrated back bowls of Vail—though they form a sort of amphitheater around the valley below—are in large part burned-over slopes. Bill Brown, a venerable mountain man who helped cut many of the ski runs at Vail, recalled the making of the bowls. "The whole area had been burned over and there were only stumps. There wasn't much clearing for us to do. To us, it was real cheap skiing. Early snow, powder snow, lots of snow—it was a real boon and we knew a good thing when we saw it. In those days, there weren't that many powder skiers and the bowls were strange territory for most people. It used to take four days, maybe even a week to ski off the powder then. But with all the crowds around here now, it's done in two, three hours."
But if there are bowls and bowls, there is only one classic bowl. The formation producing it—the result of glacial action over 10,000 years or more—is called a cirque. In his book On Mountains: Thinking About Terrain, John Jerome describes the process in this way: "The upper end of a valley glacier—its beginning point—will be marked by a cirque. The glacier originates below a headwall, where eddy currents in the mountain winds cause blowing snow to collect and settle. This accumulation turns to solid ice...and freezes to the mountain surface. Freeze-thaw cycles and the pull of gravity on the accumulating mass draw the incipient glacier away from the head-wall at the uphill end, forming a Bergschrund (mountain cleft) between ice and rock. The pulling away plucks rocks from the headwall; the rock then becomes part of the load carried down the valley by the glacier. This plucking action is the first step in the formation of a cirque—the amphitheater-like mountain bowl that makes one of Alpine country's most spectacular features."
For thousands of years the ice continues to pick up rocks from the middle and sides of the cirque, causing the terrain under the glacier to become more and more curved—and more steep. Jerome says, "So long as the glacier maintains its size, the cirque continues to carve its way uphill, working its way toward the summit of the mountain" by bringing down more rocks from above. When the glacier finishes its work and melts away down into the valley, it leaves a lip or cornice at the top. More important, it also leaves those lovely steep, curved sides so admired by the bowl skiers of today.
The same sort of snowy love affair is carried on in European ski areas since, as Jerome puts it, "all mountains are basically big chunks of rock and the same laws of glacial physics apply." In fact, there are a couple of outstanding ski bowls in the Parsenn area above Davos in the Swiss Alps, where glaciers have done the right job for the occasion. But there remains a difference to bowl purists: timberlines are usually much lower in the Alps than in the Rockies and the quality of snow isn't as good. Without quality snow, the fanatics insist, a bowl is just another depression in some hillside.