Countdown to ski season ends as Beaver Creek fires up the lifts for Opening Day
The sun hadn’t yet poked its head over the Gore Range when “First Chair” Fred Hammond and his daughter, Sophie, 13, rolled out of bed on Wednesday, Nov. 22. Fred said they left their Eagle-Vail home around 4:30 a.m. to secure seats on Beaver Creek’s first chair of the 2017-18 season.
“We’re going to do Gold Dust today. We heard the party was at Gold Dust,” said Fred, cracking a joke about one of the two runs the resort opened to skiers for the inaugural laps of the season.
Fred has 23 ski resort Opening Days under his belt, most of which were at Beaver Creek — “probably the first couple were in Vail, and then I got smart,” he said. Sophie has racked up nine, but this was her first time making the pre-dawn trek to catch first chair.
As the clock slowly inched toward 9 a.m., dance beats cranked through the base area speakers and skiers and snowboarders filed into the mazes. The Centennial Express lift sat idle for a few more moments as Sophie Hammond was handed a microphone to do the honors of welcoming the crowd to the first tracks of the year.
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Her remarks were short and to the point — “Have fun!” — followed by cheers and the final countdown: “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
The lift fired up, and the chosen few shuffled forward to claim the first seats. Joining the Hammonds at the turnstile were fellow Eagle-Vail residents David and Madeleine Barenson. They’ve skied the better part of two decades’ worth of Opening Days as husband and wife.
“I like the pace here,” David said of Beaver Creek. “I like the fact that it’s not always hammered crowded. I like the people who work and ski here, and I like the terrain. … This is our home mountain, this is our community, so we represent.”
Madeleine said her record is 98 days skied in a season, and she’s aiming for 100 this year. She spent the summer cycling to get in shape for inevitable powder turns.
“I actually teach here part-time,” Madeleine said. “One of the great things about being an employee here in the summer is the bike haul. It’s fun to see the mountain with grass and flowers and see the trails from a different perspective.
“You realize how steep it is when you’re riding up.”
Madeleine stood shoulder to shoulder with Boulder resident Jon Lieber as the chair swung around to scoop up its first passengers. Lieber said his anticipation for the ski season begins early.
“It probably starts sometime in August,” he said. “I get slowly more amped up and it reaches a pinnacle right here and right now.”
He equated the experience to waiting for entry to general admission seats at Red Rocks.
“I thought it would wane, but over the years, it gets worse — or better,” he said. “It’s special to be out here with friends and family. It feels festive, like a holiday, even if it wasn’t Thanksgiving weekend.”
Rounding out the six-pack making its way to the top to crash through the Opening Day banner was Brian Cole, of Glenwood, who spent a little more than two hours in the early-morning queue to earn his chance to be one of the first on the mountain.
“First chair is a tradition,” he said. “These are the die-hard skiers that just enjoy being out here the first day.”
Not long after 9 a.m., Zach Rahn, of Denver, and Colin Schindler boarded the lift. Schindler was amped for his first turns at Beaver Creek as a newbie to the Vail Valley.
“I spent six weeks out here backpacking last summer, two weeks the summer previous, and each time it got harder and harder to leave,” he said. So the Beloit, Wisconsin, native packed up his things and took the plunge, landing in Eagle-Vail two months ago.
A friend helped Schindler get on his feet and land a job at Maya restaurant in Avon, and he’s been cramming in as much skiing as he can, routinely making the two-hour, round-trip drive to Summit County, sometimes only getting in three or four runs before turning around and making it back over the pass for work.
“The excitement is real,” he said.
Rahn, by comparison, is a veteran of the Beaver Creek landscape. Having moved to Denver from New Hampshire 11 years ago, he now owns a second place in Avon and said there’s something special about the people in Avon and those who ski Beaver Creek.
“It’s fun to bring people who haven’t skied Colorado before or the West and take them up here,” he said.
Jeff Hochstadt, of Denver, was spending the day on the mountain with his three daughters — Julia, 12, Zoe, 9, and Maddy, 7.
“There is absolutely no better way to spend the day than on the ski slopes with my girls,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
“We ski with mom, too, but she’s slower,” Zoe said, adding that she likes to go on the easy runs so she can go fast. “It’s fun to learn how to use poles and go swiggity swag around the mountain.”
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