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Snow Vegas: A Visit to Vail for the Alpine World Ski Championships

Vail veers into self-parody as it plays host to some of the best athletes in the world.

In the hours between her first and second races in Thursday’s women’s giant slalom world ski championship event, it was easy to look at Mikaela Shiffrin — the teenager often hailed as American skiing’s future — and see into her past. Shiffrin sprawled on a couch in one corner of a big mid-mountain cafeteria at Colorado’s Beaver Creek resort, biding time and talking with her mom, Eileen, a former ski racer herself. The room smelled like delicious French fries and damp synthetic microfabrics —  in other words, just like skiing. The grilled cheese sandwich on the menu was retailing for more than 13 bucks after tax.

Over the years Shiffrin has spent about as much time in this pose — winding down while gearing up — as she has in her racer’s tuck position. (According to The Wall Street Journal, word search games are her poison.) Having grown up right down the road, in Vail, she’s no stranger to the nondescript nooks and crannies scattered around slopeside. She wasn’t even 4 years old the last time the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships were held in the United States in 1999. But this time around, she has been one of the competition’s biggest draws, a marquee name to rival Julia Mancuso or Lindsey Vonn.

A year ago, in Sochi, an 18-year-old Shiffrin became the youngest Olympian to win the gold medal in slalom — a tightly wound, highly controlled discipline that exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from the go-big abandon of the downhill course. In her victory press conference that day, she admitted to daydreaming about winning five medals the next time around. Since then, she has targeted the giant slalom as her next hill to climb: It’s an event looser and more spaced-out than the regular version, but still engineered enough to be considered a “technical” category. In October, Shiffrin earned her first top World Cup finish in the event.

Her rising star coupled with her local roots made Shiffrin a crowd favorite on the mountain. On Tuesday, as she got set to compete in a team event at Vail’s Golden Peak, a “U-S-A!” chant broke out in the finish line grandstand. Something about it sounded unusual, almost childlike, far from the typical drunken patriotic grunts of sports bar patrons or fraternity men. The chant, instead, was being led by a big group of goggled and giggling preteen girls.

But the little lady local shredders were far from the only noticeable demographic blocs traveling in small packs around the Vail Valley. Swiss fans waved their iconic flags and rang enormous, embellished, feet-long cowbells. (The men in charge of the giant props had to gyrate their bodies luridly to get the unwieldy bells to clang.) Austrians wore red hats and possessed the hale and hearty confidence that comes from being a long-dominant alpine nation. “Anyone here from Lichtenstein?” yelled out a hype man on the PA system as a countrywoman prepared to race. “Lichtenstein, get on your feet!” (The same guy also punctuated a run by a Mexican skier with an “arrrrrriba!”)

A man of indeterminable nationality stood in an aisle and performed a suggestive dance in which he stripped off one shirt after another (all mountainfolk know how to layer) and threw them into the crowd until all that remained between his bare chest and the world was one merciful red T-shirt. A good number of folks were in their ski gear; one man had chosen to schuss in a bear suit. In keeping with the latest trends, mostly everyone was sporting neon, including the three best-known American women in their highlighter-bright jackets: Shiffrin, Mancuso, and Vonn.

Vail-SkiGetty Images

There’s a jokey email skiers like to forward around to one another at the start of the winter that offers training tips for the upcoming season. “Throw away a hundred dollar bill. Do it NOW,” reads one piece of advice. “Place a small but angular pebble in your shoes, line them with crushed ice, and then tighten a C-clamp around your toes.” One suggests finding the nearest ice rink: “Walk across the ice 20 times in your ski boots carrying two pairs of skis, accessory bag, and poles,” it says. “Pretend you are looking for your car. Sporadically drop things.”

The schlep and the expense of skiing are the activity’s major downside, even if diehards try to flaunt both like a badge of pride. Resorts have long sought to address both problems and make vacations to the mountain more appealing, particularly to snag lucrative families who will put the kids in pricey ski school and spring for multiple orders of $20 chili. The result has been an experiment in the planned serendipity of managed experience.

If the developers and the marketers and the fur salesladies and the concierge and the line cooks and the lifties are all doing their jobs the way they’re trained to, a few days at a ski resort starts to feel, under this model, like a slightly colder visit to Disneyland or a casino. Why rent a car when you can surrender mind and body to the infinite Zen of complimentary shuttle transportation? Why bother keeping track of time when you can simply divide life into before and aprés? Leave that vulgar bulging wallet at home: It’s a cinch to link your life savings to proprietary payment systems, whether they be poker chips in Atlantic City or the “Epic Pass” at Vail. (And spending less time fumbling with your wallet means you’re likely to spend that much more.)

Both Vail and Beaver Creek are owned by Vail Resorts, a massive publicly traded outfit (ticker symbol: MTN) that also manages major ski mountains and related property across Colorado, Utah, California, and even Minnesota and Michigan. To a certain sort of rugged mountain-lover, Vail Resorts is shorthand for everything that has destroying skiing: the cookie-cutter villages, the outrageous prices — a day pass at Vail, if you don’t plan ahead, will run you $159 — and the general stank of corporation, man.

Others argue, though, that Vail has built a track record of important and often necessary improvements to mountains, and that, overall, it is a stabilizing industry force. The Epic Pass is easy to make fun of, but multi-mountain passes like it have helped make ski vacations a more attractive and diverse proposition. In a piece for Outside titled “Vail is not the enemy,” Derek Taylor wrote that “at a time when the buzz in the long-struggling ski industry is about increasing the size of the pie rather than fighting over the pieces, Vail is actually doing that.”

Folks who love Vail mostly prefer to focus on the mountain’s history, which shares many roots with the 10th Mountain Division, a special military unit trained to fight on skis in alpine conditions in World War II. Following the war, many of the soldiers transformed themselves into ski patrollers, and some sought investors to start their own ski mountains. Vail was one of them, thanks to a partnership between Peter Seibert, who had fought with the 10th Mountain Division, and Earl Eaton, a local who had explored the Vail terrain as a kid.

Recently, the grandson of one veteran began a boutique liquor company called 10th Mountain Whiskey and opened a tasting room in Vail Village. This isn’t wartime mountaineering, that’s for sure. At Beaver Creek, a mountain positioned as a luxury family retreat, chefs in white hats and aprons routinely materialize out of nowhere — even in the lift lines! — to dole out fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. There’s a Ritz-Carlton with a Spago restaurant and a driveway that wends past multimillion dollar mansions, a journey designed to give you that particular ambition that can only spring from feelings of acute inadequacy.

With the World Championships here, there’s a disconnect: The featured and celebrated professional skiers are not the ones who appear to be living like queens. Walking through town, you might see some random woman in a fur hat handing off her ski poles to a valet as if she couldn’t possibly manage them for even one more second. Right behind her might be a world-class athlete, trudging alone through the village, laden with multiple boot bags and long, heavy skis. There’s an element of sensible pride here — if you can’t carry your own equipment, many would assert, you really shouldn’t be skiing — but it’s a little amusing how the luxe environs seem to make exceptions out of the very skiers who rule.

2015 Vail Championships Ladies' Giant SlalomAndy Cross/The Denver Post

Mikaela Shiffrin did not seem all too pleased following her second giant slalom on Thursday afternoon. In the morning she’d finished tied for 13th after a run that was, for her, a bit tentative. After spending a few hours sitting in the dining hall corner, either thinking or purposely not thinking about what was next, she skied a superior second run. Still, her body language when she finished suggested that she knew it wouldn’t be enough to get her onto the podium.

Her ultimate eighth-place finish was higher than those of her U.S. teammates and competitors, Vonn and Mancuso, though those women both seemed more at peace. “When you come to the finish you always have a moment of your own expectations,” Mancuso said, her mirrored sunglasses flashing orange in the sun, “but I’ve really been able to also be a fan — coming to the finish line, standing at the finish, watching all the other girls perform and really raise the level and raise the bar.”

Mancuso praised Austrian winner Anna Fenninger, calling her victory inspiring, and said she wasn’t sure how she’d be unwinding from the competition. Either she’d be chasing deep powder somewhere in the world for some recreational big mountain skiing, she said, or she’d go sun in Maui. “I’ll probably know by tonight,” she said. “I need to book my ticket.”

Vonn had made an error early in her first run that cost her valuable seconds, and stood in 25th place after the morning. She said later that her boyfriend Tiger Woods — who was in Beaver Creek a day after announcing he’d be ceasing competition indefinitely to try to get his golf game back — had told her just to end on a positive note. (It’s easier to give advice than to take your own, as ever.) Her second attempt was the fifth-fastest of the afternoon, placing her within the top 15 skiers overall, something she said had been her goal. She waved and blew kisses to the appreciative crowd. The race had been Vonn’s first return to the giant slalom in over two years thanks to a series of injuries. A disqualification in the super-combined event on Monday had reduced Vonn to post-race tears, but she seemed to accept, and even be encouraged by, her Thursday result.

“I really enjoyed having the support of the crowd and having my family here,” she said, “but I think I just maybe wanted to do well too much.”

Shiffrin also owned up to nerves. “I’ve been working a lot on my terrain, and it’s just — sometimes the blind turns sketch me out,” she said. But Saturday she’ll be back in her favorite race: slalom, an event in which she’s the reigning World and Olympic champion. It remains hard to believe that she’s still only 19 years old.

That is, until you see her off the mountain, lying there in her racing suit with her headphones, looking just like the little ski race team kids you see at all resorts everywhere, the ones who tool around like they own the damn mountain, the ones who know that the chillest place to relax between races isn’t at one of the five-star hotels but on some couch in some corner near the buffalo chili. They’re the ones who just love to ski, who don’t need creature comforts in order to feel right at home. If they’re lucky, and if they’re inconceivably good, maybe they’ll wind up like Shiffrin.

Still, even she knows she’s got plenty of room to grow up. “I’m still a little bit afraid to make mistakes,” she said, “and I have to get rid of that, because if you don’t risk it, then you don’t get the big win.”