Tag Archives: skiing

Strange sightings in Bansko

Let’s face it, no day on the slopes is complete without spotting some outrageous ski gear or laughing at some dude flying down the hill on snow blades thinking he’s Bode Miller. There really is no better way to while away chairlift rides than a spot of idiot watching.

Comedy sightings are fairly easy to come by in most ski resorts but on a trip to Bulgaria this season we discovered that they are particularly prevalent in the resort of Bansko.

Here are some of the weird and wonderful sights that we witnessed during a fantastic week in Bansko where not only was the riding awesome, but there was never a dull moment…

Carrying snowboards on chairlifts

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When you first start snowboarding, getting off chairlifts will initially prove challenging and may result in the odd pile up now and again, but most people manage to get it sussed within a couple of days. In Bulgaria, however, the need to grasp this fundamental skill is avoided by merely unstrapping your board and carrying it on the lift. This unorthodox and frankly dangerous practice is banned in most resorts but in Bansko it’s commonplace.

Mind you, if the skiers are anything to go by, maybe it’s for the best…

Skier pile up Bansko

Needless to say, pausing at the top of the chairlift to experience the carnage is well worthwhile. Just don’t stand too close.

Keeping both bindings fastened to ride the chairlift

In contrast to the inordinate number of snowboarders choosing to avoid learning how to ride a chairlift properly, there was also a surprising number who were determined to make the process more difficult for themselves by keeping both feet strapped into their bindings.

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I guess the idea must be that they can ride straight off the lift at the top without having to spend the extra few seconds it takes to strap in your back foot. But is it really worth having to shuffle along the queue, pulling down the netting, bumping into people and generally pissing everyone else off, to then get onto the lift, have to negotiate the bar and sit awkwardly for the duration of the lift, only to arrive at the top and find that it’s flat? Nope.

Walking downhill with skis

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I was amazed at how many Bulgarians seemed to miss the entire point of skiing and chose to descend the slopes on foot, or arse, either dragging or carrying their skis and poles awkwardly. We stopped to ask one girl near the top of the mountain who was sliding down the slope on her arse, skis and poles all over the place, whether she’d like a hand putting her skis back on. “No thanks”, was her reply, “I’ll just go down like this”. She was remarkably chipper considering she still had several hundred metres to descend, and proceeded to divulge that it wasn’t even her first time on the slopes:

“I’ve been skiing for four years. I don’t know what’s happened”

Four years?! I think it’s time to give up, love. She then added that her boyfriend had skied off and left her there. No bloody wonder. We promptly did the same.

DIY impact shorts/back protectors

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Given the standard of skiing and snowboarding that we witnessed, it was unsurprising to see that protective gear is popular in Bansko. However, rather than fork out for a pair of impact shorts or a back protector, we encountered many thrifty Bulgarians who merely opted to strap a square of foam padding to themselves instead. Just how effective this makeshift body armour was, is dubious, but apart from anything else, it looked ridiculous.

Bulgarian twist on snow blading

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As if snow blades weren’t pointless enough, someone out there decided that it would be a good idea to attach snowboard bindings to a pair of mini snowboards and ride them like skis. Sadly we didn’t get to see them in “action”, or even who they belonged to. I like to think they’d been cast aside in disgust, but I suspect the owner had just gone to get himself padded up for a gnarly afternoon of, erm, snowboard blading?

Snowboarding with poles

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I get that the acquisition of a pair of ski poles can be handy on a flat cat track (personally, I prefer just to unstrap a foot and skate, but hey, each to their own) however in Bansko I actually saw a couple of snowboarders riding down fairly decent slopes, pole planting! Whether they felt it enhanced their riding or had nabbed them from some poor unsuspecting skier for the home run, is anyone’s guess, but either way, it was a unusual sight.

Après ski

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I’ve witnessed some pretty crazy après in various ski resorts around the world, with dancing on tables and nudity not an uncommon sight. However, in Bansko they take it to another level, with cage dancers performing alongside the live band in the main après haunt, which is unashamedly named, Happy End.

It has to be said that Bansko isn’t all crap skiers and snowboarders, and dodgy après bars. The mountain is great and there are plenty of more conventional après bars if you’re not up for a bit of cage dancing, not to mention loads of fantastic restaurants where you can sample the local cuisine. If you’re looking to go somewhere a bit different, not to mention dirt cheap, it’s an excellent choice. I love to experience different cultural quirks and it’s great when they even extend to the slopes. I certainly won’t forget our trip to Bansko anytime soon, which is not something I can say for many trips to the mountains, which can have a tendency to blend into one. I’ll certainly be going back, and I’ll be taking my homemade impact shorts with me too!

Read more about my trip to Bansko here

Over to you…

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen on the slopes?

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Highs and lows in the Scottish mountains

IMG_5767Skiing and snowboarding in Scotland is like a bag of Revels (what box of chocolates doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re going to get?) You might get a toffee or it could be a coffee*, but more often than not you’ll get the whole bag. I’ve made the journey up from Edinburgh twice in the past few weeks and had so many Revels, I’m still buzzing from the sugar rush.

With all the snow that’s been falling in the Scottish mountains, I’d been desperate to get up there for a shred. Reports of more snow than Whistler and pictures more reminiscent of the Alps than the Highlands were pretty hard to resist. So, when Dan and I found ourselves with a couple of days to spare that didn’t appear to coincide with a tempest, we decided to head to Nevis Range where conditions looked like they were going to be best.

IMG_5768As we left the house at 6am(ish) I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in my stomach that we were heading for disappointment, but tried to remain optimistic and put it down to the early start. That’s the problem with riding in Scotland. The weather is so unpredictable that conditions can change in the blink of an eye and even if it all looks good when you leave, by the time you get up there it can be a very different story.

As we drove north it started to snow and got increasingly heavy the further we went. However, as we approached Nevis Range the snow ceased and cloud parted to reveal snow covered mountains bathed in blue sky and sunshine. We could hardly believe our luck and headed up the gondola as quickly as possible. Not long into our ascent, the gondola started to sway and the sinking feeling returned to my stomach. As we exited the gondola station we were hit by what felt like, and probably were, gale force winds, which did their best to wrestle our boards from our hands.

Frozen fenceUndeterred by the breeze, we strapped on our boards and headed up the only couple of tows that were still running. Once we were headed downhill it was fine and other than a few patches where it had been wind blasted, the snow was great. The views were also stunning and we thanked our lucky stars that we were at least able to see where we were going. Sadly that wasn’t to last and the weather closed in after a few runs which lead us to seek refuge in the café.

Needless to say the café was packed but there were still plenty of hardy souls out there braving the winds, driving snow and bad vis; not least the ski school kids who were being ushered out into the wilds while their parents looked on from the warmth and comfort of the café.

IMG_5922The wind did die down a bit as the afternoon went on and we got some good runs in the limited area that was open.

The next morning it looked like it was going to be another clear day and when we pitched up at the ticket office we were told that there had been loads of snow overnight, the wind had dropped and the slopes were looking great. However, in the time it took us to get our gear out of the car, conditions had deteriorated so much that they’d had to close the gondola. It’s a frustrating scenario that’s been all too common this season.

Our trip to Nevis may have promised many a toffee Revel that turned out to be coffees but the opposite was true of our trip to Glenshee a week or so later.

IMG_5936Predictably enough the promise of light snow and a bit of sunshine that had been forecast the night before had changed to rain and fog by the morning, but as we were already up and ready, we decided to make the journey all the same.

We’d barely crossed the Forth Bridge when the fog started to set in, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the day, but we kept going, ever hopeful of the chance of toffees.

The fog lingered for the entire journey until we got to the Spittal of Glenshee where miraculously it lifted, taking our spirits with it. By the time we got to the car park it was drizzly and overcast, but it was at least mild and, most importantly, still.

The visibility wasn’t the best for our first few runs and we needed wipers for our goggles, but we were just happy that the snow was good, if a bit heavy, and the whole area was open.

IMG_5920After a few runs on the lower slopes we headed up to Glas Maol in the hope that the drizzle might be snow up there. As we suspected, it was loads better, and although we couldn’t see much on our first run, the snow was incredible so it didn’t matter.

As we rode up the Glas Maol tow for the second time, the unthinkable happened.  A glow started to appear in the sky and by the time we got to the top, the sky had completely cleared to reveal the huge bowl in all its splendour. The ride down was among the best I’ve ever had in Scotland and by the time we got to the bottom we both had massive grins on our faces. Sadly we only got a couple of runs like that before the cloud closed in again as quickly as it had lifted, but by then we knew where all the fun hits were and which bits to avoid. We did see a few people accidentally send themselves off the cliff half way down though!

IMG_5931As the afternoon went on, the cloud lifted and sun broke through again periodically but rarely stayed that way for more than a few minutes at a time. It did brighten up again right at the end of the day though allowing us to enjoy our last run in a spectacularly lit, empty bowl. It’s always good to finish the bag with a toffee although it always leaves me wanting to open another one straight after!

Conditions may be a bit hit or miss in the Scottish mountains at the moment but it’s going to be amazing when we get a period of high pressure and settled weather. And with the volume of snow that’s up there, we should still have loads of time left to enjoy it!

*My favourite Revels are toffee and least favourite coffee. Please substitute your own preferences accordingly.

For more pictures check out the Riding Switch Facebook page.

Sno-mad for Bulgaria

IMG_5505As soon as I heard the price of a beer in Bansko I was sold. When you’re used to paying nigh on 5 euros for a demi in the Alps, 4 lev (less than £2) for a 500ml bottle on the mountain seems too good to be true. But it wasn’t, and actually turned out to be just the icing on the cake for what was to be one of the most unique and memorable snowboarding holidays I’ve ever been on.

Like the majority of Brits who ski or snowboard, my trips to the mountains are invariably synonymous with wooden buildings, red and white checked tablecloths and seemingly endless ways to consume melted cheese. The plethora of “low IMG_5702cost” flights and “cheap” ski packages makes it incredibly easy for Brits to get to the Alps from the UK, but what the small print of your cheap ski deal doesn’t tell you is that prices in resort will massively increase the cost of your holiday. This is not the case in Bulgaria.

I was unsure what to expect from Bulgaria but as soon as we landed in Sofia and were greeted by one of our friendly hosts bearing homemade cake, I knew we were in good hands. We were there as guests of Snomads: a group of four British guys who run Chalet Levente in the village of Banya, just 10 minutes drive from the ski resort of Bansko.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOther than the financial incentive, a massive part of the appeal of a snowboarding holiday in Bulgaria was the opportunity to visit somewhere completely different, and as we embarked on the two hour drive from Sofia to Bansko it quickly became apparent that my desire for new experiences was going to be satisfied. The landscape is peppered with reminders of the country’s communist past and statues of Stalin still stand in some of the villages. In urban areas, derelict old buildings sit juxtaposed beside modern concrete blocks, and cars cruise past horse and carts on the motorways. Outside the city the scenery is stunning and the rural villages exude a rustic Balkan charm, with none more so than our destination of Banya, named after its natural hot springs.

IMG_5568Chalet Levente sleeps up to 10 people and is run as an eco chalet, which means that they make every effort to minimise their impact on the local environment. A wood burning fire in the living area provides much of the chalet’s heating, as well as the hot water; the company van has been converted to LPG fuel; waste is kept to a minimum with any food wastage being fed to the local chickens, and any necessary packaging recycled. They also use the freshest locally and responsibly sourced produce to create the most incredible meals, right down to the herbs, which were gathered by the team themselves in the summer. All bread is handmade in the chalet and even the impressive array of jams and chutneys on offer have been produced by the guys.

With over 15 winter seasons’ experience between them, the Snomads crew certainly know how to run a chalet, and manage to strike the perfect balance between providing a relaxed and homely environment and outstanding service.

IMG_5688The resort of Bansko is a 10 minute drive from Banya but the guys are on hand 24 hours a day to take you there and pick you up again. The town itself is huge and much more commercial than anywhere else we’d encountered on our journey from Sofia. The main street that leads up to the gondola station is full of ski and snowboard shops and there’s a multitude of bars to hit when you come off the mountain. Bansko is the most popular ski resort in Bulgaria and during busy periods there can be queues for the gondola in the morning. However, the resort also runs buses up to the main ski area, which are often the best option. There are also plans to build a second gondola, which will help to alleviate queues further still.

IMG_5535Once up the mountain, any crowds dissipate pretty quickly leaving many of the slopes surprising quiet. The standard of local riding is generally not particularly high, which provides great entertainment when riding up the lifts and means that the more advanced terrain is left virtually untouched. Like the rest of Europe, Bansko suffered from unusually low snowfall early season but extensive snow making and a big dump of snow the week before we arrived meant that the slopes were in great shape, with plenty of soft stuff still to be found. There are some amazing tree runs between the pistes and loads of fun features to hit at the sides. When conditions are right the off piste is also fantastic and plentiful, with huge open bowls and even more trees. There’s also a park with boxes, rails and a decent-sized kicker to keep freestylers entertained.

IMG_5668Other than some unusual mountain etiquette, such as removing snowboards to ride the chairlift and descending the slopes with skis in hand, the overall mountain experience really isn’t too dissimilar to the Alps. That is until you stop for a drink or lunch and realise that you can pay for it with the change in your pocket rather than having to sell a kidney to settle the bill.

Once you’re done on the slopes you can either take the ski road or gondola back down to the town. The ski road can be carnage when it’s busy – think lots of poor skiers and boarders weaving around unpredictably – but successful negotiation will be rewarded by a stop-off at a great little rustic bar in the woods which serves up even cheaper beer, great food and an authentic Bulgarian atmosphere.

IMG_5508Après ski is pretty similar to the rest of Europe and generally involves beer, live music, and in certain establishments, a spot of cage dancing. After a couple of après drinks we’d generally give our hosts a call on the mobile phone they provided us with at the beginning of the week and within minutes we were headed back to our peaceful retreat just down the road, to chill before dinner.

Dinners at the chalet are largely inspired by the local cuisine and are nothing short of superb. They are accompanied by unlimited beer and wine, and there’s also the opportunity to sample the local tipples of rakia and mastika. The option to head back into town after dinner is always there, but it’s also very tempting to curl up in front of the fire.

IMG_5586The team’s day off mid-week provides the perfect opportunity to head into Bansko to sample the evening entertainment. The guys booked us a table at a restaurant in the old town, promising great food and a lively atmosphere, and it certainly didn’t disappoint on either count. Being serenaded by a five piece band, and massive skewers loaded with barbequed meat all seemed to be part of the local dining experience and definitely made for an evening to remember.

Another highlight was a trip to the local hot springs. One of the many advantages of having such attentive hosts with a wealth of local knowledge was the opportunity to experience elements of the ‘real’ Bulgaria that most tourists visiting Bansko don’t get to see. The hot springs were a prime example of this. It was a truly magical spot and we only had to share with a couple of friendly locals IMG_5653who were desperate to tell us all about the local history. The temperature of the water was unbelievable and just the thing to soothe our weary limbs. Lying there in the serene setting beneath the stars, cold beer in hand, was just heaven.

A ski/snowboarding holiday to Bansko with Snomads is so much more than just a cheap alternative to the Alps, although it’s undoubtedly true that you will get a lot more for your money. If you want great riding, superb hospitality and a truly unique experience for a fraction of the price you’d pay to stay in a box in the Alps eating tinned ravioli, then it’s definitely the place to go. And beer tastes so much better when it only costs £1!

Snomads still has some availability for the remainder of the season and is currently offering 15% off all prices. Check out their website for more details and get booking!

For more photos check out the Riding Switch Facebook page.

A strange season

Finally, fresh snow in the Alps!

Finally, fresh snow in the Alps!

It’s been a funny old season so far in Europe, and not in the laugh out loud sense of the word. Loads of early snow in November got people excited about the prospect of another great snow season, but other than a dump over Christmas and New Year, conditions have been pretty spring-like on the whole.

Forecasts for fresh snow have kept coming, only to be pushed back or diminish in substance. Things were starting to get pretty desperate but fortunately the Alps received a big dump of snow on Monday night, which has revived not only the slopes but spirits too.

Dan Tignes Jan 14 rockThe mister is out in Tignes at the moment and the fresh snow has quickly turned his grumbles into gloating. Not sure what’s worse! I am, of course, just jealous as it looks amazing, and certainly a far cry from the footage of sketchy conditions that he was sending me a few days ago, which was infinitely more bearable.

However, it’s not all good news. Unfortunately this cycle of snow followed by prolonged periods of thaw that we’ve experienced so far this season, combined with a weak layer of hoar frost that formed in November, has resulted in an extremely unstable snowpack and one of the highest avalanche risks in years. There have already been at least 20 fatalities and as many injured in avalanches throughout the Alps and we’re only a matter of weeks into the season.

Dan Tignes Jan 14

Today in Tignes

There has been much debate over whether or not people should be venturing off piste at all this season, and while it may seem a little extreme and premature to be making such sweeping statements, there’s absolutely no doubt that any forays off piste should be treated with extreme caution.

Until yesterday, with such little fresh snow around, the off piste hasn’t really looked all that enticing anyway, but it’s when fresh snow comes to snow starved slopes, not to mention snow starved riders, that the real danger arises. The temptation is to hit the fresh pow hard to make up for lost time, but it’s easy to forget that under that fresh stuff is a layer of bullet proof snow, and lurking further below that is particularly unstable layer that’s already been responsible for an inordinate number of deaths. As avalanche expert Robert Bolognesi described it: “It is as if there are ball bearings under the more recent snow. The layers have not adhered to each other”. For more info on this check out Peter Hardy’s article in the Telegraph.

Breck Jan 14

Current conditions in Breckenridge. Yeah, whatever.

The overriding message is be very careful out there. If you’re determined to venture off piste, make sure you know what you’re doing; are with people who also know what they’re doing; and that you’re all properly equipped. And there’s no point just carrying a transceiver – you need to know how to use it! Lecture over.

Of course, on the other side of the pond they’ve got the opposite “problem” of extremely low temperatures and shed loads of snow. Great if you’re in the mountains, but possibly not so much if you’re trying to go about your daily business in New York.

And Scotland’s actually not looking too bad either. It’s the resorts on the west that are faring the best (that bit closer to North America, I guess!) and there are some stunning pictures emerging from Nevis Range. The Scottish mountains are no stranger to strong winds but recently they’ve taken a real beating. Storms have caused damage, prevented uplift and blown away precious snow in the ski areas, but fortunately it seems to have calmed down now and is looking pretty good.

Nevis Range Jan 14

Nevis Range looking awesome

I’m planning to get up there soon, but in the meantime the relatively mild weather in the lowlands has meant that I’m managing to get in plenty of mountain biking, which is helping to curb my cravings to shred.

The next trip is to Bansko in Bulgaria in a couple of weeks, where I’ve been invited by British run chalet company, Snomads. Unfortunately they’ve also been cursed by a slow start to the season so I’m crossing fingers for a miraculous turnaround in the next fortnight! Who says it’s all about powder anyway? 😉

Over to you…

How’s your season been so far? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Back on board at Val de Shee

When I set myself the challenge of getting back on the slopes (post broken arm) before the end of the season, the last place I thought I’d achieve it was in Scotland, in April!

Glenshee 8 Apr 2013I’d been drooling over photos of amazing conditions in all the Scottish ski areas, which had been appearing persistently on my Facebook page over the past couple of months. But having been told that my arm still wasn’t properly mended, I was resigned to the fact that this was probably the closest I was going to get to the Scottish slopes during what has been an incredible season.

However, as photos of fresh powder, blue skies, and competition-sized parks kept coming, and spring showed no sign of making an appearance, I started to feel optimistic that I might indeed manage to get a piece of the action.

IMG_2791So, when I got the go ahead from the surgeon that my wrist had mended, I got planning a trip straight away. We headed up to Glenshee on 8th April, hoping to experience some of the great conditions that have been so prevalent, but also equally prepared for type of hostile conditions which have greeted us on arrival all too many times.

Fortunately we were in luck, and as we climbed the final stretch from Bridge of Cally to the base area, there were more patches of blue sky to be seen than grey, and the sun was even gracing us with its presence. The appearance of the sun at this time of year usually heralds a deterioration in snow conditions, but with the exception of a couple of icy patches on the Cairnwell side, the snow was excellent throughout the area, with loads of soft stuff and even some powder.

Glenshee 8 Apr 13I had never experienced conditions like it in Scotland before, and even my parents who’ve been skiing in Scotland for over 40 years said the same. My boyfriend, Dan, who’d spent a week in Tignes a few weeks earlier, declared it to be better than anything they’d had there during the entire week. Admittedly they did seem to have a particularly bad week in Tignes, but it was a pretty good accolade nonetheless!

It did actually feel like we could be in the Alps. There was so much snow that the wooden snow fences, so characteristic of Scottish ski areas, were practically buried, leaving us with only the odd patch of exposed heather to remind us that we were indeed in Scotland. Even the banners at the end of the runs urging overzealous skiers and boarders to slow down read ‘Ralentir’, which we decided must be due to them having got some cheap cast offs from France rather than a need to cater to the sudden influx of visitors from the continent.

Glenshee 8 April 13In fact, there were hardly any visitors at all. We’d had the luxury of timing our trip to avoid the school holidays and the weekend crowds, so the slopes were practically empty.

Just as we were getting carried away with our comparisons to skiing in the Alps, we received a rude reminder that we were most definitely in Scotland. Out of the blue, the weather changed dramatically, and in the time it took to take the Glas Maol Poma from bottom to top, it went from being clear and still, to a full on storm with practically zero visibility. The flat ridge at the top of Glas Maol, with its warning signs to one side and fencing to the other, is not the best place to find yourself in those kind of conditions, especially with hardly anyone else on the slopes. Fortunately though, the storm passed as quickly as it had set in and, after a treacherous traverse, we ended up having another great run down.

Later on, sitting in the Bridge of Cally Hotel bar sipping an après beer, sun streaming in the big bay windows, we once again started to make associations with being in the Alps. Until, that is, Dan interjected with a valid point: “It’s nothing like French après. The beer is way better!”

Snoooooow!

Val Thorens today, 29 October!

Wow, what a weekend! Pictures have been flying around the internet showing just how much snow has been falling across the Alps! There has been half a metre of fresh in some places, with even more forecast! What’s even better is that it was accompanied by extremely cold temperatures which has allowed it to settle, right down to the valley floors. Surely this has got to bode well for a great start to the season?!

Opening day at Mt Norquay, Banff

Over in North America, conditions are also looking fantastic, with the season already in full in full flow in certain resorts. Mt Norquay in Banff opened on 25th October, two weeks ahead of its scheduled opening date, making it their earliest ever opening! Conditions in Vail also look fantastic, with knee high powder already over in Blue Sky Basin!

Knee deep powder in Blue Sky Basin, Vail – 25 October

There was even snow in central London this weekend, with Freeze Festival going off at Battersea power station. The snow might have been artificially produced, but freezing temperatures added a true authenticity! Festival goers were able to marvel at some of the world’s best riders hitting the gravity defying kicker, assembled from scaffolding, which was awe inspiring in itself! The standard of riding was incredible with the likes of Jamie Nicholls, Billy Morgan, Dom Harrington and Cody Hierons making light work of the monster kicker. The best result for the home crowd was Billy Morgan taking first place in the International Big Air: the first Brit to do so in 5 years!

Jamie Nicholls at Freeze. Photo: Ian Ashmore

There were also some pretty massive headline acts to complement the riding, with DJ Shadow and the mighty Public Enemy taking to the stage after dark. All in all, the general consensus seems to be that this was the best Freeze yet!

It’s impossible not to be excited about the start of the season after a weekend like that!

Was anyone at Freeze? What was your highlight? Got any trips to the snow planned? Leave a comment and let us know… Let’s share the excitement!!

Another twist in the tail…

From this...

Well, the storm that was forecast to hit Colorado this weekend (see previous blog post) certainly didn’t disappoint! Just when it looked like the fat lady in the sky was about to sing, she started puking pow!

Breckenridge received 8 inches of snow in 24 hours, and, in an ironic twist that would make Ms Morissette wail, Aspen got 13 inches, just in time for its closing day! Still, it must have been a pretty epic closing day!

...to this. In a couple of days!

These pictures show just what a difference a couple of days have made, providing yet another twist in the tale of the tail, of this crazy season!

Breckenridge is open until the end of the month, so there’s still time to enjoy its revitalised slopes…

Thanks again to Pip from Powderbeds.com for the pre-storm photo. Typically she had left before the arrival of the fresh snow, so the second picture is courtesy of the lucky people at Aspen Snowmass.