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Ice Breaker: Winter's Best Bets For Snow Sports

" I do not participate in any sport with ambulances at the bottom of the hill, " so said noted humorist Erma Bombeck. " There are really only three things to learn in skiing: how to put on your skis, how to slide downhill, and how to walk along the hospital corridor," said Lord Mancroft of Britain. Ski fanatics appreciate quips like these; if it means their lift lines will be less crowded, then they're more than content to let the haters keep hatin'. There's no denying that attaching plastic boards to your feet and whipping down an icy hill for sport could eventually require medical attention, but that's kinda the point. The raccoon mask tan left by the goggles isn't attractive, either: People do pretty messed-up things to achieve those few seconds of endorphins, and as mountains and lifts expand become cheaper and more plentiful, it's a risk more and more people are taking. They're spraying powder all over, from the classic purple mountains majesty in Colorado to the glistening Alps of Switzerland to the daring peaks of... Wisconsin? (Yes, Wisconsin.) Leave the fearful humorists behind to find out the best places to get your ski on, whether you're pizza / french-frying on the bunny slopes or cutting black diamonds.

COLORADO: STILL THE ONE

Vail, Colorado
Opening: Nov. 20

Vail has been touted as the finest skiing in North America since the 1970s, and there's no reason to stop touting-- the mountains never left, after all, and Vail happens to host the highest ski mountain in North America. It's also seen its share of substantial development in that timeframe, fashioning a European-style village centre with eclectic restaurants and family activities accessible by the city's free public shuttle service. Even if you can't get enough of Vail's charm, fanatics have been buzzing ever since the introduction of the Epic Pass, which grants unlimited access to a half-dozen ski resorts ( Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly [in Lake Tahoe], Arapahoe Basin).
Vail saw a dip in tourism due to the economic downturn last year, but it has reportedly already seen a 13 percent increase of business in anticipation of the upcoming season. Perhaps it was in part due to the fact that Colorado has already seen a nasty fit of snow in October, which undoubtedly gave some natives cabin fever, waxing up their boards and skis weeks in advance. Colorado is also amping up interest by running their "Snow At First Sight" video contest, where poor souls who have never seen snow can win a chance for a three-month adventure.
THE GREAT WHITE NORTH

Whistler Blackcomb
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

When you're focusing on not hitting a tree, it can sometimes be difficult to stop for a moment to understand that you're over a mile above sea-level and standing upon snow-draped monoliths. Many of the finest resorts carry gondolas to rein in that extra thrill. The mercifully slow, enclosed vehicles are a major reason why Whistler Blackcomb reigns as the best skiing in Canada, as their gondola rides between two mountains stretch a full 2.75 miles.
But it's not just that gimmick that makes Whistler one of the perennial stars of the ski world. The area has over 100 restaurants and dozens of shops, its far-reaching diversity pleasing tourists from all continents. They've put in millions of dollars over decades to make Whistler the best, and it very well may be.
Whistler will see a serious uptick in traffic due to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but it will be where the serious action happens.

CLASSIC SPLENDOR

Grindelwald / Zermatt, Switzerland

It's only natural that the birthplace of traditional skiing as we know it today, the Alps, still houses some of the absolute best sites in the world for winter sports. Grindelwald, roughly an hour outside the Swiss capital Bern, hosts an old-fashioned European ski town complete with smoking-chimney chalets, with mostly mom-and-pop hotel joints that provide an authentic immersion experience. Its centerpiece glacier has seen serious effects from increasing temperatures over the years, but it remains a landmark reputed for decades and featured in various films. Make sure to book your trip to the charming small town in advance, as its popularity has increased exponentially over time.

Zermatt remains one of the premier sites in all the world, as its long seasons, lengthy runs and presence on the stunning, jagged summit of Matterhorn mountain have amplified its presence among the ski world at large. Like so many Swiss ski towns, the village is passenger car-free to reduce emissions and instead served by electric shuttles. This is another site to book early, but if you might want to avoid holiday crowds and opt for early- or late-season tours.
BEST OF THE MIDWEST
Granite Peak ResortWausau, WisconsinEarly season opening: November 21
To some Midwesterners, the Rockie Mountains are but a distant, expensive pipe dream, the stuff of postcards -- winter sports in the Great Plains revolve around ice hockey. But the Plains are less flat than they're given credit for, enough for more than just saucer sledding. Charles Skinner sure thinks so -- he invested $15 million to open Granite Peak in 2000, opening the floodgates for a new breed of slopes ideal for the crowd less inclined to lease a timeshare out West year after year but who still want a similar quality experience. Skinner's resort features a 710-foot drop with 75 available ski runs equipped with some of the fastest ski lifts around, jetting you back to the top in just three minutes. That can make for an exhausting day, but you can rest easy by the fireplaces at the two homey chalet lodges. 710 feet up doesn't exactly mean snow at all times, but 500 snow guns ensure the powder is fresh year round. In all, Granite Peak is an impressive attempt to mimic the best aspects of America's best resorts. Read more about it and book tickets here.

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