DENVER It seemed like a good idea at the time. Even in retrospect, I'm sure there are days when the Ski Train runs like clockwork, days when passengers bypass the traffic jams of Interstate 70 for a day of skiing at Colorado's Winter Park. It just didn't go according to plan when we took the train to ski there on Dec. 28.
When I left Pittsburgh for a week of Christmas visiting with family and friends in the Denver area, I was thinking I would ski at Copper, one of the few Rocky Mountain resorts off Interstate 70 I've never visited.
The plan was simple: To avoid having to drive in treacherous conditions after a snowstorm, my ski buddy, Justin, and I would take the Ski Train, and explore another ski area I'd never been to, Winter Park.
The Ski Train departs from Denver's Union Station at 7:15 weekend mornings and some holiday weekdays. Even at that early hour, it's possible to take Denver's convenient light rail to Union Station and avoid paying for downtown parking. That's what we did, arriving by 6:30 a.m. to claim the train and ski tickets we bought in advance online at SkiTrain.com. (Our lift tickets online cost $55 for adults, a significant savings over the $86 Winter Park charges at its ticket window; our round-trip train tickets in coach cost $49 per person.)
Even on the Web site, the train service warns, "Ski Train will not be responsible for delays caused by weather, rail or traffic conditions, mechanical failure, or any other conditions beyond our control. Any expenses arising as a result of delayed departure or arrival times, including ski lessons or other activities, missed flights or travel connections, are the sole responsibility of the passenger."
We didn't give that warning much thought, but we should have.
After handing over our skis and poles to a helpful Ski Train porter while boarding, we arrived at our assigned seats to find a 14-page, glossy, full-color booklet detailing the history of the Ski Train (it dates back to the 1940s), including a map of our route and a diagram of the Winter Park base village.
The day began cold but sunny as the orange train cars still bearing the old Rio Grande Line logo pulled out of Union Station just after 7:30 a.m.
We started the trip eating breakfast in the cafe car. Aside from the immature, profanity-spewing teen-agers who held court there, the cafe car was a fine place to hang out, read the morning newspaper and watch the snow-covered mountain landscapes pass as we climbed into the mountains and began the 56-mile journey through the first of 29 tunnels.
The trip breezed by, and all seemed well as we approached our 9:30 a.m. arrival time in Winter Park. Then we reached the mouth of the line's last and longest tunnel six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel and the train stopped. The Ski Train crew explained via loudspeaker that the train ahead of ours had broken down inside the tunnel. As soon as it got moving, we'd resume our journey.
The slopes awaited: Once our train could clear Moffat Tunnel, we'd emerge to arrive at the base of the Winter Park slopesliterally. The train tracks are closer to the chair lift than most parking lots. But first we had to get there.
While the train crew did its best to provide regular updates, our fellow travelers grew impatient. Our train stopped at 9:15 a.m., sitting on the track, swaying slightly, buffeted by wind as snow swirled in gusts outside.
By 10:45, Justin and I decided we might as well eat on the stranded train so we didn't waste ski time getting lunch. Sandwich wraps already were sold out (other travelers had the same idea, evidently), so our options were a bagel dog or a smallish cup of macaroni and cheese for $4.50 each. We took the mac and cheese, which was still partially frozen when served.
We waited, reading magazines at first, taking photos out the window. Then we stewed as our time on the slopes slipped away.
Finally, at noon, Ski Train began moving again, getting us to Winter Park almost three hours late. The train crew offered apologies and the option of buying back our ski passes if we didn't want to use them, but for East Coasters who had only one day to ski in the Rockies, that held little appeal.
The proximity of the train tracks to the slopes was a huge plus, especially compared with most Rocky Mountain resorts where you park and walk for what seems like a mile (or take a shuttle bus) to the base of the slopes. After disembarking from the train, we walked just 100 yards through a building and we were on the snow.
Knowing we had little time, we wanted to minimize our wait time in lift lines, so we made our way toward the blue-square runs on Vasquez Ridge, far from the Winter Park base. Big mistake. I've never done so much poling in the Rockies.
It turned out to be a live-and-learn day all around. But what was frustrating at first became more laughable as the day went along: Late train, disappointing slopes and then: No food.
Justin quit skiing early and went to get us a pizza. They had run out of cheese!
The slopes closed at 4 p.m. and the Ski Train was due to depart at 4:15, but as I made my last run down the mountain, I checked the train tracks: No train.
Train passengers were directed into the lobby of a building near the tracks. At this point, sustained for the day by only half a doughnut and a cup of mac and cheese, we broke out our emergency rations: Stale, crunchy, day-old bagels never tasted so good.
Our train arrived a half-hour late, and we were on our way by 5 p.m. It was a beautiful trip down the mountains at dusk, the lights of Denver blazing up like Los Angeles as seen from Mulholland Drive. The best views came when the train rounded a bend, and we saw the light of the engine reflecting off jagged rocks and pine trees.
Unfortunately, the Ski Train slowed to a stop a few miles shy of Union Station at 6:40 p.m.
"Some days the railroad just doesn't work as well as we'd like it to, either," said a Ski Train conductor over the speaker system as we sat and waited for other trains to clear our path. At 7:30, an hour late, Ski Train limped back to its platform at Union Station.It wasn't the day of ski-trip leisure I expected, but it could have been worse. While riding the Olympia Express chair lift at Winter Park, I met a high-school kid from Omaha, Neb., with a worse story. He and his friend had taken Amtrak to Winter Park from their hometown, and a rockslide caused them to be seven hours late.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at [email protected]. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.