The Minturn Mile is one of those secret mountain traditions that everyone in town knows about. And yet somehow it manages to stay a secret.
The unofficial ski run dives 2,000 feet from the top of Vail through three miles of backcountry woods to the town of Minturn, where it empties out near the Minturn Saloon — a classic bar with awesome margaritas. The route shows up on maps and tourist leaflets. It’s even been written up by the New York Times. Still, it retains an air of mystery.
It wasn’t until I tried to ski the Minturn Mile for the first time and found myself lost in an aspen glade surrounded by cliffs that I figured out why:Even if you know where the run begins and ends, there’s a lot of middle where the snow can hit the fan.
The run sounded ideal. I like backcountry skiing. I like margaritas. I like being in on local secrets. Combining the three sounded like a great afternoon. I asked my friend Hunter if he wanted to do a 19-mile ski tour from Vail Pass to the top of Vail Mountain, then down to the bar for a cocktail. He said cheers.
We started at the top of Vail Pass at 8 a.m. and made fast time through the deep spruce forests and high open ridges of the Sawatch Mountains. By lunch, we had only the 3 miles down to Minturn left. But an hour later, when we should have been sipping cold drinks, we were floundering on a traverse along a steep slope with no trail in sight. The snow under our skis had melted beyond corn snow to something that could only be called grits snow. The heavy, sticky muck was impossible to ski down, so we started making long switchbacks across the slope.
“I think we should zig a little,” I said as we slogged along.
“If we zig we’re going to run into a cliff,” Hunter said.
So we zagged. Or tried to zag, but our ski tips kept diving under the slush and pitching us onto our chins. After skiing 18 miles in five hours, we were now crawling at less than a mile an hour. Worst of all, we could see Minturn in the valley below — we just couldn’t get there.
Hunter finally had the bright idea of taking off the skis and walking. I stepped out of the bindings and promptly sunk in to my waist.
This was not how I envisioned the Mile. No one told me this part of the secret.
We found we could slither down the slope by doing a clumsy crawl that looked like something an otter might use to escape quicksand. After about 10 minutes of grunting and slithering and slush down the pants, we slid down to the path we had apparently lost somewhere above.
“Thank God,” I said. The bar was just a quick ski away — or so I thought. We had stumbled onto the lower section of the Mile, a carved, icy strand of bumps that locals call The Luge.
Confession time: This ski writer grew up snowboarding and is not a very good skier. With my skinny cross-country skis I managed to stay upright on The Luge for about 14 feet at a time.
Hunter, who is a ski patroller, could do about 30, but only managed to pick up extra speed and fall harder.
Soon we were both walking — using our skis as canes.
Even then I couldn’t stay upright.
The Luge was glazed with a layer of Olympic-quality ice that made it as slippery as, well, a luge track. I slipped and landed on my butt again with a resounding thwack that traveled up my spine and rang in my head. As the stars faded from my eyes, I started sliding down The Luge on my snow pants and had a modest “Eureka!” that went something like this: You can’t fall again if you’re already down, so just slide the whole way on your keister.
Hunter and I slid into Minturn riding our skis like sleds — one ski under each cheek. We hobbled toward the 105-year-old building that houses the Minturn Saloon’s roaring stone fireplace and well-stocked bar, talking about whether to have a beer or a margarita first. Or both.
Then we got to the door. There was sign that read CLOSED. Even though it was Saturday, during peak ski season, the bar was closed. And wouldn’t open for another two hours.
Apparently everyone who lives in Minturn, because we were the only suckers with skis over our shoulders standing on the sidewalk.
That’s how a local secret can be known by everyone and still be a secret.
Standing at the locked bar in soggy boots, I realized it was a mistake to assume that knowing the secret of the Mile is as simple as finding the start and connecting it to the end. The real secret is that fools can run the route any time, but to do it well, a skier must account for powder conditions, the effect of sun on the snow, ice in The Luge, and, maybe most importantly, arriving at the saloon just in time for happy hour.
To bring all these things together, you probably have to be a local, or at least someone who has made all the mistakes at least once before, and maybe, when it comes to mountain towns, there isn’t much of a difference between the two.
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