Friday, June 26, 2009

Ski Resort Profile: Schweitzer, Idaho

Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint, Idaho does not have the name recognition factor of a destination like Vail or even Park City. For the skiers who have found this resort in the panhandle of Idaho, Schweitzer’s undiscovered status simply means uncrowded slopes. Not surprisingly, the ski area was picked by Skiing magazine as the “Best Place to Ditch the Crowds.”

The 2,900 acres of skiable terrain make Schweitzer the largest resort in Idaho, exceeding better-known Sun Valley by about a third. The summit elevation of a relatively tame 6,400 feet makes Schweitzer a good choice for those susceptible to altitude sickness. From the summit, the ski area provides 2,400 vertical feet of skiing across two main bowls, Schweitzer Bowl and Outback Bowl. The mountain receives an average annual snowfall of 300 inches.

"We're actually a really big mountain which a lot of people don't realize," said Haley Sorbel, Schweitzer's communications coordinator. "We're well-known for our tree skiing, so that's definitely an attraction. We have tree skiing on the intermediate level and it just goes up from there. We ranked third [in tree skiing] in North America in 2007 by Skiing magazine."

Assuming the region’s tendency for foggy conditions does not materialize, the scenic views are definitely a highlight of the Schweitzer experience. The centerpiece of the valley, Lake Pend Oreille, covering 148 square miles, may be smaller than Lake Tahoe, measuring 191 square miles, but Idaho’s largest lake may be just as picturesque.

The Selkirk Lodge, White Pine Lodge, and various condos are the lodging choices at the base area. Options in the town of Sandpoint, 11 miles away from the resort, range from quaint bed-and-breakfasts to a Super 8 for the budget-minded.

While Lake Pend Oreille makes Sandpoint a year-round tourist destination, the town’s economy also relies on Coldwater Creek, the women’s clothing retailer headquartered there. In downtown Sandpoint, a 9,300-square-foot flagship store— complete with an upstairs wine bar-- is about twice the size of an average Coldwater Creek retail location.

"Sandpoint is an art town. It's a small town, but there are a lot of art galleries," Sorbel said. "It's right on the lake, so that's a huge attraction."

Located just 45 miles south of the Canadian border, Schweitzer is not as difficult to reach as it might seem. Most major airlines, including discount carriers Frontier and Southwest, fly into Spokane, Wash., an hour-and-a-half drive away from the resort.

For old-school travelers, Sandpoint is on the Empire Builder route on Amtrak. The western end of the route is either Portland or Seattle. The eastern end of the route is Chicago.

(Photo Credits: Schweitzer Mountain Resort)

Ski Resort Profile: Powder Mountain, Utah

Find fresh tracks at Powder Mountain

When "Powder" is your first name, you better deliver it. Utah's Powder Mountain lists an average of 500 inches of fluff a year. Considering that Alta and Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon can make the same claim, the snowfall abundance does not set Powder Mountain apart as a unique place in Utah. This gem is special because of what it lacks-- people. It is possible to go an entire day and not share a run with another skier. While the Little Cottonwood resorts can offer steeper terrain in general, they are also tracked out much more quickly on powder days.

Keeping Powder Mountain uncrowded, seven other major resorts are within 36 miles of the Salt Lake City airport. The 55-mile drive from the airport north to Powder Mountain is not far, but it is enough to keep away the masses. Especially when some of the season’s 500 inches of snow is falling, one legitimate challenge can be the last six miles of the drive. The resort is upside-down in that the "base area" is near the top, so the access road climbs about 3,000 vertical feet out of the Ogden Valley.
Old school bus says "old-school" vibe

No one knows that access road better than Richard Wood, or "Woody" to his fans. A resort employee since 1982, Wood drives a school bus that serves as a ski lift for "Powder Country," 1,200 acres of quasi-backcountry terrain that empties out to the access road. The old-school charm of the Powder Country shuttle sums up the resort's vibe. Although one of the area's four chairlifts was replaced by a high-speed quad in 2006, the lift system could be described as charming, or antiquated, depending on your perspective.

Expansive terrain awaits skiers

The area relies solely on natural snow, rather than snowmaking, so the season opening dates are generally not particularly early. Including additional terrain served by snowcat and guided tours, the ski area's 5,500 acres leads all Utah resorts. As Powder Mountain's cult following would point out, however, this place isn't about impressive statistics; it's about an experience only found away from the masses.

(Photo credits: Eric Wagnon)

Same-day skiing can start in the Midwest

Skiers living in a place such as Chicago might think that a big-mountain experience is a world and a day away. When the nearby Midwestern hills just are not enough vertical to satisfy, a couple of options allow for a full eight-hour day of “real” skiing.

Convenient flights, time zones, and night skiing combine to give hard-core skiers more immediate gratification. The right itinerary can also maximize the value of lodging by turning “travel days” into “ski days.”

Keystone Resort in Summit County, Colorado and Brighton Resort in Utah offer the best bets for travelers coming from Chicago. Both are relatively close to major airports and offer night skiing.

For travel to Keystone, Frontier and Southwest Airlines, leaving from Midway, and United, leaving from O’Hare, offer direct flights that leave about 6 a.m. and arrive in Denver before 8 a.m. Mountain time. Wear your base layer on the flight. Allowing an hour to pick up luggage and a rental car, then two hours for the drive to Keystone and a quick clothing change in the parking lot means that an 11 a.m. start is definitely possible.

Keystone is owned by Vail Resorts, so the Peaks Rewards program allows Keystone visitors to buy lift tickets on-line up to seven days before the trip. The days purchased are electronically loaded onto a pass that looks like a credit card. The pass is then mailed to the visitor. Lift attendants read the card— even through a jacket—with an RF scanner, so card holders can bypass the lift ticket window and head straight for the lifts.

Once on the mountain, spend the afternoon on the North Peak and The Outback areas. Save Dercum Mountain, the frontside of Keystone, for the evening when several of the major intermediate runs and a terrain park are lighted until 8:30 p.m. in the largest night-skiing operation in Colorado.

Skiers wanting a Utah vacation can choose Brighton Resort for a similar arrival-day experience. Delta provides a direct flight to Salt Lake City departing O’Hare at 7:35 a.m. and arriving in Salt Lake City at 10:07 a.m.

Considering that Brighton is only 35 miles from the airport, skiers should be able to click into their skis within two hours of landing. Brighton offers night skiing all week except on Sundays. The resort expects night skiing to extend this season through the first week of April. The more than 200 acres of lighted terrain make up the largest night-skiing area in Utah. Brighton is known as a popular place for snowboarding.

Part 2: The science of ski goggles

Color my world

If we lived in a black-and-white world, the discussion of ski goggle lenses could basically start and end with visible light transmission (VLT) and polarization. Remember from Part 1 that visible light has different wavelengths that eyes perceive as color. Blocking or allowing certain wavelengths through colored tints are a big part of the formula.

“By adding a tint, you enhance contrast and enhance your visual acuity. In the end, you take away tint and get more VLT, add tint reduce VLT,” describes Greg Randolph, communications manager at Smith Optics. “The balance is like baking a cake. You find what works and tastes, that is performs, best.”

Grey is considered a neutral tint in that it reduces VLT across the spectrum, so the eye does not perceive an added color. Most goggles designed for sunny conditions use darker brown tints. For example, the Smith Sol-X lens has a sienna brown tint that results in a VLT of 10 percent, meaning it lets through only 10 percent of the visible light. Adding a gold mirror finish to the Sol-X knocks down the VLT even more to 7 percent.

For overcast, flat light days, the goal for most goggle manufacturers is to filter the overabundance of blue light in those conditions. Yellow or rose tints with a very high VLT up around 70 percent are most commonly used for this purpose.

The reason a yellow lens works to eliminate blue light may be explained by a combination of anatomy and color theory. Receptors in the eyes respond to the primary colors of red, green and blue, often referred to as RGB. In a certain mind-bending sense, any object is intrinsically every color except the one the eye sees. For example, a red ball absorbs all light waves except the red ones that are reflected back and perceived by the eyes. A transparent filter such as a tinted lens works the same way in that a red filter, for instance, absorbs green and blue light while allowing red to pass through it. In RGB color theory, yellow, a combination of red and green, is the exact opposite of blue, making them complimentary colors. Therefore, a yellow filter allows red and green light to pass through to the eyes while absorbing only the blue.

“For Oakley, High Intensity Yellow is the pinnacle of low-light lenses for those guys,” said Hud Knight, director of merchandising for online retailer “Then the rose, orange is a little bit of a crossover where you’re going to survive if it gets brighter out.”

With Smith goggles, Randolph suggests the Sensor Mirror lens for flat light. The lens has a VLT of 70 percent with a light rose base tint and additional tint as part of the mirror finish. “Mirrors are essentially microscopic flakes of metal which can be colored or plain. The mirror coating reduces VLT, but also has an effect on the overall tint as the mirror coating can be colored itself,” he explained. “For the Sensor Mirror lens, our flat-low light lens, the metal is actually slightly tinted in the rose spectrum which affects the color of the lens and its ability to add contrast, as well as reduces VLT to a level which we found was ideal.”

For a versatile all-around Smith lens, Randolph singled out the Ignitor Mirror as the best option and called it, “a little more refined than RC36,” Smith’s older all-around lens, named for its rose and copper tints, producing 36 percent VLT.

“We actually developed Ignitor for sunglasses initially,” Randolph said. “We developed it for a nice bluebird day to being in dark timber or a rainy day. For the goggles, we tweaked it and added a bit more rose.”

Changing on the fly

Smith’s I/O goggles include both a Sensor Mirror and Ignitor Mirror lens that can be changed out fairly easily when conditions change. Two movable clips along the top of the lens are used in changing the lenses.

Giro also has an interchangeable lens system with the Manifest goggles. Two lenses, one for low-light and one for medium to bright light, are included with the Manifest goggles. The lenses may be switched out by using the “Pop Top” technology that is unique to Giro.

Going natural

Goggle manufacturer Scott has shifted away from using obvious tints in its Scott Natural lens series. At first glance, the lenses appear to be a neutral grey, but the concept is to use subtle colors to achieve clarity and contrast without adding a dominant color. “The trick is educating the public that contrast is the key to ski or ride,” said Gabe Glosband, director of marketing at Scott. “The assumption would be that it’s just a grey lens, but it’s a very pleasing lens to wear and gives you plenty of clarity and contrast. We’ve had a really strong response. It produces a neutral look that’s less offensive to the eye.”

Three Scott Natural lenses are available for the 2009-10 season: the Natural Transmitter (48 percent VLT), the Natural Light (35 percent VLT) and the Natural Elevation (15 percent VLT). While the Natural Light lens was new for 2008-09, the Natural Transmitter and Natural Elevation are new for next season.

Eye of the beholder

The challenge for goggle makers is that eyes and perceptions are different. For instance, the eyes’ own lenses slightly yellow with age. “Ideal is not uniform. Kind of like opinions and eyes, everyone has them and they are all different,” said Randolph, who tests goggles at Sun Valley Resort near the Smith Optics headquarters. “There is no one best lens for everyone, but the art is making lenses which address most people's needs. I think the success of our lenses indicate that we have done a solid job of finding what works best for most and creating multiple options that allow people to discover their preferred lens.”

Even blue lenses made by POC may be seen on World Cup racers. While blue light has traditionally been seen as the enemy (see Ski Goggle Science Part 1), POC defends its unusual tint. “Although there is some logic in the assumption that a blue lens is not good in flat light conditions, we get a lot of feedback that blue lenses work great and are actually preferred by many customers, both at the pro and leisure level,” replied Oscar Huss, POC product process manager, from the company’s headquarters in Sweden. “It almost touches a philosophical field, but actually what is blue for someone might be perceived different by someone else.

"Some recommend yellow, while others claim red or rose to be the best, maybe depending on what kind of light perception their product manager or test team has," he added. "Clearly there is not a best practice here. If there were, we and all others would use the same. Our contribution is to try to offer many good choices.”

The bottom line

While a formal goggle demo system is not really in place, the best advice is try different lenses actually on the mountain in different light conditions, perhaps by trading with a ski companion for a run. Conflicting theories and opinions do indeed exist among goggle makers and skiers. However, everyone agrees that being able to see the contours of the terrain makes skiing much easier and more fun.

(Photo Credits: Smith Optics; Scott USA)

Part 1: The science of ski goggles

Seeing the light

Skiing a slope with any amount of confidence first requires simply seeing the slope. Light on the mountain can vary from blinding sunlight to flat light without any defining shadows. Ski goggle lenses help the eyes process visual information in these difficult conditions. How do these lenses really work? Why are certain lenses best for particular light situations? Understanding the answers to these questions requires a detour to the realm of a high-school science class.

Blinded me with science

Light is simply the eye’s interpretation of a small sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. Going from the longest wavelength to the shortest, the spectrum includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet (UV) light, x-rays and gamma rays. Within visible light, the spectrum from longest to shortest wavelength makes up the familiar colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Due to the smaller wavelength, the light on the blue end of the spectrum tends to scatter, making it more difficult for the eye to process. As a related side note, the answer to the age-old question of “why is the sky blue?” is Rayleigh scattering, the phenomenon of blue light interacting with air molecules. In overcast or snowy conditions, an overload of blue light bounces around to create what skiers call “flat light.”

ABC’s of VLT

Ski goggle lenses reduce the amount the overall light and often add one or more color tints to balance the spectrum for more contrast and definition. Visible light transmission (VLT) is the percentage of light allowed to pass through a lens. A lens designed for sunny conditions does not let in much light, so it has a low VLT percentage, generally ranging from 5 to 30 percent. A low-light or flat-light lens usually lets in much more light for VLT percentages commonly from 50 to 70 percent. A mirror finish slightly reduces the VLT.

VLT measures visible light, so it has no bearing on protection from invisible UV light. “Tinting does not affect the UV protection. Almost all goggles you buy now have UV protection,” said Dr. Eric Snyder, an ophthalmologist and avid skier.

A lens, known as photochromatic or photochromic, adjusts its VLT to the conditions. The effectiveness of photochromatic lenses is a subject of debate within the ski-goggle industry. According to Greg Randolph, communications manager at Smith Optics, his company does not offer a photochromatic lens, because the chemical process that creates the change is temperature sensitive. Randolph said the cold weather common while skiing tends to make the lenses too dark. Critics also contend that photochromatic lenses actually react to UV light and the high intensity of UV light at high altitude and reflecting off snow can make the lenses too dark for skiing.

On the other hand, Michael Jackson, co-founder of Zeal Optics, swears by the versatility of photochromatic lenses. Zeal produces a lens called the PPX, an acronym for polarized, photochromatic. The PPX has a VLT ranging from 16 to 33 percent. While even 33 percent seems rather low, Jackson said, “the visual perception feels like 65 percent, because of the polarization and tint.” The PPX combines tints of rose, brown, yellow and a neutral grey.

Zeal plans by mid-September to offer the PPX Extreme with a wider VLT range of 13 to 42 percent. “Just like snow conditions and weather conditions constantly changing, by having a versatile lens that combines photochromatic and polarization, we’ve been on the cutting edge and continue to expand on that development,” Jackson said.

Another photochromatic lens on the market is the Julbo Zebra with a VLT from 6.6 to 40.7 percent. While most ski-goggle lenses are made of polycarbonate, the Julbo Zebra lens is made of NXT, a material Julbo developed in the 1990s for the U.S. Army. Laser technology actually infuses the photochromatic dye inside the material.

Bolle produces two photochromatic lenses, the modulator citrus with an orange tint and the modulator vermillion with a reddish tint. The VLT for the modulator citrus goes from 28 to 66 percent. The modulator vermillion has a very similar VLT range of 26 to 66 percent. POC also offers a photochromatic lens in its goggle line.

With a company name derived from “ultraviolet excluded,” Uvex makes the Magic, a goggle featuring a unique way to change VLT in less than a second. The goggle has a double lens that uses liquid crystal technology to allow the switching of the lens from a high-contrast lens for flat light to a darker lens for sunny conditions. When a small electric current from a battery attached to the goggle’s head band is turned on, the liquid crystals turn dark and the VLT drops by about 30 percentage points.

Meant for sunny days, the GPS goggle line from Carrera features a gradient lens that is darker near the top of the lens. Carrera claims that the tint variation cuts down the sunlight while maximizing frontal vision.

Polarization opposites

The term “polarization” refers both to differing opinions and a lens filter that allows certain aligned light waves. In this case, both definitions are relevant, because opinions definitely differ regarding the value of polarized lenses for skiing. “It’s kind of one those personal preference things,” said Hud Knight, director of merchandising for, an online retailer offering both polarized and non-polarized goggles.

The traditional view asserts that polarized lenses reduce glare more than increase contrast, so they may seem too dark in flat light. Critics also contend that polarization takes away the ability to see glare from an icy patch in the snow.

Several manufacturers, however, tout the benefits of polarized goggles. Oakley, in particular, has plans for increased emphasis on polarized models for next season, according to Knight.

At Zeal Optics, Jackson said the industry created “a myth that it was bad,” because manufacturing polarized goggle lenses can be an expensive, challenging process. Zeal’s lenses designed for snowsports are polarized and the majority are also photochromatic, a unique combination in the marketplace.

Uvex makes polarized lenses with Polarvision, the company’s name for a dark orange polarizer that is designed to eliminate glare but still highlight icy patches. Bolle offers a polarized brown lens with a VLT of 28 percent. Carrera manufactures polarized lenses tinted in yellow or light red.

(Photo Credits: Scott USA; POC; Zeal Optics)