Snowmass hopes six-pack hits the spot | AspenTimes.com

Snowmass hopes six-pack hits the spot

Work continues on the Village Express six-pack at the base of Snowmass. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Doug Mackenzie has learned patience while working nearly 40 years at local ski areas. It’s going to come in handy this year in his role as general manager of Snowmass Ski Area.

Snowmass is in a transition season. It’s started the mountain improvements that will help it reach its full potential, but important components, like a gondola out of the base, won’t be added until 2006.

For now, patience is the key. A new six-passenger, high-speed chairlift has been added out of the prime base area, but the removal of other chairlifts has actually decreased the capacity out of the base.

“We’re going to have to bite the bullet this year,” Mackenzie said.

The new Village Express will whisk skiers and riders from the bottom of Fanny Hill to the top of Sam’s Knob is less than 10 minutes. The first six-passenger chair in the history of Aspen/Snowmass will carry about 3,000 passengers per hour.

The Village Express also changes the dynamics of skiing Snowmass. The trip to the ski area’s signature section, Big Burn, will now be only two lift rides away ” up Sam’s Knob, then a short ski to the Big Burn high-speed quad and up to the top.

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That same trip used to require rides up the Fanny Hill, Coney Glade and Big Burn chairs.

The Village Express will still have the older, slower Burlingame double chair to send passengers up from the mall area. Combined, the two chairs will have a capacity of 4,200 passengers per hour.

Last year the Fanny Hill high-speed quad, the Wood Run triple chair and Burlingame had a capacity of 5,000 passengers per hour.

So, with decreased capacity of 800 skiers per hour from the base on the west side of the hill, there will be delays and longer lift lines during busy times of the season. On the other hand, Mackenzie said, fewer lift rides to Big Burn will offset the longer wait at the base.

“Before you stood at Fanny Hill for 30 minutes, and it really didn’t do anything” to advance you up the mountain, Mackenzie said.

The new lift configuration will also probably channel more skiers and riders to Big Burn since it’s just two rides away, Mackenzie said. So he’s entering this season realizing there are some hurdles to cross ” and salivating at the thought of additional mountain improvements in 2006. First and foremost will be the addition of Snowmass’ first gondola, from the Fanny Hill base to Cafe Suzanne at the bottom of Elk Camp.

It’s expected to distribute skiers evenly across the sprawling 3,128-acre ski area. The gondola, which will have a capacity around 3,600 passengers per hour, will take them to the far east edge of Snowmass while the Village Express will send them to the west side.

“That gondola should make lift lines out of the village a thing of the past,” Mackenzie said.

The other base chairlift, the Two Creeks high-speed quad, has grown steadily in popularity as the ride up the east side over the last several years.

So Snowmass will have a six-pack, a quad and, soon, a gondola departing its base. So much for “Slowmass.”

Does it lose any of the romanticism of skiing’s old days by replacing intimate, two-passenger chairs with high-speed four- and six-passenger lifts? Maybe, but Mackenzie noted that the slow, old double chairs are the ones that often sit empty. Few people ride the Bell Mountain chair on Aspen Mountain or the Sheer Bliss chair at Snowmass.

“Maybe there are no more romantics,” he said.

Snowmass is finally getting its due.

The ski area once known as “Slowmass” and equated almost exclusively with wide, immaculately groomed cruisers hasn’t registered in Skiing magazine’s radar recently. Snowmass didn’t even show up in Skiing’s top 25 resorts last season, much to the chagrin of Skico officials.

What a difference a year makes. Snowmass not only cracked the list but charged up it, placing seventh. The rankings were compiled from interviews with 340 pro skiers and responses from 1,950 readers. They obviously know Snowmass has more than cruisers.

Ski area rankings are always difficult to predict, but the accolades should keep rolling in as Snowmass improves its base, chairlifts and other on-mountain facilities over the next few years.

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