Backcountry haven may avoid lift lines

Scott Condon

Burnt Mountain, a haven for backcountry skiers and riders, might remain chairlift-free forever, according to the head of the Aspen Skiing Co.Skico President and Chief Executive Officer Pat O’Donnell said the company will only consider adding a lift if skier visits hit a “trigger” level at Snowmass Ski Area. He said Skico managing partner Jim Crown has made it clear that the ownership won’t invest in a chairlift there unless demand grows significantly at Snowmass.Although O’Donnell didn’t identify that trigger level, he implied it will take significant growth to reach it. “It’s going to be foot travel up there for the foreseeable future,” he said.In the last decade, business at Snowmass has varied from a low of 675,500 visits to a high of 884,000 in 1997-98, the record year for the resort. Last season, there were 768,000 lift tickets sold at Snowmass. The Skico hopes to boost numbers with new lodging at a 1 million-square-foot development at the base.And because it does plan to grow, O’Donnell said, the company has to “retain the option” of expanding onto Burnt Mountain.That proposed expansion tarnishes the Skico’s position as an environmental leader in the eyes of critics and some observers. The expansion sparked contentious debates in the 1980s and ’90s when the U.S. Forest Service studied the environmental consequences. Final approvals were granted in 1994.Burnt Mountain is located between Snowmass and Buttermilk. A large portion of its undeveloped slopes are within the Snowmass Ski Area boundary – or the area the Forest Service believes is appropriate to use for skiing. So far, the Skico has only developed one trail, called Long Shot.The company’s goal is to thin trees on about 500 additional acres to expand the “semi-backcountry” skiing experience. Skiers and riders would continue to access the terrain by taking a short hike up a slope at the east of the Elk Camp section of the mountain.O’Donnell said he doesn’t view that proposed work as detrimental to the environment. Right now, he said, the terrain is a confusing maze for many people who venture into it. Skiers and riders sometimes get lost and require rescue by the ski patrol.The federal approval allows three chairlifts to be built on Burnt Mountain. However, the Skico voluntarily surrendered rights to build a trail on the east side of the permit area, essentially eliminating the need for the eastern chairlift, company officials have said.A chairlift on the western side of Burnt Mountain is the one that could be triggered by an increase in skier visits. The company also has approval for a small chairlift that would eliminate the hike.In his company’s latest Sustainability Report – an assessment on how it is performing on environmental issues – O’Donnell addressed the potential Burnt Mountain expansion.”It has been suggested that it would be a bold statement for Aspen Skiing Co. to scrap our plans to use Burnt Mountain. Perhaps. But it would be a bold statement to close Long Shot, too. Or Snowmass [ski area] for that matter.”Aspen Skiing Co. is a business trying to minimize its enormous impacts, operating in a way that enables us to be sustainable. But we are still a business,” O’Donnell wrote.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is