Backcountry skiers lament Burnt Mountain approval
The mellow backcountry powder skiing experience that some people relish on Burnt Mountain could disappear as soon as next winter.
The Aspen Skiing Co. will soon decide if its summer work schedule will include thinning trees on the mountain, said Chief Operating Officer Mike Kaplan. If so, Skico customers will be skiing more of Burnt Mountain, on the east side of Long Shot, during the 2006-07 campaign.
The U.S. Forest Service approved the Skico’s expansion plan after completing an environmental assessment last month.
Scott Schlesinger, a part-time Snowmass Village resident, fought the proposal for fear it would bring drastic change to an area he loves. He said glading the Burnt Mountain terrain and folding it into the official ski area will attract considerably more skiers and riders than currently venture past a backcountry gate that provides access.
“You basically destroy what it is,” Schlesinger said. “It’s just going to be wrecked.”
Valley resident Kris Smith said she ventures onto Burnt Mountain because it provides solitude that cannot be found in ski areas. She skis there more for the connection to nature than for cranking out powder laps as quickly as she can.
The Skico plan will attract more users, then transform Burnt Mountain into an “extension of Elk Camp” rather than a special place, Smith said.
“It’s not going to be backcountry skiing anymore,” she said.
Smith and Schlesinger both contend heavy traffic from the Skico’s plan would transform the Burnt Mountain terrain into long bump runs rather than little-used stashes of powder.
“It’s Snowmass’ little powder stash and they’re going to take that.”
Kaplan sounded understanding, to a degree.
“It’s their powder stash and they want to keep it that way,” Kaplan said. “My belief in this business is, when you convert one powder stash, you create another.”
The people concerned about the Burnt Mountain terrain changing will find other terrain that provides them with a backcountry experience, he said. And the Skico will introduce more of its customers to the “semi-backcountry experience” that it believes Burnt Mountain offers.
While the Skico is eyeing expansion onto 500 acres, the tree-thinning proposal would add only about 200 acres of skiable terrain, Kaplan said. Much of that terrain would be like upper Long Shot, where it’s not so much a distinct trail as numerous routes through trees.
Burnt Mountain’s geographic features assure it will be a special place, Kaplan said, and he disputed it could ever be transformed into an extension of Elk Camp.
“Would it be different than it is now? Definitely,” he said. “It’s always going to have a different feel than almost anywhere else.”
The Forest Service stated in its environmental assessment of the project that the Burnt Mountain area is already within the ski area boundary. It was approved for ski area development in 1994, so there was no guarantee it would remain a backcountry experience.
The agency said the popularity of Long Shot with Skico customers shows a demand exists for a “semi-backcountry experience” that requires a short hike and features natural snow rather than groomed terrain. Adding terrain will spread skiers out and maintain the low density, the Forest Service said.
Schlesinger said that logic is faulty. The best way to keep the density low is to prevent the Skico from thinning trees and adding skiable terrain, he said.
Bigger decisions loom in Burnt Mountain’s future. The Skico has approval for a surface lift that would pull skiers and riders up the current hiking route from Elk Camp to the west summit of Burnt Mountain. A high-speed quad chairlift is also approved on the west side of the mountain.
Those chairlifts won’t be considered until demand warrants – after the ski area starts logging 900,000 skier visits, Kaplan said. Last year Snowmass attracted 747,304 visits.
Schlesinger said he believes the Skico wants to add the terrain simply for marketing glamor.
“There is no reason to do it except to lay claim to more acres,” he said. “I think it’s Vail envy.”
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center has contributed to the state’s avalanche center for several years to help with forecasting for backcountry visitors. It cannot hold in-person fundraisers this year so its asking supporters to sign up for an annual membership.