Burnt Mountain — good skiing, bad exit strategy
The Burnt Mountain Glades have provided a paradox since they were added to Snowmass Ski Area prior to the 2012-13 season.
The skiing and snowboarding is a blast in the 250 acres of rolling meadows and glades with pockets of forest of varying density. But the effort to get off of Burnt Mountain can be a major hassle, particularly for skiers who don’t like to negotiate ruts through tight trees and snowboarders.
Aspen Skiing Co. received permission from the White River National Forest late in summer 2014 to selectively remove some trees to widen the way out, but ongoing litigation has frozen additional work.
It’s a situation that doesn’t totally satisfy anyone. Backcountry skiers and snowboarders who once had Burnt Mountain to themselves now have to share their stash with resort customers. Intermediate skiers who venture into the terrain from the ski area are left with a foul taste in their mouths while exiting Burnt Mountain onto the slopes of Two Creeks.
“Nothing is going to happen while it’s in the courts,” said Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations.
Skico added the Burnt Mountain Glades for skiers and snowboarders who wanted the backcountry feel without the risk. The boundaries are marked with ropes, and the terrain is swept by the ski patrol. Skiers and snowboarders who take the short hike up from the Elk Camp chairlift soon reap rewards, particularly on a powder day. While the terrain is generally low-angle — similar to Big Burn — there are short, steep shots that make it interesting. The glades can be heavenly and hold powder stashes for a few days after storms.
Just when you’re enjoying the turns and thinking they will last forever, it’s time for the egress. Skico improved part of the egress prior to the latest round of litigation.
“The real issue is the rock band in the middle,” Burkley said. The basalt rock is rarely covered, even after a hefty powder dump, so it requires quick maneuvers to get through the area. The departure also requires twisting through some tight trees.
The best route is snow-dependent, Burkley said, and none is ideal.
“They’re all sort of survival skiing,” he said.
Some snowboarders take off their boards and walk the middle section because the rock band comes after a flat section.
The Burnt Mountain Glades haven’t attracted the level of use Skico expected. There are a couple of hundred users per day after a snowstorm, Burkley said. Nevertheless, the terrain has its fans, particularly when the steeper Hanging Valley terrain off the High Alpine lift isn’t open because of avalanche mitigation.
Making multi-lap days is “easy,” Burkley said, for people willing to deal with a few hassles at the rock band.
“That’s minor for 2 miles of powder,” he said.
Even though the egress leaves something to be desired, it’s much improved from when the terrain wasn’t an actively used part of the Snowmass permit.
“It used to be a goat path. It was a very narrow mess,” Burkley said.
The ski patrol regularly answered distress calls for skiers who missed the egress, known as the Gene Taylor Traverse, and then got lost in dense woods farther down the slope. The calls for help have stopped since Skico officially added the terrain, he said.
Ideally, Skico wants to remove a chunk of the rock band that’s about as wide as a snowcat, according to Burkley. About 60 linear yards of the egress provides the vast majority of the problem. Skico doesn’t have an application before the Forest Service for review of further work. No action will be contemplated unless the Forest Service prevails in the litigation, Burkley said.
Fully aware he was in the midst of the mountain bike race of his life, Aspen’s John Gaston said he “tried to not think too far ahead” to prevent the magnitude of the moment from getting to him. He eventually finished runner-up in the iconic race.
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