Buttermilk expansion won’t dip into the `Sugar Bowls’ | AspenTimes.com

Buttermilk expansion won’t dip into the `Sugar Bowls’

John Colson

If the Aspen Skiing Co. wins permission to expand the Buttermilk ski area, chances are it will give up some of its expansion possibilities elsewhere in the valley.

But whatever happens at Buttermilk, said a senior Skico official, it will not mean the loss of the much-loved “Sugar Bowls,” so popular with backcountry skiers.

The Skico recently submitted its new Buttermilk Master Plan to Pitkin County, outlining a number of changes at the smallest of the local ski areas.

Among the proposals is a request to expand outward from the West Buttermilk portion of the area by about 100 acres, into the tree-clad slopes below the ridgetop.

Only about 20 acres of actual skiable terrain would be added, said Skico Vice President of Planning and Development Bill Kane, and the most significant change would be the realignment of the West Buttermilk lift.

Kane said the existing West Buttermilk lift is to be essentially cut in half, and would become a midway lift. From the same base area, another lift would punch up through what is now a tree-covered slope to near the top of the ridge that divides the Sugar Bowls from the existing ski area.

According to Kane, the expansion will result in the creation of “one kind of developed trail, and the rest would be sort of thinned out into glades.” He characterized the terrain as “low-intermediate.”

The new lift, he said, will be more than 7,000 feet long, compared to the 6,060-foot length of the existing lift, and will be a high-speed lift – either a double or a quad.

As part of the expansion plans, Kane said, the Skico is talking to the U.S. Forest Service about “redesignation” of some local terrain that is currently marked for possible ski-area development, such as parts of Richmond Ridge to the east of Aspen Mountain ski area, as well as the Sugar Bowls between Buttermilk and Snowmass mountains.

“We’re participating in an action that will probably take 3,000-plus acres now designated for alpine skiing,” Kane said.

Regarding the Sugar Bowls area – a series of open meadows between West Buttermilk and the eastern edge of the Snowmass ski area – Kane said that “some of that area might be accessible” from the new lift. But, he explained, there is a ridgeline between the proposed terrain and the Sugar Bowls, which probably will discourage all but the most dedicated enthusiasts.

Long a favorite haunt of telemarkers and other skiers who want a quick backcountry fix without having to drive long distances, the bowls lead down to the Government Trail and back to West Buttermilk.

They are reached by hiking uphill from the top terminus of the existing West Buttermilk lift to the top of the ridge, and then down a slight decline to the upper reaches of the nearest bowl. Kane said the proposed new lift at West Buttermilk will not quite reach the very top of that ridge, so it will still be a short hike uphill to get to the bowls.

Kane said the area of the Sugar Bowls was considered for development as a nordic ski area with 10 miles of trails, and that information to that effect was included in the planning documents for the Burnt Mountain expansion of the Snowmass ski area.

But, he said, the Skico itself has not pursued the plans, mainly due to worries about negative public reaction to such a significant expansion of developed ski terrain.

“It’d be, ‘This is more than the camel’s nose in the tent, this is the camel taking the tent and walking away with it,'” he joked about the anticipated public outcry if the Skico were to try to develop the terrain between Buttermilk and Snowmass.

He said that while the Skico has no plans to develop the Sugar Bowls area, it is attempting to reserve the right to build a gondola or other conveyance through that area, should approvals for a Buttermilk-to-Snowmass link ever be approved.

Kane pointed out that at one time, in the mid-1970s, the Sugar Bowls area was the target of development plans by industrialist and developer George Mitchell of Mitchell Energy.

“It was to be all one continuous ski area” stretching from Campground in the west at Snowmass to Racer’s Edge in the east at Buttermilk, he said. The plans included a ski village in the Owl Creek area with ski lifts reaching down to about where Owl Creek Road now runs.

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