Final touch eyed for Snowmass’ Burnt Mountain |

Final touch eyed for Snowmass’ Burnt Mountain

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Scott Condon The Aspen Times

SNOWMASS – Aspen Skiing Co.’s decision to open additional terrain on Burnt Mountain this season stirred strong emotions on both sides of the issue, and now the proposed finishing touch on the project is open for debate.

Skico opened 230 acres of terrain on the eastern side of Burnt Mountain. The terrain was within Skico’s permit boundary for Snowmass but not previously part of the developed skiing.

The U.S. Forest Service reviewed the project and approved opening the terrain, with a caveat. Because of a legal snafu, the Forest Service couldn’t immediately permit Skico’s plan to cut down enough trees to create a traverse 15 to 35 feet wide to connect the Burnt Mountain terrain to the existing Long Shot trail and the chairlifts within Snowmass.

The egress is now under review by the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Skico proposed a trail segment about 3,100 feet long and as wide as 35 feet. It will require strategically removing trees within a 2.5-acre area, according to the Forest Service.

The Forest Service’s primary concern is for a “safe egress” off the Burnt Mountain terrain, said Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The egress also is needed to improve the experience rather than force skiers and riders to negotiate a path through thick trees, he said.

The vast majority of the newly opened terrain is rolling hills spotted with natural parks and a few steep pitches. Skico was given permission last fall to selectively remove trees to connect the naturally open areas. Stark estimated that Skico’s trails crews removed only about 10 percent of about 330 marketable trees they were permitted cut down. Other trees less than 3 inches in diameter also were allowed to be cut.

There are no real designated routes on the upper slopes, though the trail map shows three named trails. It’s open terrain featuring infinite combinations.

“The idea is, on the first run you’re going to stumble around,” Sewell said. But with each trip back there, skiers and riders will learn more about the terrain and learn their favorite lines.

While most of the terrain provides a pleasant experience, the egress is – at best – a nuisance. A route through thick trees is marked with a sign at the start and orange discs tacked onto trees. But the route soon splinters into multiple trails, forcing a decision of which to follow. Skiers and snowboarders who miss the advised route end up negotiating a 5-foot rocky ledge that, in a below-average snow year like this, provides multiple hazards.

The designated egress winds through trees and over roots and rocks before eventually tapping into the old Gene Taylor Traverse, also known as the Chainsaw Traverse, a route cut into the woods decades ago by backcountry enthusiasts. The traverse connects to Long Shot, a previously existing trail on the western side of Burnt Mountain.

Skico officials have acknowledged that the Burnt Mountain terrain would be suitable for intermediate skiers and riders if not for the traverse. The area is marked black diamond on trail maps.

Snowmass Mountain Manager Steve Sewell said he felt the new terrain on Burnt Mountain offered enough good skiing to warrant opening it before the egress could be completed. He acknowledged that the egress needs work.

“Can we improve that a little bit? Absolutely,” he said.

Skico took the approach that it should remove as few of trees as possible on the slopes above the egress – just enough to make connections of open areas possible, Sewell said. Similarly, he intends to remove fewer trees for the egress than will be permitted.

Skico wants to get a grooming machine onto the egress trail so it will hold the snow better and make it easier to negotiate. Stark said Skico officials have told him they plan to invest in a compact grooming machine so that the egress trail only has to be 15 feet wide for most of the distance. In addition, trees will be thinned in a few places alongside the egress trail for skiers and snowboarders who want to avoid the groomed trail.

Skico planner Victor Gerdin said a lot of trees being removed are dead lodgepole pine and spruce killed by bark beetles but still standing. He said as the area gets skied more and patterns are established, trails crews will likely have to “clean up” with additional removal of a few trees.

“I think it’s going to be a work in progress,” he said.

Sewell estimated that 80 percent of the work on the Burnt Mountain terrain has been completed. Marking the terrain boundaries, he said, has helped reduce the number of skiers and snowboarders getting lost in the dark timber. Stark said 16 skiers and snowboarders got lost and required assistance during Christmas week of the 2011-12 season.

Skico’s decision to treat its customers to “sidecountry” terrain that provides a backcountry feel with the safety advantages of patrolling has come at a price for some people. Skiers and snowboarders have been using Burnt Mountain as a powder stash and easily accessible place to find solitude for decades. While the number of people entering Burnt Mountain from Snowmass Ski Area is limited, it still seems like an invasion for people used to the backcountry tranquility.

Missouri Heights resident Royal Laybourn submitted comments to the Forest Service that reflected on Skico’s decision to add the terrain and the proposal for the egress road. He contends that Skico’s addition of terrain has been “poorly implemented” so far.

“This is a highly sensitive, very productive, high altitude, forest environment that exists as a small ‘island’ of critical habitat between two communities with heavily developed ski areas,” Laybourn wrote. “This roadless gem should be treated in ‘as lightly as possible’ manner of ‘sidecountry’ skier opportunity improvements without degrading the natural experience of nature and discovery.”

He called for Skico to created a gladed trail of no more than 15 feet for the egress rather than a “road” 35 feet wide and three-quarters of a mile long.

If Skico officials “are unwilling/unable to complete a series of surgical, low impact, trail corridor improvements that do not change the landscape and the character of the forest in this delightful little ‘pocket wilderness’, then no access improvement permitting should be allowed,” Laybourn wrote.

Stark said he has received fewer than 10 comments so far from the public on the Burnt Mountain egress proposal. Roughly half supported adding an egress to make skiing Burnt Mountain more enjoyable, he said. At least one person said Skico should stay out of the terrain, according to Stark.

The Forest Service wants comments submitted by March 25. They can be sent to Jim Stark at


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