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Is Highlands a victim of its own `extreme’ success?

Forty years after its founding as a ski area, Aspen Highlands is finding it may be a victim of its own success.

The number of skiers and snowboarders at Highlands has been stagnant for years and shows no signs of rebounding in the 1998-99 season.

Last season, Highlands recorded roughly half as many skier and rider “visits” as it did in its banner season nearly 25 years ago. Highlands recorded about 321,000 visits during the 1975-76 season – a figure that seems astounding in light of performances since then.

Highlands recorded about 150,000 visits last season. It was the only one of the four local mountains to see business dip. Even after its merger with the Aspen Skiing Co. in December 1993, Highlands’ numbers have remained flat.

One possible explanation for the lackluster showing is its success promoting its steeps and deeps.

“We continue to dispel the myth that this mountain doesn’t offer anything but expert terrain,” said mountain manager Ron Chauner.

Highlands was on the leading edge of a movement to add extreme terrain when it developed Steeplechase for the 1977-78 season.

However, former owner and operator Whipple Van Ness Jones also had to try to draw beginners and intermediates out of necessity. In his competition with the larger Aspen Skiing Co., Jones battled for Buttermilk’s beginners and Snowmass’ intermediates as well as Aspen Mountain’s experts.

With the merger, the incentive to draw beginners and intermediate skiers disappeared.

Skico Senior Vice President John Norton said he “would make the case that Buttermilk is best for beginners” but beyond that “anybody else can go any place they want.”

The Skico picks marketing strategies for individual mountains not so much to manipulate where customers go but to capitalize on each area’s attributes, Norton said.

Snowmass has built its reputation as a cruisers’ mecca and Aspen Mountain holds a glamorous and somewhat exclusive aura. Highlands, meanwhile, is increasingly known for its steeps and deeps.

In some ways, the perceptions are enhanced by Skico marketing efforts; in other ways, they are self-feeding. The Skico’s 1998-99 winter brochure, for example, notes that Highlands possesses “the most double-black-diamond trails in the U.S.”

Tough terrain such as Temerity, the Y Zones and P Chutes have been added to the ski area in recent years, but there are no gentler slopes to add to the lineup.

“Where it gets skewed a little bit is all our intermediate terrain is developed,” noted Chauner.

So when more expert terrain is added, it adds to Highlands’ reputation.

Highlands fared well in major ski publications’ ski area rankings this season, in large part due to its challenging terrain. Skiing Magazine bestowed Highlands with the honor of a “skiers’ mountain,” one of 25 places your skis would pick to go on vacation.

“In sum,” Skiing’s editors wrote, “Highlands has a higher concentration of challenge than on any other Aspen mountain.”

While that pleases loyal locals who appreciate Highlands’ challenge, it hasn’t helped business – at least not up to this point.

Some of Highlands’ longtime employees wonder whether those types of accolades actually scare off more skiers off than they bring in.

Mac Smith, a Highlands patroller for 26 years and its director for 21, said the loss of beginners and intermediates in recent years is greater than the gain in experts for Highlands. In fact, with the aging of the Baby Boomers, Smith said he suspects there are fewer expert skiers than there once were.

Don Robinson, the trails director who has been with Highlands for all of its 40 seasons, said the ski area’s reputation and its appearance from the base intimidate beginners and intermediates.

But as the person who has cut roughly 70 of the ski area’s trails, he contends Highlands offers some of the greatest intermediate skiing in the state. The trick, he said, is to get people to try it.

Both the Highlands old-timers said it is discouraging to see the customer numbers lag at the ski area they believe holds so much potential.

Mountain manager Chauner and other Skico officials say Highlands can climb to about 200,000 skier and rider visits each season. The ongoing development of a new base village will help tremendously, Chauner said.

The people who buy the multimillion-dollar homesites and luxury condos and townhouses are likely to be the intermediate skiers that Highlands so sorely lacks.

A second major factor in boosting Highlands numbers could be a proposed gondola between its base and Buttermilk’s summit. Skico officials claim that lift could draw more customers to both ski areas and encourage an exchange between them.

That proposal is yet to be reviewed by Pitkin County. Signs indicate it could face fierce opposition from foes.

Even if the Skico is able to reach its target at Highlands, Chauner claimed locals who like its feel now have little reason to worry.

“If Highlands gets to 200,000, we’ll be better utilized but not overcrowded,” he said.


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