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Redesigning Snowmass

Steve Benson

Base Village is more than just a fat development at the base of Snowmass Ski Area’s Fanny Hill. If the project is approved, it would open the door to a $40 million series of on-mountain upgrades that would give the ski area a complete face-lift. A number of old chairlifts would be renovated or entirely replaced, and a host of new activities would be created in an attempt to jump-start Snowmass and turn it into a year-round destination.The Snowmass Village Town Council granted preliminary approval to both Base Village and the Mountain Master Plan last month. A final vote from the Town Council is expected on both projects in late October. While Base Village and the Snowmass Mountain Master Plan are separate projects that require separate approvals, the Skico has linked the two: No Base Village, no mountain upgrades.The lift planThe Snowmass Mountain Master Plan was approved by the Town Council last month, which means that the mountain could see new lifts as early as the 2005-06 season – if the Council grants a final Base Village approval next month. Assuming Base Village’s 640,000 square feet of residential and 64,000 square feet of commercial space receive the green light, the mountain lift plan will include the following: • A new eight-passenger gondola (operational in 2006-07). The Elk Camp Gondola will carry skiers from Base Village at the bottom of Fanny Hill up to Elk Camp, where Cafe Suzanne is currently located, in eight-and-a-half minutes. Increased snowmaking is also part of the plan, and promises to deliver reliable conditions for early-season gondola use.

• Sam’s Knob Express (operational in 2005-06) will also depart from Base Village and unload at the summit of Sam’s Knob. This six-passenger, high-speed lift will have a travel time of nine-and-a-half minutes, and a midway unloading point near the top of the Burlingame Lift. • Two beginner lifts – one 1,300-foot quad and a 500-foot surface lift – will load at Elk Camp Meadows, where the gondola will unload. These would be ready for use in 2006-07. • A cabriolet pulse tram (operational in 2006-07) will offer a two-minute open-air ride between Base Village and the existing Snowmass Village Mall. The lift would also be used by young beginner skiers and riders. • The Fanny Hill and Wood Run lifts will be removed entirely. Assay Hill will be replaced, and the Naked Lady and Burlingame lifts will be rebuilt and shortened.• The Skico also has plans for other lifts, but they are not part of this current proposal. Sheer Bliss and the Big Burn lifts may be replaced with new technology in the next few years. The new Burnt Mountain Quad and Naked Man surface lift – both would be located at skier’s far right near the ski area boundary – are also being considered. “That’s a couple years out; we have a lot on our plate,” said Bill Kane, vice president of planning and development. The Burnt Mountain Quad, which would be located at skier’s far right near the ski area boundary, would load near the bottom of Long Shot and unload on the Burnt Mountain Summit. The Naked Man Lift would be a surface connector between the Big Burn and Elk Camp summits.

The Skico is also considering a couple of plans for the restaurant at the top of Sam’s Knob. It may continue to operate for a couple years, or it may be replaced. Elk Camp MeadowsFanny Hill has long been the centerpiece for all ski and entertainment activities on Snowmass Mountain. And the mall, which abuts Fanny Hill, has been the staging ground for shopping, eating and bar-hopping. That may change significantly with the addition of Elk Camp Meadows, which the Skico touts as the major on-mountain, year-round activity center at Snowmass. Located at the top of the gondola, which is basically midmountain, Elk Camp Meadows will be the focal point of the Ski and Snowboard School’s beginner area. Winter activities may include ice-skating on Rayburn’s Pond – an existing pond that will be improved – snow-biking, snowshoeing and tubing. The area will also be a staging point for sleigh rides, nature hikes and snowcat tours. A beginners’ terrain park, night skiing and snowboarding may also be included.Summer activities would include horseback riding, nature and backpacking tours, fishing, Frisbee golf, a climbing wall, mountain biking, a ropes course and activities with the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. The new snowcat maintenance facility will be built nearby for storage, fueling and operations. Rayburn’s Pond will provide water storage for snowmaking and will be stocked with trout for summer fly-fishing. A supportive communityBase Village has sparked heated debates, but most Snowmass Villagers have been pleased with the Mountain Master Plan.

For years, residents and visitors have complained that it’s hard to get around “Slowmess” because the lifts are spread out and sluggish, and so much traversing is required. The new lift configuration will solve some of those problems.The centerpieces of the plan are the Elk Camp Gondola and Sam’s Knob Express, both of which are designed to relieve morning congestion at the base of Fanny Hill. Instead of having just one major lift at the base, there will now be two.”The ideal lift alignment there is to disperse people from the base to the far reaches, left and right, on the mountain,” Perry said. “Sam’s Knob is No. 1 and Elk Camp is No. 2.” According to Kane, the Cabriolet will also help reduce skier traffic jams. Primarily a people-mover between the mall and Base Village, the Cabriolet will also be used by tots learning to ski. So there are actually three lifts at the base – Sam’s Knob, Elk Camp Gondola, and the Cabriolet. “It really takes the pressure off, especially in the morning for the kids,” Kane said. Currently, 2,400 skiers and riders are transported from the base uphill every hour. Between the three new lifts in the mountain plan, that number will increase to 6,200 skiers per hour, according to Kane.By riding the Sam’s Knob Express, skiers will be able to reach the popular Big Burn easily and quickly, Perry said. It is currently a two-lift commute – Fanny Hill and Coney Glade – to get to the Big Burn chair.

“It will provide very fast and convenient high-speed access to key jumping-off points,” Perry said. “Big Burn and High Alpine … those will be much more quickly accessed.”Jeff Tippett, the chairman of the trails committee in Snowmass Village, logs more than 100 days at Snowmass every season. He has opposed Base Village from the beginning, but applauds most of the Skico’s efforts for the Mountain Master Plan. Still, he questions the length of the gondola, which will only cover 1,360 vertical feet. “I’m kind of underwhelmed by the gondola to Cafe Suzanne,” Tippett said. “I don’t think it will put us on the map as [Skico CEO] Pat O’Donnell would have us believe. It only goes halfway up the mountain.”Perry said the gondola is short because its primary purpose is to carry beginner skiers to Elk Camp Meadows. Furthermore, Perry said Elk Camp Meadows may be used for weddings and conferences. A gondola is needed to protect guests from the elements. There are also concerns that Elk Camp Meadows will detract from Fanny Hill and steal business from the mall. But at least one mall owner isn’t as worried. “I’m thrilled to see them putting in lifts and infrastructure and improving things,” said John Francis, part-owner of the mall. “Mountain investment is good for [the Skico], skiers and the industry.” No changes up top

The upper part of the mountain – the Cirque Headwall and Hanging Valley areas – will remain unchanged. Accessing the Hanging Valley Wall will still require a two-lift ride on Alpine Springs and High Alpine, or a long traverse from the Cirque surface lift. With old-school ski resorts like Utah’s Alta installing high-speed quads that whisk skiers from the base to summit in nothing flat, some have wondered why Snowmass isn’t willing to take similar top-to-bottom steps. But longtime locals like Tippett are happy to see things left the way they are. “If it were easier to ski the Wall, it would be bumped out like Walsh’s [on Aspen Mountain],” Tippett said. As for navigating the mountain as a whole, Tippett said it all comes down to “being in the right place at the right time.” “I think the Skiing Company does a great job. They have a can-do attitude on powder days,” he added. “They do a great job of pleasing the guests and pleasing the locals.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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