Skico has new expectation for alpine coaster at Snowmass

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Vail Resorts constructed the "Forest Flyer" at Vail Mountain this summer. This rendering depicts what it will be like next summer traveling on the alpine coaster. Aspen Skiing Co. applied to construct one at Snowmass.
Vail Resorts courtesy photo |

Aspen Skiing Co.’s plan to turn part of Snowmass Ski Area into a summer adventure center — complete with an alpine coaster, canopy tour, ropes course and a big climbing wall — will take longer than company officials anticipated to get through the U.S. Forest Service review.

Skico officials told the Snowmass Village Town Council Monday that its plan will require the most detailed type of review at the local level and it also must go through prescreening with the Forest Service’s regional office and a check-in with the Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The White River National Forest will perform a more detailed environmental-impact statement rather than a shorter environmental assessment, according to Snowmass Ski Area Manager Steve Sewell.

“One thing we had hoped for was to get those programs through Forest Service review and approval by spring of next year so we could break ground on these things,” Sewell said. “The Forest Service has changed its review process.”

It’s a “good thing” to have the extra scrutiny at the regional and national level so that projects are done correctly, Sewell said, but it affects the timing.

“I’m not optimistic about breaking ground next year,” he said.

Skico’s vision for adding summer thrills was outlined in the updated Snowmass Master Development Plan that was formally accepted by the Forest Service in August.

The plan proposes beefing up amenities on the Elk Camp portion of the mountain. A gravity-driven alpine coaster will use bobsledlike cars on tubular rail tracks, according to the plan. Riders will get towed uphill. Sewell said Skico is working with a German company that is a leader in designing coasters in the U.S. and Europe on a design for Snowmass.

“I don’t know if the word is ‘scary’ or ‘exciting,’” Sewell said.

Skico is working with a Grand Junction firm on a zip line-canopy cruiser course that would glide from one elevated platform to another.

The town of Snowmass Village and Pitkin County also will be involved in the review. Skico is eager to get moving because summer visits are a growing part of its portfolio. Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler indicated she is eager for the plan to advance, as well.

“What do we need to do with the Forest Service to get them moving?” she asked Skico officials Monday at an annual fall meeting between company and town officials.

“It was a change in that whole review process, but it is what it is,” Sewell replied. “But as I said before, we’re comfortable with it, and the Forest Service is pleased with the direction we’re going. We just need to go through that process.”

David Corbin, Skico vice president of planning and development, said the Forest Service has received a substantial number of proposals since Congress passed legislation that establishes summer amenities as a legitimate use of public lands leased by ski areas. Because of the interest, the regional and national offices want to make check plans, he said. That coupled with the White River National Forest’s decision to perform an environmental-impact statement means the review will likely take 12 to 24 months, Corbin said. Skico had anticipated a process that took nine to 12 months, he said.

“It came as a surprise to us, and it came not as a reaction to us or our application but all summer-activity proposals that are coming through the Forest Service in general,” he said.

White River National Forest Service Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the agency’s review process always included looks by the regional and national offices. Those steps aren’t adding to the review time, he said. The review will take time because the White River National Forest is short-staffed and has a lot on its plate, he said. Ski-industry leaseholders pay to have their plans reviewed by a third-party consultant and they pay for Forest Service specialists’ time. It is the only industry that pays for a review.

Sewell said Skico will work with the Forest Service to try to advance a different part of its summer plan more quickly. Skico wants to add 10 bicycle trails to the renowned network that already exists in the Elk Camp section of the mountain. The company wants to add some of those trails next summer and make Snowmass competitive with Whistler and Park City as a summer cycling mecca.

In other Skico news:

The construction of the new High Alpine high-speed quad chairlift is on schedule. A crew from lift manufacturer Poma is working on the drive mechanism at the bottom terminal. A load test is scheduled for mid-November. A grand opening is eyed for Dec. 11.

“It’s going to be a very exciting lift. It’s going to change the way the mountain skis,” Sewell said.

Skico Vice President and Chief Operating Officer David Perry said there are some “holes” in bookings that need to be filled, particularly in January and February. One challenge this year is luring international visitors, said Skico President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Kaplan. The strength of the U.S. dollar might entice some skiers in countries such as Australia to check alternatives, such as Japan, he said. Perry said he is confident the advance bookings will improve as the ski season nears.