Skico maps out plan to sweeten Buttermilk |

Skico maps out plan to sweeten Buttermilk

The Aspen Skiing Co. learned a few seasons ago that coming up with a more aggressive-sounding name for Buttermilk wasn’t enough to shake the ski area from its doldrums.

The company dropped Buttermilk and simply referred to the ski area as Tiehack in an effort to shed the perception that the terrain was too easy for “real” skiers and riders. But people didn’t like the name game and forced the Skico to backtrack after one season.

So this week, several years after that failed attempt, the company is officially embarking on an ambitious, multimillion-dollar effort to revitalize the mountain.

“How do we breathe fire back into a ski area that 15 years ago would do nearly 300,000 skier visits and now does maybe 180,000?” asked Bill Kane, Skico vice president of planning and design.

He and his staff think they have the answer. It includes: a gondola that goes from the Buttermilk summit to the base of Aspen Highlands; replacement of the two old lifts at Tiehack with one quad chairlift that reduces riding time; the addition of 100 acres to the West Buttermilk permit area that would net between 20 and 50 acres of low-intermediate skiable terrain; reconstruction of the existing West Buttermilk lift to be friendly even to beginners; construction of a new quad chairlift at West Buttermilk; and reconstruction of the Cliffhouse restaurant at the mountain top. 30 days to tell the feds Friday, April 2 marks the first day the public will be able to comment to the U.S. Forest Service about the Skico’s on-mountain plan for Buttermilk. The public scoping period for the Environmental Assessment continues for 30 days, until May 3.

The Skico’s plan also calls for construction of employee housing, skier services, a children’s center, administrative offices and a 750-vehicle parking structure at the ski area’s base. However, Forest Service officials don’t want to hear comments about that base area development since it is on private property.

The feds just want to know what constituents think about upgrades proposed on public lands. Once public comments are made, the Forest Service will complete its review and issue a decision.

The plan must also earn approval from Pitkin County and the city of Aspen. They are planning an unprecedented level of joint review that will include decisions about the base area proposal.

The local governments’ review has been postponed from April 20 until June. The Skico requested the delay so it can better coordinate its plan with the Colorado Department of Transportation’s redesign of Owl Creek and West Buttermilk roads.

The Skico hopes to secure approvals in time to start construction in summer 2001, according to Kane. Neighbors, enviros mulling proposal Jim Stark, winter sports administrator with the Aspen Ranger District, said he anticipates opposition to the gondola from Maroon Creek Valley residents. Local environmentalists are considering opposition to the West Buttermilk terrain expansion, he said.

The gondola is seen as a way to link Highlands and Buttermilk to create the perception of one, super ski area. There would be a wide range of diversity with terrain from the beginner’s Panda Peak to experts’ B Zones.

The plan would ease access and save Maroon Valley from congestion by requiring people to drive only as far as Buttermilk, Kane noted.

At West Buttermilk, the Skico is proposing the addition of 100 acres in the permit area on the mountainside above the top of the West Buttermilk lift.

The Skico estimates that addition would net about 20 acres of skiable terrain. Ranger Stark thinks it would be more like 50 acres if the Skico cut new trails to link with existing open terrain.

“There’s some great terrain up there,” Stark said.

Kane likened the new turf to the Elk Camp area of Snowmass ski area. Indeed, that terrain offers the same stunning views of the Maroons Bells and Pyramid Peak. If a new West Buttermilk lift is approved, it would unload beneath the ridge so the view looking back at Buttermilk from wilderness wouldn’t be infringed upon, agreed Stark and Skico planner Lisa McManigal.

Also with that new lift, the existing West Buttermilk lift would be shortened, with the base brought farther up the mountain, said Kane. That way, West Buttermilk could be more fully utilized as a beginner area.

Shortening the lift would eliminate a last scramble down a slope that beginners consider “The Wall of Death,” Kane quipped.

On the Tiehack side of the mountain, the Skico wants to replace two lifts with one, but the new chair probably wouldn’t be the high-speed variety, said Kane. The idea isn’t to dump more skiers and riders in Tiehack, but reduce their time on lifts.

The Skico does want to expand capacity at main Buttermilk on the Summit Express. It wants to crank up the capacity from 1,800 to 2,400 riders per hour, said Kane.

Details of the on-mountain plan are available at the Forest Service office at 806 W. Hallam St. between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Written comments must be received by that office no later than May 3.

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