Snowmass marks its 40th anniversary | AspenTimes.com

Snowmass marks its 40th anniversary

SNOWMASS ” Snowmass officially hits middle age this season. The massive ski area will turn 40 years old next month. Lift-served skiing was offered for the first time on Dec. 17, 1967, when the new resort was known as Snowmass-at-Aspen.

Land developer Bill Janss, a former ski racer who had competed in Aspen, had the vision for the ski area and bought up ranchland at the bottom of Baldy Mountain in 1958. Records are somewhat fuzzy, but the Aspen Skiing Corp. ” the Aspen Skiing Co.’s corporate predecessor ” began offering snowcat tours in the area in the late 1950s or early 1960s, according to town of Snowmass Village records.

Colorado Ski Country USA’s records show that Snowmass notched 329 skier visits in winter 1962-63, with the powder tours peaking in 1966-67 with 936 customers.

Meanwhile, Janss and the Ski Corp. worked on a grand plan for a new ski area. They received a permit from the U.S. Forest Service in 1964 to operate on public lands and wasted no time developing the first base area and on-mountain facilities.

Snowmass-at-Aspen opened three years later with five chairlifts and 50 miles of trails on Fanny Hill, Coney Glade, Sam’s Knob, Campground and the Big Burn, according to town records. The Burlingame chairlift is the last remaining on-mountain relic of the inaugural season.

There were seven hotels and six restaurants in the original village. Customers paid $6.50 for a lift ticket.

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Ten years later there was enough “there” there for Snowmass Village to incorporate as a town.

The town government and Aspen Skiing Co. are planning anniversary celebrations next month, but details aren’t available yet.

Snowmass started with a bang. The upstart resort outsold Aspen Mountain in 1967-68 and established itself as the Ski Corp.’s flagship ski area.

Snowmass topped 500,000 skier visits in 1973-74 and by the early 1990s had climbed above 800,000 skier visits.

The ski area peaked at 884,066 visits in the 1997-98 season ” not coincidentally, the record year for the Skico.

Snowmass fell on lean times early this decade, with visits plummeting below 700,000. It turned things around in 2003-04 and logged four consecutive seasons of growth. Snowmass logged 770,407 skier and snowboarder visits last season. Skico officials are budgeting for a modest increase this year, assuming good snow and a healthy U.S. economy.

In its 40th season, Skico officials view Snowmass as nearly “complete.” The Skico has pumped about $65 million into on-mountain improvements and base area services in recent years, David Perry, senior vice president of mountain operations, said Wednesday.

Those improvements include the Village Express six-passenger chairlift whisking skiers and riders up from the base of Fanny Hill; the SkyCab gondola; the Elk Camp Gondola, the upgrade of the Campground chairlift; and additional snowmaking in high traffic areas.

This season, the Skico will open a $17 million Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center at the base, along with a quad chairlift dedicated to a new beginner’s area at the bottom of Elk Camp.

The Skico is essentially set with skier services in the new Base Village at Snowmass. Along with the new kids center, it will open a new ticket office and rental shop next month.

On the slopes, the Skico plans to replace two restaurants and upgrade two chairlifts.

The Skico plans to build a new restaurant at the top of Sam’s Knob for an estimated $10 million next year, Perry said. The old restaurant there was demolished. A new Elk Camp restaurant, tentatively planned for construction in 2009, would be larger and cost perhaps twice as much as Sam’s Knob, he said.

To round out the improvements, the Skico plans to eventually replace the Sheer Bliss double chair. The Big Burn chairlift, a first-generation high-speed detachable quad built in 1987, will need either a major overhaul or replacement within the next five years, Perry said.

So once the ski area is complete, what’s its potential?

“It’s really about bed base ” that’s going to determine how many skiers we can accommodate in Snowmass,” Perry said.

Snowmass Village’s lodging community has been stable in recent years, unlike Aspen. Over the last decade, 3,000 “beds” in short-term tourist accommodations have been condominiumized or sold as fractional ownership units in Aspen, Perry said.

That loss has had “a significant impact” on lift ticket sales at Snowmass, he said.

Snowmass has maintained about 6,700 “pillows” for rent to visitors over the years, he said. New lodging in Base Village won’t have an impact this season, but it will eventually boost that figure to 8,300 pillows.

And after new accommodations are added at Base Village, proposed projects at the Snowmass Center and old Snowmass Village Mall could add more units.

More rooms for tourists translates into more lift ticket sales. Snowmass’ record of 884,066 customer visits in 1997-98 is safe, for the time being, Perry predicted. It will be a “tough task” to top that mark in the next five seasons, he said. But Snowmass is positioned to eclipse that mark as it settles into middle age.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.