Hanging Wall addition upped Snowmass’ credibility back in the day | AspenTimes.com

Hanging Wall addition upped Snowmass’ credibility back in the day

Seventeen years after Snowmass opened, Hanging Valley put the ski area on the map.

Known in its early years as a cruiser's mountain, Snowmass' reputation changed when ski patrollers gave up their sacred access to the valley. The ropes that shut off Hanging Valley from the rest of the world dropped in 1984, along with the hearts of many a patroller.

Snowmass Ski Area manager Steve Sewell, who started on the ski patrol in 1977, spent a lot of time back there with other seasoned patrollers.

"I remember looking up at the wall and seeing beautiful tracks all the way across," Sewell said of his patroller days. "It was bittersweet when we opened it because we lost our private stash. But it needed to be done. … What was once known primarily as a cruising mountain suddenly got some good double-diamond runs."

That year, access also was opened to the mountain's other extreme terrain off The Cirque and down to AMF, Gowdy's and other chutes.

That push in 1984 gained the backcountry world's attention and completed the range of riding available — from clean, green runs to steep, powder-filled double-blacks.

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Sewell said finally getting visitors into those areas, especially Hanging Valley, was thanks to the work of Hal Hartman Jr., who showed "we could open that terrain safely and control the snow in there."

As Snowmass celebrates its 50th anniversary season, Sewell looked back at how the mountain grew up.

There hasn't been a large expansion since that mid-'80s push, but Colorado's second-largest resort continues to grow within its 3,332-acre boundaries.

The addition and expansion of terrain parks and the continued work to cater to those who love the smooth ride down corduroy keep the resort's crews evolving each year.

Sewell breaks down the mountain in four pods: Sam's Knob; Big Burn, which includes Sheer Bliss; High Alpine and Alpine; and Elk Camp. The goal always has been to have two runs groomed from the top of each of those pods all the way down to the base. (From the top of Big Burn to the base village is a drop of 3,246 vertical feet.)

That changed last season.

"We started to recognize that our skiers might want more than that, so we bought an additional snowcat last year," said Sewell, who was named mountain manager in 2007. "I think it met with favorable results. The survey rankings went up, and it also gave the guys more time on their shifts. We now can get three top-to-bottom runs, not necessarily on all four pods each night, but we can bump that up."

The crew of nearly 40 groomers runs as many as 10 snowcats each night, and they are not just cleaning up the greens and blues. They'll roll over a few expert runs, as well. The mountain was ranked third overall for grooming among Western resorts in this year's Ski Magazine reader survey.

"People enjoy skiing on groomers. I know they do," he said. "If we don't get something groomed, we hear about it."

Each night two other snowcats work on the terrain park, which will host an Olympic qualifier this season when the U.S. Grand Prix comes in Jan. 10 to 14. Snowboarders and freeskiers will take to the venue in the penultimate qualifier to make the U.S. team for the Pyeongchang Games.

As the athletes spend the summer months training, so too does the Snowmass park team. They start designing and fabricating rails in the beginning of August, and the crew isn't just thinking about Olympians.

The three parks' features range from a beginner, 12-foot halfpipe to the 22-foot superpipe, which opened in 2010, for the top-notch athletes. The parks' nearly 100 features and the slopestyle course are open to anyone daring enough.

"One of the reasons we do well in park and pipe is because the guys are always trying to freshen things up," Sewell said. "Our team is always changing things so that when the kids come back at the start of the ski season they have new, fresh features."

And as the parks have grown and shifted to the west side of the mountain, the resort has the unique distinction of all the parks and features accessible by one lift, a five-minute ride up Coney Glade.

In the Ski Magazine reader survey, the resort was rated No. 4 overall for Western resorts. And besides the nod in grooming, it ranked second in being kid-friendly, fourth in ski-in, ski-out lodging and fifth for its 20 lifts, which can combine to carry 32,358 riders per hour.

One of those riders next to you very well could be Sewell, who sees it as his duty to get on the mountain every day.

"I love this hill and dealing with the public," he said. "They're here to have a good time, and 99.9 percent of the time they are having fun. It's great to share that."