Time to pop a six-pack on Big Burn?
Aspen Skiing Co. officials are so excited about a proposed change at the popular Big Burn section of Snowmass that they plan to pop a six-pack to celebrate.
The Skico wants to replace the Big Burn detachable-quad chairlift and the antiquated Sheer Bliss chair with one high-speed six-pack chairlift.
The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing the request and plans to produce a draft Environmental Assessment early next year. Once the draft assessment is out, the public will get a chance to comment on the proposal, according to Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Forest Service’s Aspen office.
“They might want to replace the Burn lift by next summer if they get approval,” said Stark.
“It’s on the short list,” confirmed Skico Vice President of Operations Mike Kaplan. “Whether it makes the cut or not I don’t know.”
The proposal presents several improvements or advantages and one primary concern, according to Stark, who is undertaking the review. From an environmental standpoint, there’s the advantage of reducing the ski area’s footprint on the mountain. “You get rid of two chairlifts for one,” Stark said.
Other advantages include:
n It lets skiers and riders make quicker laps on the double-diamond trails like the Cirque, AMF, Gowdy’s and KT Gully.
n It better utilizes the terrain under the Sheer Bliss lift. The Skico says that lift is currently only operating at 30 to 40 percent of its capacity.
n It makes it easier for skiers and riders to travel from the High Alpine section of the mountain to the top of the Big Burn.
The existing Sheer Bliss double chairlift, installed in 1975, takes longer than 15 minutes to deposit passengers at the top of the east side of the Big Burn. The Big Burn high-speed quad is 16 years old and needs several components replaced. Victor Gerdin, a Skico planner, said it made more sense economically to solve the problems presented by both lifts with one new one.
If the six-pack is approved, it would be the first lift of its kind at the Skico’s four mountains. The proposed chair would start on the Sheer Bliss side of the trestle that separates the Big Burn and Sheer Bliss lifts. The lift line would “pretty much go up Garrett’s Gulch most of the way,” said Gerdin. The upper terminal would be located between the Cirque Poma lift and Up 4 Pizza. That would provide much better access to the Poma than the existing Sheer Bliss lift offers.
Gerdin said the upper terminal would be high enough to provide easy access to Sneaky’s, the run furthest to the west on the Burn.
Negotiating the trestle
But the proposal isn’t without a potential drawback. “The only question is making everybody ski over the trestle,” said Stark.
The proposal would require riders on the popular trails like Sneaky’s, Dallas Freeway, Mick’s Gully and other parts of the Big Burn cross the trestle to access the new chairlift. The trestle approach is on relatively flat ground so it requires speed, lots of poling or both.
“If anybody’s going to have a problem it’s snowboarders because they don’t have poles,” said Gerdin. But he downplayed the potential problem. He said there is enough of a pitch at the trestle to keep anyone moving.
Stark said Skico officials have also downplayed the trestle issues to him. They don’t believe constriction will be an issue. They noted that other ski areas face the same sort of skier-flow issue without problems.
“Their philosophy (at the Skico) was you go to Vail and 20,000 people are skiing over the trestle at the end of every day,” he said.
Gerdin said the trestle at the bottom of the Big Burn would only have to handle a maximum of 2,400 skiers and riders per hour. The Skico is investigating widening it by 10 to 12 feet.
Skiing for six?
Although the proposal isn’t widely known among skiers and riders yet, one frequent skier of Snowmass is questioning the concept. John Wilkinson of Snowmass Village said the proposal has been “under the radar” of most people even though it’s in the Forest Service review process.
Wilkinson said he is concerned about the constriction of traffic on the trestle, even if it is widened. He also noted that the most popular run on the most popular section of the mountain is Sneaky’s, which would be located farthest away from the bottom terminal. He wondered if the new lift and its effect on skier patterns will degrade from the experience that’s made the Big Burn so popular.
He acknowledged, however, that the lift presents advantages to getting to the steep and deep slopes.
Then there’s the “cattle” factor. Six-pack lifts have been criticized for dehumanizing a sport that can be extremely social and encourages contact among lift riders.
“Quads tend to be unsociable unless you have four friends skiing at once,” said Wilkinson. A six-pack could exacerbate the phenomena.
On the other hand, the lift is also more resistant to closure due to high winds. It’s 30 percent “more wind resistant,” said Kaplan. “It’s because it’s so heavy.”
Stark said the Forest Service will release a notice when it accepts comments on the proposal.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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