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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Seeking higher ground: Western resorts take skiers where the snow is

In an undated photo from Jesse Hoffman, a skier on a steep slope in Aspen, Colo. A new 153-acre expansion known as Hero’s adds 20 percent more terrain to Aspen Mountain, one of four ski areas in the Aspen Snowmass portfolio. (Jesse Hoffman via The New York Times)

By Elaine Glusac

Despite the La Nina weather pattern that dumped snowfall by the foot last winter at many mountain resorts in the western United States, global warming fundamentally threatens the survival of the ski business. In response, ski areas are increasingly investing in efficient snow-making and carbon emissions reductions. Some areas, especially in the West, are also pursuing another method: developing terrain higher up mountains where colder climes or steeper, tree-filled terrain are more likely to hold the snow.

This winter, three ski areas in Colorado — Aspen Mountain, Keystone Resort and Steamboat Ski Resort — are unveiling significant high-altitude expansions or terrain additions designed for experts, potentially delighting one of the biggest audiences of skiers and snowboarders in recent years.

Going higher

While opening higher-elevation areas aims to take advantage of colder conditions to produce and preserve snow, travelers may need more time to adjust to runs cut above 10,000 feet.

In Aspen, the new 153-acre expansion known as Hero’s adds 20% more terrain to Aspen Mountain, one of four ski areas in the Aspen Snowmass portfolio.

“We have an uncertain future because of climate change,” said Geoff Buchheister, the CEO of Aspen Snowmass. He stressed that the expansion — 20 years in the making — didn’t begin as an answer to global warming, but should help retain snow.

“It’s above 10,000 feet and happens to be northeast-facing so the sun is perfect for holding snow once it’s there through the winter, allowing us to ski longer in the spring,” Buchheister said. “In low snow years, it might be a nice asset for us.”

Skiers and riders will take the main Silver Queen Gondola from the village base to the top of Aspen Mountain to gain access to Hero’s — which is entirely reliant on natural snow — at 11,262 feet.

Trees were thinned in the new gladed area of the White River National Forest, offering natural obstacles to carve around on a 1,220-foot vertical drop. While there are a few access points for intermediate skiers, the heart of the terrain — including chutes, or steep, narrow sections usually bounded by rock walls — are rated double black for expert skiers.

“It’s going to make you feel like a hero,” Buchheister said.

Keystone Resort, a Vail Resorts-owned destination about 75 miles west of Denver, is opening a new lift terminating at 12,282 feet and providing access to its Bergman Bowl, formerly available to skiers and riders who hiked in for more than 1 mile or took a snowcat ride up.

The high-speed Bergman Express lift will offer access to roughly 550 acres — much of it above the tree line — in two adjacent bowls, Bergman and Erickson, which have been mapped with 16 new trails, most of them intermediate. Although the resort is open, the Bergman area, which is dependent on natural snow, is not expected to open until late December or early January.

Chris Sorensen, the vice president and general manager of Keystone, said the Bergman Bowl project has been in development plans since 2009 and is largely reliant on natural snow.

The relatively low angle of the mountain in the area allowed Keystone to offer less-than-expert skiers access to high alpine runs.

“We wanted to make sure it was accessible,” Sorensen said, adding that the new terrain includes three beginner runs that appeal to Keystone’s core demographic, families. “Everyone in the family can go out there and have a good time.”

Extending the season

Another debut encompasses steeper conditions known to preserve snow. In Steamboat Springs in Northern Colorado, Steamboat Ski Resort has introduced 655 acres of expert terrain known as Mahogany Ridge, an area previously accessible from the resort by backcountry skiers, but not officially inbounds, meaning it wasn’t patrolled or treated to diminish the risk of avalanches. Served by the new Mahogany Ridge Express lift, the experts-only area — where trees were left uncut except for under the lift — adds more challenging terrain to the resort map.

“We’ve historically been an intermediate’s paradise, and we remain one,” Loryn Duke, the communications director at Steamboat, wrote in an email.

The addition will rely on natural snow with no snow-making or grooming. “But because of its extreme nature the area tends to keep our light, fluffy snow for long periods of time,” Duke added, attributing its duration in part to low traffic and tree shading.

Skiing or snowboarding steeper, harder-to-reach or wooded terrain often demands expert skills catering to core enthusiasts.

“Higher elevation terrain keeps resorts open longer,” said Nick Sargent, the president of Snowsports Industries America, a trade group. Noting the short ski season traditionally runs from Thanksgiving to Easter, he added, “The resort’s goal is to extend that as much as possible.”

‘New and different terrain’

Pushing higher up the mountains isn’t an option for most ski resorts, even in the West.

“When it comes to high-elevation skiing, there aren’t that many resorts in the U.S. that can build higher,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, the director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association. “For the majority of experiences, you’re already skiing from the summit.”

Trails venturing into thinner air offer their own management challenges. High winds may sheer them of snow or force the lifts to close. Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico, which began operating a chairlift reaching 12,481-foot Kachina Peak in 2015, said it rarely opens the lift before the end of January each season. Once the terrain is open, it is available about 76% of the time, on average, with the lift running about 68% of the time and the rest open to those who hike up.

Most expansions or developments, Isaac added, are done to stay competitive. “People want to ski new and different terrain,” she said.

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