SkiCo: Burnt Mountain to be open this winter

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Despite the latest lawsuit aimed at preventing the Aspen Skiing Co. from enfolding a portion of Burnt Mountain into the Snowmass Ski Area, three trails over 230 acres near Two Creeks will be open this winter, a SkiCo official said Monday.
 
A surface lift for what has been a “hike-to” area is still being discussed, though a quad chair that was originally envisioned is off the table unless skier numbers skyrocket, Snowmass mountain manager Steve Sewell told the Snowmass Village Town Council.
 
Legal challenges against the U.S. Forest Service, which leases the land SkiCo uses for its ski areas, have made the Burnt Mountain project a “roller coaster” affair, Sewell said.
 
But crews have gotten enough work done, including cutting down hundreds of trees to link meadows in the area, in order for the sidecountry skiing experience to be ready for skiers, said Sewell, speaking at the SkiCo’s annual update to council.
 
Tree thinning and other work has progressed sporadically this summer to fulfill what Sewell in late August said will be a “powder skier’s dream” near the Longshot run.
 
The area features rolling, low-angle meadows suitable for moderate-level skiers, but will be marked as expert terrain because of the egress that will take skiers back to the Two Creeks lift. That section is more difficult because it’s narrow.
 
The project has been on the SkiCo’s radar since it was initially approved in 1996. Years of litigation from the Wyoming-based Ark Initiative and other plaintiffs, which alleged that the Forest Service approvals were improper, slowed the company’s plans.
 
The latest work stoppage occurred Sept. 7, two days after the Ark Initiative again sued the feds, this time for allegedly ignoring information about the area that qualifies it for roadless protection.
 
The Forest Service voluntarily ordered crews to halt the project. But they had already this summer worked on and off, based on the state of litigation, and Sewell said the work had progressed enough to open the area.
 
“I’m happy to say we’ve completed enough work out there to open up the terrain this ski season,” he told council. “It really is a beautiful area, and there’s some wonderful terrain.”
 
The Burnt Mountain terrain, which will make the Snowmass Ski Area the second-largest ski resort in Colorado behind Vail, was a longtime sidecountry skiing experience that will now have ski patrol oversight for injuries and avalanche control. It will now have signs and ropes directing people back into the ski area.
 
“I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s been an awful lot of people who have skied this for many, many years and there’s been an awful lot of people who shouldn’t have skied it,” Sewell said. “We’ve had I can’t tell you how many night rescues out there, going out to pick up people who were lost.”
 
Councilman John Wilkinson was the only town official with comments and questions. He said he is a routine user of the area and asked whether a closure gate in the area, denoting lynx habitat, would be relocated.
 
The gate will be moved a little farther to the east, so that the lynx habitat will comprise the eastern boundary of the ski area, Sewell said.
 
“We’ll share a portion of the lynx conservation area with our eastern boundary,” he said, adding that there will be a Forest Service access point for people wanting to traverse to Buttermilk or elsewhere on Burnt Mountain.
 
Responding to a question from Wilkinson, Sewell said both the quad and surface lifts have been approved in the company’s master plan for the area. But SkiCo would need to see dramatic increase in skier visits before it could justify a quad chair out there, he said.
 
A surface lift still being discussed, though he acknowledged that he “hike-to” area affords a unique experience devoid of many people.
 
“It’s pretty unusual for a ski area to offer a semi-backcountry experience that you have to hike to for intermediate skiers,” Sewell said.
 
Wilkinson agreed, saying the Longshot/Burnt Mountain area is the only “hike-to blue square that I know of in North America.” He discouraged a lift because it would degrade from the experience and turn it into “a larger Elk Camp.”
 
Sewell reiterated that SkiCo’s plans for the area are dependent on skier visits.

chad@aspendailynews.com