Arapahoe Basin is letting skiers in on a local secret.
For years savvy snow riders slipped through a backcountry gate hidden just over the 12,460-foot alpine crest that forms the ski area’s southern boundary. Beyond waited Montezuma Bowl — a 400-acre amphitheater of rarely ridden powder with glades, open cruisers, and double-dog-dare cornice drops where the adventurous could get fresh tracks, even days after the last storm.
Despite the sweet snow, Zuma had its drawbacks. After a run, you either had to hoof it 1,000 feet back up the bowl or shoot down a narrow, 1.5-mile tree-choked gully to a road where you could hitchhike back to A-Basin. That all changed in December 2007 when a lift opened the bowl to all skiers, almost doubling the size of the fabled ski area.
Of the millions spent on improvements at Colorado ski areas in recent years, Zuma Bowl was one of the most eagerly anticipated by skiers.
“(I had) always looked back there and thought of skiing it, but never felt comfortable,” said Craig Arnold of Denver.
Now the 36 runs, from smooth, groomed blues to cliff-dropping double blacks, are patrolled and blasted for avalanches.
“We’re really excited about it. A-Basin’s founding fathers thought about adding Montezuma Bowl when the ski area opened in 1946,” said spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer.
The plan was on the books in 1986, but A-Basin didn’t have much motivation to expand. Until a few years ago, it saw only about 235,000 skiers a year. (In comparison, Breckenridge, 14 miles away, was seeing about 1.65 million visitors.) But visitor numbers have steadily increased at A-Basin visits.
Montezuma was “a natural progression for us. As we expand with skier visits, we need more room,” said Hierholzer.
Increasingly, ski resorts focus on tony base areas and faster lifts. Adding so many acres in one year is rare, in part because it often means years of working through the approval process. A-Basin started preliminary talks with the U.S. Forest Service in 2003. It wasn’t until after extensive public meetings and environmental impact studies required by the Forest Service, that crews broke ground on the new lift.
Actually, they only broke a little ground. To meet Forest Service requirements to be as gentle on the alpine tundra as possible, the lift terminal was built when snow still covered the ground. Lift towers were set in place by helicopter. There are no roads, nor plans for roads. Few trees were cut for runs. In addition, like an increasing number of ski areas, A-Basin will power the lift by purchasing wind energy.
“It was done in a very environmentally friendly way, and it still has kind of a backcountry feel,” said Hierholzer.
It’s a major score for Front Range skiers. The high, south-facing slope should offer primo turns well into May. Hierholzer said the high altitude keeps the snow dry and powdery well beyond when most south-facing bowls turn to mush. Even so, long-time Montezuma skiers can’t help but mourn the loss of their little-visited powder stash. Especially since Zuma is only the latest in a string of local backcountry spots, such as Breckenridge’s Imperial Bowl, that are now served by lifts.
“It was sort of a secret thing. Now everyone will get to do it,” said Clay Turner, a Summit County resident.
Mike Zobbe, director of the Summit Huts Association, a nonprofit organization that manages four backcountry huts in Summit County, said a lift and a “backcountry feel” can’t exist together.
“There’s always going to be people for whom the convenience of a lift outweighs the other impacts. For me, I view it as a loss,” he said.
But Jeffrey Bergeron, a long-time backcountry skier and one-time Breckenridge town council member, said Arapahoe Basin worked hard to find a balance with the $3 million expansion. The bowl has backcountry gates for skiers who still want to take the tree-choked gully down to the road, and plenty of runs that can only be reached with some hiking.
“I’m not a big fan of new lifts, but Arapahoe Basin really worked to be inclusive of the community. They’ve been very environmentally friendly. I’d say they did it right.”
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