2009 Ski issue

Colorado's Arapahoe Basin is the destination for serious skiers

By Nathan Borchelt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Arapahoe Basin. When I was a kid, it was the place where I most loved to ski. I moved from Denver to Houston when I was 2, but every winter my parents -- die-hard skiers and Coloradans at heart -- took me and my sister back to the Mile High City, where we'd bed down with relatives and resort-hop for a week.

Back then, reaching A Basin, which sits on the western side of 11,990-foot Loveland Pass, required commitment. The drive bypassed other resorts on Interstate 70 west of Denver and linked up with Route 6, which carved over the Continental Divide via a series of hairpin turns that were perilous in winter. We could have used the Eisenhower Tunnel, which cuts under the pass, but it was typically choked with near-standstill truck traffic. So the dedicated would brave the Divide, drop down and roll into the resort parking lot.

In my parents' mind, the treacherous route was justified. Unlike the easier-to-reach resorts, Arapahoe Basin was a true skier's mountain. No day spas or faux-fur boutique shops, no magic carpets or ice skating rinks. Just 2,270 vertical feet of epic, snow-covered terrain. Half of the mountain rises above the timberline and offers a dizzying series of steep bowls, cornices and chutes, with runs for all skill sets zigzagging down to the base, some hidden in the trees, some groomed to a smooth corduroy, some slicing between sheets of exposed rock. A no-frills lodge anchored the resort, and a relaxed, local vibe permeated the scene, typified by the spontaneous party that often erupted in the early-bird parking lot. We'd park, stash soda and beer in the snowbanks, ski all day and retire to the Beach -- as the lot was affectionately called -- at day's end.

The annual pilgrimages ended when my family moved to the East Coast. But A Basin stayed on my mind. I'd draw the resort's angular logo on my high school notebooks and tried to satiate myself with resorts in West Virginia, Vermont and -- in a pinch -- Pennsylvania.

For more than a decade, I wasn't able to make it back. Until January 2008, when Arapahoe Basin forced the issue by nearly doubling its size. The 400-acre expansion, dubbed the Montezuma Bowl, was the first in the resort's 63-year history and the largest in North America that year, increasing the skiable terrain by 80 percent. To me, it was a personalized invitation to return.

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Arapahoe Basin traces its origins to a veteran of the Army's 10th Mountain Division and two Winter Olympians, who in 1946 secured a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service for skiing on the mountain. A single mid-mountain tow rope accessed the summit, and an old Army weapons carrier towed by a 4x4 truck shuttled skiers to the rope from the parking lot. Today, the resort is awash in superlatives; at 13,050 feet it's the highest-elevation resort in North America, with a marathon season that stretches from mid-October to June. It boasts the continent's highest terrain park, it gets more than 350 inches of snow a year, and the 900 skiable acres don't include the 110 acres off the legendary East Wall, a vertiginous series of hike-to runs that stare you down as you ride up the resort's front side.

The summit panorama overwhelms, with the Continental Divide at your feet and all around you views of such iconic Rocky Mountain peaks as Independence Mountain, Peak 10 and Bald Mountain, as well as the Keystone and Breckenridge ski resorts.

Reverence for this monumental landscape underscored much of the $3 million expansion, which forwent traditional construction techniques in an attempt to retain the existing landscape rather than transform it. Working closely with White River National Forest, the resort drastically minimized the environmental impact of the expansion. Only 1 percent of the trees within Montezuma Bowl were felled to create intermediate groomer runs, and no roads were built, an atypical scenario in slope development. Instead, a Sky Crane helicopter transported and installed the lift towers, cables and chairs while the rest of the construction material was brought in by hand.

"The terrain is very conducive to skiing," Roger Poirier, winter sports program manager at the White River National Forest, said in an e-mail. It's "an ideal location, since it would require minimal grading, vegetation disturbance and tree clearing to implement. This project is a leading example of balancing a high-quality skiing experience with progressive design features and construction techniques that minimize natural resource impacts."

Minus the central lift and two groomed intermediate slopes, Montezuma Bowl today looks much as it did when the resort first opened; 36 new runs are hidden among the trees. Zuma Cornice dominates the ridgeline to the skier's right, with steep double-black runs that cut between exposed rock. To the left, the Mountain Goat Traverse leads to a small cache of advanced and intermediate runs. Both routes funnel toward the center, which is dominated by Columbine and Larkspur, two groomed blue runs that take most of the traffic coming out of the central, above-treeline bowl. You can stick to these groomers or cut off into the trees to hit narrow runs such as Independence and Placer Junction before reaching the base of the Zuma lift. The new high-speed transport shuttles skiers and riders 1,100 vertical feet back to the top -- in nine minutes. Or stay wide of the lift lines and penetrate the expert and advanced hike-back terrain such as Lower Elephant's Trunk, Black Forest and Lightning Trees. Here the crowds thin out, the turns get tight and the legs turn to rubber -- before you make the trek back to the lift.

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