Colorado's Arapahoe Basin is the destination for serious skiers

By Nathan Borchelt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 2009; F01

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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On an uncharacteristically warm February day, I met up with Leigh Hierholzer, director of marketing at the resort for the past 12 years. We hopped the Exhibition lift from the mountain base and yo-yoed over Lenawee Mountain lift, one of two that access the summit. After carving a few groomers under a bluebird sky with about two inches of fresh snow, we returned to the summit and looped our way over the Pallavicini lift. This two-person lift climbs up the steep face that shoots up from the northern section of the parking lot and is largely responsible for Arapahoe Basin's rep as one of the gnarliest resorts in North America. More than 15 advanced and expert runs branch off this nose in the ridge, including the famed Pallavicini, a double black with a 40-degree pitch. Named after Pallavicini Couloir, a similarly shaped feature on Austria's highest peak, the quad-burning slope consistently ranks as one of the most challenging runs in the world. I flirted with exhaustion for two runs before being sufficiently humbled. Then we headed back up and dropped into Montezuma.

And there I stayed, carving wide turns in the loose snow that filled the bowl and then delving deeper into the narrow runs concealed by the trees, which revealed the real charm of the expansion. Forget those energy-drink images of the sport as all extreme, all the time. Arapahoe Basin has always promised a true skier's experience, and Montezuma Bowl delivers. Drop into the trees below the bowl, and you enter a quiet, all-natural realm that invites exploration that's simultaneously riveting, exciting and meditative. Skiing at its finest.

Later in the day I met up with two friends who'd relocated to Vail. They'd never skied Arapahoe Basin, even though their season pass afforded free entry to A Basin as well as nearby Keystone and Breckenridge resorts. By day's end, they were plotting their visit.

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Two years later, Montezuma Bowl's impact has been felt. Annual visitation at Arapahoe Basin was up by 70,000 within the first year, and despite the economic downturn, the resort clocked 410,000 skiers and snowboarders last season, the second-biggest season on record. (Impressive numbers, but modest when compared with such higher-profile resorts as Winter Park, which saw nearly 950,000 visitors in 2008-09.)

"Now we find that the resort doesn't feel complete until the back bowl is opened," Hierholzer told me over the phone last week.

And the locals -- often the crowd most resistant to change and a significant cog in A Basin's overall personality -- seem to love it as well. Not only do they have lift access to terrain previously reserved for those with backcountry experience, but the crowds all seem to gravitate toward Montezuma once it opens each January.

"Everyone goes to the back bowl," Hierholzer said. "And the locals have their Pallavicini that they love so much. . . . The scene, the crowd, the vibe hasn't changed."

The resort still has no on-mountain lodging, drawing instead from the nearby infrastructure of its sister resorts Keystone and Breckenridge as well as the towns in Summit County. Ski bums still crash in their cars to catch the first lift, and locals still congregate at Sixth Alley, the bar in the lodge at the base, for apr├Ęs grub. People still host birthday and anniversary parties at the Beach.

A new parking lot was added, but other enhancements have been modest and in stride with the resort's affection for its alpine surroundings. Witness the mid-peak Black Mountain Lodge, which was built to handle the overflow from Montezuma Bowl and has become a staging ground for such mountain-specific events as Arapahoe Basin's famed Mountain Full Moon Snowshoe dinners.

First held last season and expanded to a three-dinner series this year, they feature a ride up the lift to the lodge, where guests are greeted with cocktails at the door. Celebrated local chef Christopher Rybak prepares a sumptuous multi-course meal based on cuisines of different mountainous countries, while local musicians set the mood. After dessert, the guests walk or snowshoe back down by head lamp.

The French Alps-themed dinner will be held in April. By then the temps will have risen, the drive over Loveland Pass will afford epic views, the snow on the slopes will be edging toward the spring corn that cascades like soft gravel under your skis, and the Beach will be in full party mode, barbecues aflame, beer chilling in the slushy snow banks.

It might be the perfect time for me to go back. Maybe this time I can take my parents.

Borchelt is a freelance travel writer and photographer in Washington.

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