Arapahoe Basin adds backcountry-like terrain with chutes, glades and more

After almost 10 years of planning and four years of federal environmental review, Arapahoe Basin ski area will add 468 acres that include steep chutes, gullies and glades”

by Jason Blevins, The Denver Post

ARAPAHOE BASIN — The shouts from the chairlift drift down to ski area boss Alan Henceroth.

“How is it, Al?”

“Are you getting it ready?”

“Where’s the good snow?”

Henceroth, who started as a ski patroller 29 years ago and now runs Arapahoe Basin ski area, peels the skins off his skis, transitioning from uphill to downhill after a short hike from beyond the ski area’s soon-to-change boundary.

“Still pretty good on the north-facing stuff,” he hollers to the passersby above. “We’re getting there.”

After almost 10 years of planning and four years of federal environmental review, Henceroth and his Arapahoe Basin team are preparing to open snowy, steep terrain west of the 960-acre ski area. The 468-acre expansion into the Steep Gullies and the Beavers — including steep chutes, glades and a couple intermediate runs — marks A-Basin’s step into the big leagues of steep skiing, joining expert destinations like Alta, Jackson Hole, Crested Butte and Silverton Mountain.

“This is a big piece for the Basin. It’s going to be completely different than what we have now,” Henceroth said. “The best part of my job is when someone comes up and tells me what a great day skiing they had. I think there’s a lot more of those to come, especially with this project.”

Ski area expansion plans across Colorado in the last two decades have largely focused on growing intermediate terrain for the vacationers who float resorts’ financial boats: Peak 6 at Breckenridge in 2012; Arapahoe Basin’s push into Montezuma Bowl in 2007; Telluride’s expansion into Prospect Bowl in 2001; Vail’s addition of Blue Sky Basin in 2000.

While some ski area expansions have focused on expert terrain — Eagle Wind at Winter Park and Telluride’s Revelation Bowl, for example — A-Basin’s next boundary push will open the Steep Gullies’ precipitous, rock-choked descents, which easily will rank as the already-challenging ski area’s most rowdy lines.

“It’s gonna put A-Basin, which is already a good expert ski area, into the great expert ski area category. It brings up the game for sure,” said Summit County local and backcountry guidebook author Fritz Sperry. “It’s definitely legit terrain.”

Legit, with a dark history. Since 1982, there have been six avalanche deaths in the expansion area, a popular, lift-accessible zone a mere minute’s ski beyond A-Basin’s boundary gate. The Forest Service’s review of the expansion plans estimated 2,324 to 16,640 skiers a year access the backcountry terrain through gates on the Arapahoe Basin boundary. That’s a lot of skiers venturing into uncontrolled, avalanche-prone terrain.

Corralling the terrain into the ski area’s operating boundary — it’s already part of the area’s Forest Service permit boundary — will allow ski patrollers to mitigate the avalanche hazard with explosives and other strategies.

“I think we can have a tremendous impact on the snow out there. People are already treating it like a ski area with a full-blown mitigation plan, which it does not have. A big part of our purpose and need for the project was public safety,” Henceroth said.
Sperry hopes skiers will approach the expanded territory as if it were wild territory and continue to practice avalanche safety protocol like wearing a beacon and being prepared to find buried partners.

Since the late 1990s, Arapahoe Basin’s patrollers have kicked around the idea of pulling the Steep Gullies and Beavers into the area’s boundary. After opening the 400-acre Montezuma Bowl in 2007, the idea got more attention. It was not nearly as clear-cut as Montezuma. Henceroth and his team — snow safety experts and patrollers who have been on board, like him, for decades — spent years scheming where to put a chairlift, how to reduce impacts to wetlands and wildlife and, of course, how to improve the ski experience.

Henceroth says he’s spent countless hours exploring terrain that didn’t end up as part of the expansion.

“We went down a lot of rabbit holes,” he said. “We knew there was a lot of extraordinary skiing over there but it took a long time, a really long time, to figure out the right proposal.”

The final plan — formed after a two-year snow survey by Arapahoe Basin’s snow safety team and vetted by the White River National Forest in a four-year, 250-page Environmental Impact Statement that concluded in November — includes a pair of groomed runs with natural berms and islands of trees, open bowl skiing above treeline, gladed tree skiing and the Steep Gullies. A fixed-grip quad chair will service the bowls and glades, while the double-black-diamond Steep Gullies will be accessed from the area’s famed Pallavicini chair. To get out of the Steep Gullies, skiers will need to hike 15 or 20 minutes up a groomed track.

Placement of the lift was a difficult decision, Henceroth said. It won’t reach the valley floor, stopping instead a bit higher where the snow remains deep long into the season. That mid-hill perch will enable the chair to keep turning, Henceroth hopes, for more than 150 days a season. And the chair won’t allow egress from the Steep Gullies, which will remain a somewhat wild experience, requiring effort and skill to both ski and regain access to ski lines.

That somewhat wild experience meets a surging demand for all things backcountry. SnowSports Industries America, the trade group that tracks the retail snowsports industry, has shown skyrocketing sales of backcountry equipment in recent years — like splitboard snowboards, alpine touring boots, technical bindings that allow for uphill travel, and avalanche beacons and probes. In 2015, SIA surveys found backcountry participation had climbed 25 percent over 2014, with 6.3 million skiers and snowboarders saying they explore backcountry terrain. The backcountry equipment market — while a fraction of the overall retail scene for skiing and snowboarding — remains one of the industry’s strongest and fastest growing segments, with sales topping $52 million in 2015-16.

“We have absolutely seen that shift,” said Henceroth, who in five years has doled out more that 5,000 uphill passes to skiers who like to hike up the ski area’s runs. “It’s no longer about that one simple thing of riding a chairlift and getting down. People want a more diverse experience. We think this meets that demand. Especially the Steep Gullies. We set it up so it’s a little harder to get. It’s suited well for experts. It just adds to the special feel of the place. I think people are willing and happy to do a little extra work if they can be in a more remote place.”

The Steep Gullies and a portion of the Beavers will open as part of the ski area next season. But the chairlift won’t be ready until the 2018-19 season.

Source: Arapahoe Basin adds backcountry-like terrain with chutes, glades and more



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