New Back Bowls lifts on hold |

New Back Bowls lifts on hold

Stephen Lloyd Wood

Special to the Daily/Vail ResortsA skier ponders the vast expanse of Sun Down Bowl, the westernmost of Vail's famous Back Bowls, earlier this month when the area opened for the season. Vail Resorts has announced put on hold a recent proposal to build two new high-speed quad lifts in Sun Down Bowl.

“Vail Resorts agrees with public sentiment that this terrain currently offers a unique experience that appeals to many of our guests,” Bill Jensen, Vail’s chief operating officer, announced in a letter to the editor published Monday in the Vail Daily. “Vail Resorts does not intend to pursue the concept of a lift in Sun Down Bowl and will continue to maintain the present experience of Sun Down Bowl for the foreseeable future.”

Upgrade proposal

In August, on Vail Resort’s behalf, Tom Allender, a senior mountain planner with SE Group, based in Frisco, submitted a plan, called the Back Bowl Lift Upgrade Proposal, to the U.S. Forest Service’s Holy Cross District Ranger’s office. Allender was Vail Resorts’ chief planner when the company developed the Blue Sky Basin expansion area, formerly known as Category III.

Then in October, the Forest Service presented the plan to the public, initiating a 30-day period of seeking public comment. Snowranger Dave Ozawa, the Forest Service’s point man on the project, compiled the letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls from more than three dozen people – with an overwhelming majority expressing support for installing a high-speed quad and replacing Chair 5, the low-speed triple chair also known as the High Noon Lift.

Here’s a breakdown of the responses received by the U.S. Forest Service:

– 43 percent stated support for both lifts.

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– 22 percent opposed both lifts.

– 13 percent stated support for Chair 5 upgrade but oppose Sun Down lift.

– 11 percent asked questions or requested more information.

– 5 percent offered new alternatives.

Write a letter

Letters to the editor, meanwhile, continued to arrive at the Daily, most of them decrying the addition of an entirely new, high-speed lift in Sun Down Bowl. In one letter, Kent Rose, a former Vail mayor, referred to the founders of Vail Mountain and even called Chair 5 “the savoir of the Vail experience, the unparalleled expanse of pristine powder and Pete and Earl’s dreams.

“To replace Chair 5 with a high-speed, detachable quad and put in a second detachable quad up the Sun Down side to Wildwood is ultimately replacing that Vail experience with snowmaking, groomed slopes, hardpack and moguls,” Rose wrote.

Another, similar response came from Pepi Gramshammer, 71, a Vail pioneer who moved to the resort in 1962 and built the Hotel Gasthof-Gramshammer – and who, the story goes, named one of Vail’s most famous runs, Forever in Sun Down Bowl, for the length of time it took him to hike back out of it the first time he skied there.

“The Back Bowls are the most beautiful place to ski on a powder day. I personally would like Chair 5 to stay the way it is and not build a new lift. It is a real special area and it needs to be kept special. If you increase the number of high-speed lifts in this area, this very special area will be skied out in one hour,” wrote Gramshammer.

“The Back Bowls helped to make Vail the top ski area in this country and we need to make sure it stays this way,” he wrote. “I am very opposed to replacing Chair 5 with a high-speed lift and especially adding another high-speed lift in this area.”

Power of the pen

Apparently those written responses – though not high in number – were persuasive.

“This public comment process has been successful,” Jensen wrote Monday. “Vail Resorts would like to thank everyone who shared their thoughts and suggestions with the community, Vail Resorts and the U.S. Forest Service.”

Tony Ryerson, a skier at Vail for 25 years, was one of the original critics of the proposal, writing any new lifts would compromise safety. The runouts to the existing Chair 5 are fast and aggressive enough as it is, he wrote, and quadrupling the traffic would make it worse. Ryerson also said he thinks the “uniqueness of Sun Down Bowl” should be preserved.

“I’m very pleased Vail Resorts is headed in what I believe is the right direction and pursuing what I think is special about Vail Mountain,” Ryerson said Tuesday.

Reasons will remain

As proposed, the “Sun Down Express Lift” would have changed the dynamics of skiing the 675-acre Sun Down Bowl, as skiers and snowboarders would have been able to descend the western face, known for its epic, long, wide-open runs like Ricky’s Ridge, Seldom and Never.

That’s never really been an option, as to do so now means dealing with Chair 5, skiing to Mid-Vail and taking the Wildwood Express Lift, or Chair 3, to Wildwood, then traversing across Ptarmigan Ridge – something of which few skiers and snowboarders have made a habit.

Another argument for the Sun Down Express Lift was it would have improved circulation on Vail Mountain in general by allowing skiers and snowboarders to use one lift on their way from the Back Bowls to Lionshead, where 50 percent of them access the ski mountain.

As it is now, most snowriders leaving the Back Bowls when the lifts close at 3 p.m. wind up on the Northwoods Express Lift, or Chair 11, for which 40-minute lines are common.

“It’s not going away’

Brian McCartney, Vail’s vice president of mountain operations, said Tuesday the proposal to build two new lifts in Sun Down Bowl – one of many projects the corporation has on the drawing boards for its four resorts in Colorado and another in California – has not been withdrawn from consideration altogether. It’s just been put on the shelf, he said, and the Forest Service has been asked not to proceed with its next step, an environmental analysis.

“We went through the scoping process seeking opinions. We compiled them, we appreciate them, and that has helped us with our long-term thinking. The project is still out there; it’s not going away,” McCartney said. “We’re just not moving forward at this time. For now, any new development in the Back Bowls is on hold.”

Ozawa of the Forest Service was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Replacement option

By Stephen Lloyd Wood

In announcing the ski company will not be installing a new, high-speed lift up the middle of Sun Down Bowl anytime soon, Vail’s Bill Jensen did leave open the possibility of replacing the High Noon Lift, Chair 5.

“Based on comments received, Vail Resorts intends to work with the U.S. Forest Service on studying an eventual replacement of Chair 5 (in the future as the lift reaches the end of its useful life),” Jensen wrote. “We will consider demand, capacity, speed, base terminal location, environmental impacts and other criteria as part of this process.”

Upgrading Chair 5 actually was the first “benefit” listed by Vail Resorts for seeking upgrades in Sun Down Bowl. The existing High Noon Lift, which replaced the original Chair 5, built in 1962. It has a capacity of no more than 1,500 people per hour – far fewer than the number of skiers that head to Sun Down Bowl on a powder day.

A new, detachable, high-speed quad lift could whisk skiers and snowboarders back to Patrol Headquarters on top of Vail Mountain in about five and half minutes – less than half time it takes now.

Brian McCartney, Vail’s vice president of mountain operations, said Tuesday the existing High Noon Lift is dependable and in fine shape, so there’s no apparent rush to replace it.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s doing just fine,” he said. “But it’s like any machine: If it starts costing more money to fix it than to replace it, then we’ll have to take that into consideration.”