New lifts proposed in Vail’s Back Bowls |

New lifts proposed in Vail’s Back Bowls

Stephen Lloyd Wood
Special to the Daily/U.S. Forest ServiceVail Resorts has submitted a proposal that would install two new, high-speed quad lifts in Sun Down Bowl, the westernmost of the famous Back Bowls. One of them would replace the High Noon Lift, or Chair 5; the other, the Sun Down Express Lift, would take skiers and snowboarders from the bottom of Sun Down Bowl to the Wildwood, on top of Vail Mountain.

With the bikers, joggers, dog-walkers, buses and delivery trucks, the valley’s roads can sometimes seem awfully crowded – and dangerous.

Vail Resorts has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service that seeks to install a new high-speed chairlift in Sun Down Bowl, as well as replace the low-speed double chair that’s already there.

“This is in the very early planning and approval stage, but we do know what direction we want to go,” Brian McCartney, Vail’s vice president of mountain operations, said Thursday. “We’re stickin’ our big toe in the pond and seeing what the temperature is.”

Called the Back Bowl Lift Upgrade Proposal, the plan was presented to the Holy Cross District Ranger’s office on Aug. 22 by Tom Allender, a senior mountain planner with SE Group, based in Frisco. Allender was Vail Resorts’ chief planner when the company developed the Blue Sky Basin expansion area, formerly known as Category III.

“The proposed projects would improve the quality of the recreational experience, allow for the better utilization of existing ski terrain while minimizing resource impacts,” states the proposal, which basically asks the Forest Service to review a modification of Vail’s Master Development Plan in a process outlined by the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA.

No more “dead-end’ skiing

The first “benefit” listed for seeking the upgrades in Sun Down Bowl is eliminating a “dead-end skiing pod” served currently only by the High Noon Lift, or Chair 5, built in 1962. The first chairlift in the Back Bowls, the double-chair lift 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.

“On days with new snow, lines at the current lift routinely reach 45 minutes, with longer waits not being out of the ordinary,” the proposal states. “With the upgrade of existing Chair 5 and the addition of the Sun Down Lift, these lines would be reduced to an acceptable wait.”

A new, detachable, high-speed quad lift also would 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 on Chair 5.

The other new lift, the Sun Down Express Lift, with a base adjacent to the High Noon Lift, would literally change the dynamics of skiing the 675-acre Sun Down Bowl, as skiers and snowboarders could repeatedly descend the east-facing face, known for its epic, long, wide-open runs like Ricky’s Ridge, Seldom and Never. It’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.

A new dynamic

The Sun Down Express also would improve 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 to begin with. 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-long lines are common.

“You’d be able to ski the Back Bowls all day, then get out of there,” said McCartney. “Plus, this would give you the ability to ski west-to-east, east-to-west, all on the back side of the mountain. It’s is going to be particularly useful to local skiers, who have individual travel patterns.”

One local skier, J.J. Mikels, said the more he thought about the idea of having two high-speed quads serving Sun Down Bowl, the more he liked it. With more people able to circulate, the bowl will get tracked out faster, he said, but without the infamous line at the bottom you’ll definitely be able to get in more runs.

“I personally think Sun Down is the best bowl on the mountain,” said Mikels, a manager at Vail Ski Tech in Lionshead. “It’s also the last place on the mountain that needed an upgrade. It’s definitely a really good idea.”

Seeking public comment

Comments from the public on new lifts in Vail’s Sun Down Bowl are being sought by the Forest Service until Nov. 17. They should be submitted by mail to Cal Wettstein, District Ranger, Holy Cross Ranger, Holy Cross Ranger District, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO, 81645, or faxed to him at 827-9343. For more information, contact Dave Ozawa at 827-5715 or

Environmental process can be lengthy, or not

By Stephen Lloyd Wood

The National Environmental Protection Act process begins with a 30-day period for public input and environmental impact studies. It can take as little as three to six months, or much longer.

Assuming the U.S. Forest Service approves Vail Resort’s plan over the winter, however, the company possibly could begin construction of one or both new lifts being proposed for Sun Down Bowl as early as July 1, when elk-calving season in the White River National Forest is over.

“The first step is public scoping to see what people think about it,” said Dave Ozawa, a snow ranger based in the agency’s Minturn office who’s in charge of reviewing the proposal. “This is a very early stage of the analysis.”

Ozawa, who was involved with the Blue Sky Basin project, said there are some minor environmental concerns. “Potential lynx habitat” exists below Wildwood, where the top of the new Sun Down Express Lift would be; a 0.007-acre wetlands area could be affected; and 5 acres of mixed spruce fir and aspen trees would have to be cleared. Those concerns would have to be evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.

Still, Ozawa said, since Sun Down Bowl is mostly a wide-open, treeless expanse, little logging is necessary and potential problems that could prevent final approval by the Forest Service are “relatively minimal.”

“We’ll be doing a lot of work on this over the winter,” said Ozawa, adding the Forest Service could approve both lifts, as well as running an electrical line to them, just one lift, or nothing at all. “We could have a decision by next summer.”

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