The lowdown on Sundown improvements |

The lowdown on Sundown improvements

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

At least that’s what the first official forum for stating your opinion seems to say.

“It’s going to be an interesting debate,” says Cal Wettstein, district ranger with the White River National Forest, which through Monday is seeking public input for what’s being called the Back Bowl Lift Upgrade Proposal. “You’ve got the people who like the backcountry experience you get back there with untrampled powder and others who want more access to it.”

Snowranger Dave Ozawa, the Forest Service’s point man on this project, is compiling the letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls. As of Thursday, he says, he’s received 37 responses, with 16 of them, or 43 percent, expressing support for installing a new high-speed quad, called the Sun Down Express, as well as replacing the low-speed triple chair that’s already there, the High Noon Lift, or Chair 5.

“Better serve the public’

“I encourage you to discount any opposition to this expansion based on “saving’ the Sundown Bowl terrain as I believe such opposition to be selfishly biased,” says one of those supporters, an avid skier, Bob Louthan.

A full-time Vail resident for 20 years, Louthan refers to responses he’s seen in an unofficial poll – letters to the editors of local newspapers – that, for the most part, express opposition to the project. Preserving the powder for which Sundown Bowl, one of Vail’s world-renowned Back Bowls, is famous seems to be the common theme.

“Selfishly, I tolerate the wait at the bottom of Chair 5 every once in a while so I can get another powder run. And selfishly, I wish they’d give me the whole mountain to myself; I like the way it is, too,” adds Louthan, who is retired and skies about 100 days a year. “But I think the new lifts would better serve the general public.”

Another man, not from Colorado, says two new, high-speed lifts in Sundown Bowl would allow him to ski more and sit on lifts or stand in lines less.

“Maxing out my time on the mountain is very important to an out-of-state skier like myself,” he says.

Chair 5 a “savior’

Eight responses, or 22 percent, express opposition to both new lifts, saying Sundown Bowl should be left as it is. One of those comes from Kent Rose, a former Vail mayor, who wrote the Vail Daily earlier this week, calling 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 Sundown side to Wildwood is ultimately replacing that Vail experience with snowmaking, groomed slopes, hardpack and moguls,” Rose says.

Other, similar responses include:

– “The south-facing slopes would not hold snow if subjected to higher traffic.”

– “We will sacrifice quality for speed Š safety Š runouts to the lift are fast and aggressive Š quadruple that traffic.”

– (It would) “turn Seldom, Never and Sundown into over-crowded bump runs.”

– “Few areas on the mountain are difficult to access; powder- and crud-skiing would become bump runs.”

Neutral position

Five responses are mixed, saying Chair 5 – a slow, fixed triple chair – should be upgraded, but a whole “nother lift is unnecessary.

– “(A) Sundown lift is premature. (It) would degrade the skiing experience.”

– “Don’t take away solitude that skiers crave. (Another) chairlift would be unsightly.”

– “We agree that Chair 5 needs an upgrade, but we disagree with adding more lifts.”

Earl weighs in, too

One response came from Earl Eaton, who with Pete Seibert shared and carried through with their dream of building Vail. He walked into the Forest Service office in Minturn recently with maps and plans for “extending Chair 5 down No Name drainage to Two Elk Creek, running Sundown lift out of Two Elk Creek and putting a road from the Two Elk Trailhead up the Two Elk Drainage to the bottom terminals.”

Eaton says his alternative aims at making the Back Bowls safer, as evacuating injured skiers and snowboarders now means bringing them to Chair 5, hauling them up to the top of the mountain, then beginning the long trip down the front side of Vail Mountain to the town of Vail. A road to the bottom of Sundown Bowl would allow an ambulance service from the resorts isolated interior, he says.

“I’ve had quite a few ideas over the years,” Eaton says. “There’s a lot of ways you could do it. But I don’t think you need a Sundown lift.”

Rose, meanwhile, submitted a second response, similar to Eaton’s, saying perhaps the best idea would be to replace Chair 5 with an extended detachable quad and run it all the way down to Two Elk Creek.

“Recreational arguments’

Vail Resorts submitted the proposal to the to the Holy Cross District Ranger’s office on Aug. 22. The proposal was 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.

Ozawa, who’s job description includes the various ski mountains and inspecting snow conditions – as well as environmental concerns – says once this stage of the process is completed he’ll begin an environmental assessment evaluating all the alternatives – including doing nothing – as well as the need for any logging in the area and the possible effects on nearby streams and wildlife. He says he expects to complete a draft of that study by mid-December, then another 30-day public comment period will ensue.

“So far, there’s really been no environmental issues raised, at least with the public,” Ozawa says, adding that the number of responses is far from overwhelming. “Most of the issues are recreational arguments.”

“Way too early’

Brian McCartney, Vail’s vice president of mountain operations, says it’s “way too early” in the process to weigh what’s being said about installing new lifts in Sundown Bowl – still just an idea. Vail Resorts presented the proposal mainly just to begin the “scoping process,” which, depending on the project can take years, he adds. And Forest Service approval doesn’t mean it the ski company will decide to – or is obligated to – build anything, he said.

“We’re not even planning this yet,” he says.

Comments from the public on new lifts in Vail’s Sun Down Bowl can be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service through Monday. They can be mailed 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

And the public says:

Of the other 37 responses received so far by the U.S. Forest Service:

– 16 (43 percent) stated support for both lifts.

– Eight (22 percent) opposed both lifts.

– Five (13 percent) stated support for chair 5 upgrade but oppose Sundown lift.

– Two (5 percent) offered new alternatives.

– Four (11 percent) asked questions or requested more information.

No more “dead-end’ skiing

By Stephen Lloyd Wood

The first “benefit” listed by Vail Resorts for seeking upgrades in Sundown 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 triple-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.”

And 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 new lift, the Sun Down Express Lift, with a base adjacent to the first one, 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.

Another argument Vail Resorts uses for building the Sun Down Express is it 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 lines are common.

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