Vail Pass task force keeps the peace |

Vail Pass task force keeps the peace

Scott Willoughby
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
The Vail Pass Recreation Area is among the facilities being closed in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

VAIL PASS – When nurse Dana Kluk decided to plan an end-of-the-season party for the Patient Care Unit of the Vail Valley Medical Center, the options seemed obvious. A mountaintop cookout overlooking the Back Bowls of Vail is always popular. Or maybe the avid skiers on staff would prefer to celebrate the season during closing day at nearby Beaver Creek Resort.

Rather than settle for the routine, however, Kluk took a suggestion from PCU coworker Michelle Fitzgerald, who doubles as a member of the Vail Ski Patrol.

“She’s skied from Vail Pass to Red Cliff a bunch of times with patrol and told me how fun it was,” Kluk said. “I just looked at her and said, ‘We have to do that.’ “

On Sunday, Kluk’s crew of 23 skiers and a single snowmobile – floor manager Danny St. Armand drove an employee with a broken leg – joined the ranks of about 30,000 winter visitors making use of the snow at the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area.

While the heavily traveled 12-mile trek they chose across Shrine Pass represents only a fraction of the 55,000-acre winter playground shared by Eagle and Summit counties, its popularity even this late in the snow season is indicative of the steady traffic this multiuse zone sees annually.

Any winter weekend, the rest area along Interstate 70 between Copper Mountain and East Vail is brimming with outdoor enthusiasts willing to pay the $6 user fee to tour the sprawling web of groomed routes stretching south to the town of Red Cliff and nearby Camp Hale. A busy day might see as many as 200 passes purchased by private skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers. Others buy the $40 season pass or pay commercial operators for snowcat skiing with Vail Powder Guides, snowmobile rentals or overnight stays at one of four huts in the area.

The throng of recreational users has grown on pace with overall use of the surrounding White River National Forest and the busy Dillon Ranger District that has seen visitation increase by some 15 to 20 times in the past 50 years, according to district ranger Paul Semmer.

But it is nothing that the vast zone can’t handle, at least so far.

Thanks to the creation of a citizens group known as the Vail Pass Task Force more than 15 years ago, the mixed bag of recreational users has learned to get along even as the numbers increase. Many consider the popular pay-to-play area a model for resolving conflict between the traditionally opposed supporters of motorized and nonmotorized recreation.

“My hat is off to the (U.S. Forest Service). They saw the conflicts and love everybody had for the area and weren’t going to let it go one way,” said Chuck Ogilby, owner of the Shrine Mountain Inn and former task force president. “We now have peace. We’ve made huge progress, and every year it gets better.”

April snowstorms and elevations above 12,000 feet have extended the life of an otherwise lean winter in the recreation area. Trail grooming is scheduled to continue for another week, and rangers will remain on hand to collect fees that pay for it through April 23, but spring skiing and snowmobiling remain an option until the snow melts.

Likewise, enforcement of the nonmotorized and motorized- only use areas will continue even after signs designating the zones are removed this week.

“It’s always a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with people trying to get around the closures. But we don’t close areas just for fun,” said Jon Hare of the Dillon Ranger District. “It’s the user’s responsibility to know where they are.”

Advancements in snowmobile technology and backcountry skiing equipment have coupled with the ease of access to increase the number of so-called “hybrid” users on Vail Pass in recent years. As skiers and snowboarders use snowmobiles to access terrain, the delineation between some motorized and nonmotorized zones grows blurrier and more important at the same time.

Conflicts between man and machine are one thing. Collisions are another.

“We tend to see relatively inexperienced hybrid users at Vail Pass,” said Vail Powder Guides owner and current task force president Ben Bartosz. “They like to follow us.”

With powder snow on the wane this winter, rangers say most Vail Pass visitors are sticking to the trails these days, further diminishing potential for conflict between users. Bartosz’s cat skiing operation has closed for the season, and only the most dedicated corn snow aficionados are making use of off-piste terrain.

That leaves groups like Kluk’s Vail Valley Medical Center crew and a handful of enthusiastic trail riders to enjoy the views of Shrine Pass and the Mount of the Holy Cross as they make their way to the tiny town of Red Cliff for a bite at Mango’s Mountain Grill or a night at the Green Bridge Inn. The restaurant will remain open until May 1, and owner Eric Cregon is even willing to drive up to the snow line and pick up patrons who call ahead (970-827-9101).

“It was super fun, skiing down,” Kluk said of her maiden voyage across the pass. “And no one went to the hospital.”

Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993 or

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