Vail’s new Chair 5 among the choices for skiers in Colorado |

Vail’s new Chair 5 among the choices for skiers in Colorado

Scott Willoughby
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
NWS Chair 5 Opens 4 DT 12-10-10

VAIL, Colorado – The Panty Tree is gone.

Uncouth as it may have been in some skiers’ eyes, the infamous tree adorned in more unmentionables than a Victoria’s Secret fashion show had easily qualified as Vail Mountain’s most enduring icon.

Like the covered bridge and clock tower in Vail Village proper, the less politically correct landmark draped in lingerie dropped from Chair 5 on the mountain’s backside had endured for decades.

But last summer, it fell victim to progress, along with more than 100 other trees removed to make room for what’s destined to become Vail’s new calling card: The High Noon Express.

The new, improved Chair 5, which opened Friday, replaces the antiquated original High Noon Lift with a state-of-the-art, high-speed quad chairlift offering 70 percent more uphill capacity (2,400 people per hour) and half the ride time (six minutes) of the old fixed-grip three-seater. Skiing pioneers Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer – the closest thing to Vail royalty – enjoyed the inaugural ride to the summit on the long-awaited lift.

Next to outright terrain expansions, nothing excites resort skiers in Colorado quite as much as a new chairlift. That’s because the only reason resorts undertake such a significant investment is to improve access. And the less time it takes to access the terrain, the more time there is to savor the actual skiing and snowboarding.

The 2010 ski season marks the 75th anniversary of the world’s first chairlift, built by Union Pacific Railroad and introduced in 1936 at Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort.

Across Colorado, the milestone season marks the introduction of the first high-speed quad at Arapahoe Basin (the new Black Mountain Express upgrades “Exhibition” with a capacity of 2,000 people per hour and a ride time of less than three minutes), a 50 percent capacity increase on Silverton Mountain’s lone lift (30 new chairs on the line bump the total to 89 chairs), a new base terminal designed to improve efficiency at Monarch Mountain’s Garfield Lift and even a new “magic carpet” conveyer for first-time skiers at Eldora.

It also offers an opportunity to express our love for Colorado’s tempting network of chairlifts. It isn’t the only reason we love Colorado skiing, but it’s a good place to start.

The new Panty Tree arrives later.

Best lifts

If the lines at Elitch Gardens included rides that carried you to the roller coaster, this is what they would look like.

• Silverton Mountain. How else can you explain the success of a ski area that has only one lift? Now with 178 seats.

• High Noon Express (Chair 5), Vail Mountain. By cutting lap times in the Back Bowls in half, a great lift becomes greater.

• Silver Queen Gondola, Aspen Mountain. 3,267 vertical feet of Ajax right out of the box.

• North Face Lift, Mount Crested Butte. Short and sweet, this two-person surface lift is the only way to get to the goods at CB.

• The Plunge Lift (Chair 9), Telluride. It’s no speedster, but this reliable triple covers 2,200 feet of classic San Juan vertical.

Runners-up: Pallavicini Lift (Arapahoe Basin), Loge Peak Express (Aspen Highlands), Grouse Mountain Express (Beaver Creek), T-Bar (Breckenridge)

Top new additions

Smart improvements can make a big difference in your ski day.

• Black Mountain Express Lift, Arapahoe Basin. After 32 years in the Exhibition Lift line, it was time to go.

• Peak 8 Superpipe, Breckenridge. After falling off the back last year, Breck upgraded to an Olympic-sized, 22-foot pipe this season. (The new Alpine Coaster looks pretty cool too.)

• Expanded Free Parking, Copper Mountain. With 40 percent more free parking in the Corn Lot, skiers can leave road rage behind and get to the snow smiling.

• Extended Season, Aspen Highlands. Thanks to a late Easter, Highlands is offering three more weeks of spring on the slopes, closing April 24.

• High Noon Express Lift, Vail. Did we mention Vail’s 16th high-speed quad increases total uphill capacity to 59,092 people per hour?

Runners-up: Additional chairs at Silverton should eliminate the rare lift line; the free paved parking lot at Winter Park’s Vintage Hotel will go a long way; Ambassadors Glade adds terrain to the front side of Durango Mountain Resort; Monarch’s new lift terminal could help you remember why you like “quaint.”

Bragging rights

Colorado resorts offer every skier and snowboarder good reasons to open a Twitter account.

• Highlands Bowl, Aspen Highlands. If you haven’t checked this iconic line off your list yet, it’s time to get your hike on.

• Palmyra Peak, Telluride. Since you’re probably not going to launch “Awesome Rock” this winter, consider this the biggest line on the big mountain.

• Heli-Ski Silverton. Walking seems silly when there’s a shiny new helicopter waiting to take you to the top.

• Talons Challenge, Beaver Creek. More than 24,000 vertical feet of black and double- black diamond runs give you reason to gloat or give up on Feb. 26.

• Winter X Games, Buttermilk. The annual action sports showcase is something everyone should see live at least once. This season it’s Jan. 27-30.

Best powder/snow quality

From El Nino to La Nina and whatever they call all those years in between, the Rocky Mountain winter can be a fickle beast. Still, certain spots almost always have good snow.

Steamboat Springs Resort. In this La Nina season, it’s the mountains north of Interstate 70 that seem set up to fare best, putting the place with the trademark on Champagne Powder on pace to top its annual average of 349 inches. Steamboat Springs Resort has seen nearly 10 feet of snow before the first day of winter, all of it light and dry.

Honorable mentions:

• Winter Park: Another northern beneficiary, Grand County never seems to have a problem keeping winter cool. That’s 360 inches of cold smoke a year, preserved for your pleasure.

• Loveland: Its leeward proximity at 13,000 feet along the Continental Divide adds up to 400 inches of winter every season, more than 100 of them already.

• Silverton: Latitude notwithstanding, the microclimate surrounding this San Juan powder paradise typically drops more than 400 inches of annual fluff on a limit of only 80 skiers and snowboarders a day for most of the season. Yet moguls remain an endangered species.

Park it

Colorado’s terrain parks continue to evolve and improve to the point that they’re almost impossible to rank. Some considerations:

• Without Breckenridge, Keystone, Buttermilk and Snowmass, Transworld Snowboarding would only be able to rank the “Top 6” parks in North America. Take away Copper Mountain too, and the leftover pipe rankings are down to five.

• Echo Mountain is not only the closest terrain park to Denver (35 miles from downtow n), it’s open the longest. Last Park Standing wraps it up on April 30, 2011.

• Winter Park proves that rails are not just for trains, with 20 new ones in six parks around the mountain.

• Snowmass is adding a 12-foot “learner” pipe for those not yet ready to drop into the big leagues.

Off-piste opportunities

When lifts just aren’t enough.

• Powder Addiction Cat Skiing, Jones Pass. The closest cat to Denver includes a $200 “Hot Seat” program for last-minute powder turns above Empire. ( )

• Steamboat Powder Cats. They already set the record for November snow this season. ( )

• CS Irwin. The newest addition to Colorado cat skiing offers a luxury ski-snowboard experience outside of Crested Butte. ( )

• Monarch Mountain. If you can’t get on the daily snowcat tour, a short hike from the Breezeway Lift takes you to 130 acres of open bowls, steep glades and tree skiing in Mirkwo od Basin.

• 10th Mountain Division Huts Association. They built the huts, but you’ll have to do the rest on your own. ( )

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