Last Call, Three Resorts You Need to Ski This Season
Three resorts you need to ski this season, so you can tell your grandkids how tough it used to beby Josh Rhea
The Ritz Carlton; valets unloading skis from H2's and X5's; mocha frappaccinos with light whip. The base area at Aspen Highlands is everything most people expect of Aspen. But in my mind, and in those of the people who knew it as it once was, I'll always think of Highlands as the white trash cousin of the Roaring Fork Valley—dirty, slow, cheap, and scrappy as hell.
Today, slow lifts, run-down cafeterias, and cheap tickets are supplanted by luxury condos and high-speed quads. Resort boundaries have been expanded to include drool worthy, once-forbidden terrain. Improvements, or the loss of a mountain's soul? One thing stands clear: Aspen Highlands is a far different place than it was 10 years ago, and if you didn't know the old mountain, you never will.
There are other 'Highlands' still out there—family-owned, eking by on little more than a love of skiing itself. Whether their fates lie in the hands of real-estate developers or on the cutting boards of U.S. Forest Service approval committees, one thing is clear: you need to ski them right now, before they change forever. This is your must-ski list for the 03-04 season.
Change comes slowly to Alta, and when it does, local skiers tend to gripe about it…a lot. The U.S. Forest Service recently approved a plan to replace the Collins and Germania lifts with a top-to-bottom high-speed quad, creating an odd blend of excitement and mourning in this birthplace of powder skiing.
With the demise of the old lifts comes the end of a skiing legacy—lines skied from the top of Wildcat down to Germania (or 'Germ' as it's popularly known) have long ceased being habit; they are tradition. The race from the top of Wildcat down Stimulation in a bid to gain the High Traverse on a powder morning is an exhibit not to be missed. If you can hang at the front of that pack, you deserve to be there.
The advantages of the new lift system, along with vast improvements in the base area and a replacement for the mid-mountain Watson Shelter, are well worth the trade-offs in the eyes of Alta's management and many powder-hungry skiers. 3,000-vertical foot laps will no longer take half an hour and up to four separate lift rides, and skiers will still be able to unload at a mid-mountain station. On-mountain facilities will be cleaner, easier to maintain, and more efficient.
However, if you think of yourself as a skier, do yourself a favor and experience the history and legacy that is Alta. Ride Collins, and race your buddies from Wildcat to Germania. Stop for breakfast at Chic's in the Watson Shelter, and revel in the last season of what was.
Silverton Mountain has enjoyed a flurry of media attention over the few short years since its single lift was installed. The mountain exists on the distinctly European notion of lift-accessed backcountry. All skiers are required to be guided, but future plans call for unguided, affordable backcountry access. Some call Silverton the epitome of the soul of skiing, while others berate it as a liability nightmare. We think it's the best thing to happen to the sport since the advent of fat skis.
Affable owner Aaron Brill continues to face bigger obstacles than public opinion,
however. The preliminary results of an Environmental Impact Study are due early
next year, and are expected by February 2004. Based on the results of the study,
the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will render a decision that could open Silverton
to unguided, epic skiing or continue limiting it to pristine guided-only tours.
Most likely it will be a combination of both.
Currently, Silverton Mountain has a permit to allow up to 80 guided skiers per day on the mountain. Brill's partner Jenny Ader expects fewer than that most days (most of December is booked at under 20 people per day).
Silverton Mountain is sure to be a different operation as early as spring 2004. No one can say how the skiing will change, or how long this gem of the San Juan Mountains will endure. Get there while you can.
Crystal Mountain, Washington
Long a bastion of local recreation for Puget Sound area day skiers, Crystal Mountain isn't well-known beyond the Washington state line. Locals are happy to keep it that way, and for good reason.
The beauty of Crystal lies in its hike-accessed expert terrain, which has enough
powder, cliffs, and steeps to rival any mountain in North America. Heavy, wet
coastal snow sticks to the steepest slopes and rock outcrops, creating a fantasy
land of flutes, chutes, and mind-bending steeps. Tops on the roster of this
incredible terrain are the legendary North and South Country areas. Depending
on your point of view, the North Country isn't far from being freed—or destroyed—by
the installation of a new lift.
Long suffering from run-down accommodations, restaurants, poor lift access, and other skier services, Crystal is approaching the end of a six year quest to drastically upgrade the mountain's infrastructure. Along with comprehensive improvements to base and on-mountain facilities, Crystal management plans to install a top-to-bottom aerial tram and a lift to allow easy access to the North Back, among other lift additions.
The vast majority of proposed improvements will do this small area a world of good. The 'loss' of a treasured hike-accessed area however, is sure to send locals into grief. It's another case of quantity versus quality, and once a lift is installed there's no going back. Go to Crystal this season and love it. Return in a couple years, and you'll likely love it even more.