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Is glitz coming to old-school ski area?

By / February 27, 2007



At Max Dercum's home near Montezuma, old photos and film clips show skiers in the 1940s strapping on long wooden boards and sliding through powder on the slopes of the Arapahoe Basin, one of the first ski areas to open in Colorado.

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Unlike the megaresorts around it, the A-Basin of today doesn't look a whole lot different: It boasts essentially the same extreme terrain; the same no-frills, high-altitude vibe as it did in those early years.

All of which makes the decision to open a new mid-mountain restaurant next month and a new lift next year – nearly doubling the area's in-bounds terrain – a particularly momentous one. Some longtime visitors are eager to try the new runs, while others worry that the fragile aura that makes the A-Basin ski area unique will be shattered if it expands.

"Right now, it still has the same small mountain atmosphere," says Martin Dawson, a snowboarder from Fort Collins who came early on a recent blue-sky Saturday to secure a coveted barbecue spot called 'the beach' for the Cub Scouts he's chaperoning. "Take away the free parking and [the beach] – I just hope it doesn't turn into a monster area."

Supporters insist there's no real danger of that happening – the mountain has retained its charm in part because the land around it belongs to the US Forest Service and can't be turned into behemoth real-estate operations like the ones in nearby Keystone or Vail. And despite grumbling from backcountry skiers who don't want a lift on the backside of the mountain, and from environmentalists unhappy about the potential damage of development, about 80 percent of those polled are pleased with the expansion, says Alan Henceroth, the area's general manager.

Far from destroying A-Basin's atmosphere, Mr. Henceroth hopes the additions will help spread skiers out over the mountain, give more intermediate options, and reduce lines.

"The No. 1 thing we're trying to do is preserve the way people feel when they're here," Henceroth says from his office at the top of Arapahoe's main lodge – itself a throwback that replaced the original lodge that burned down in the 1960s and that once served as a missile-testing facility.

Preservation is ever harder as the economics of skiing push many areas to either expand or die. The typical resort makes most of its money from surrounding real estate, says Hal Clifford, author of "Downhill Slide," a book about the largely negative changes in the ski industry over the past few decades.

Still, he says, a few smaller areas like A-Basin – places like Mad River Glen in Vermont or Eldora outside Boulder, Colo. – have managed to hang on, in part because of the backlash to glitz from more traditional skiers.

"They're supported by romantics who are not turned on by the industrialism of these big ski areas," says Mr. Clifford, noting that backcountry skiing and the use of hut systems has also exploded.

That's certainly the case for Arapahoe, which attracts a largely local and experienced crowd, generally more interested in shredding moguls or showing off telemark turns than in the latest ski fashions or $25 lunches.

"A-Basin is a ski area still," says Freda Nieters, an instructor who's lived in the area for more than 30 years. Ms. Nieters recently celebrated her 75th birthday by skiing a record 78,000 vertical feet in a day to raise money for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. "The people who come here don't need any of the fluff." But, she says, "to stay competitive, we have to offer something new."

More than most ski areas, this is also a place with history. A-Basin was founded in 1946 by 10th Mountain Division veteran Larry Jump, Olympic skier Frederick Schauffler, and Mr. Dercum – who pioneered much of the skiable terrain in the county with his wife Edna and kept skiing into his 90s. It's the highest ski area in North America, with a summit elevation above 13,000 feet, allowing it to open early and close as late as July.

"It's sort of a funky idea – the facilities aren't all that great, and it was before the days of the megaresorts," says Dercum. Still, he says he's happy they're adding new terrain – most of which he's skied many times himself. "It's a lot more good skiing back there."

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