An American Original

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Steamboat l 1200

It's mid-January and skiers in Utah and throughout most of Colorado are doing desperate snow dances. Marketers at the Tahoe areas are jumping for joy over the slush that just landed, while down in Mammoth people are on their knees praying for just a few snowy inches. Then there's Steamboat: Southeast of the Pacific Northwest, it is among the few resorts that can boast stellar conditions. But that's not unusual. It's what ranchers call a three-wire winter-a measurement based on the snow's height relative to barbed-wire fences-and right now it's looking as if the white fluff may just rise to the fourth wire.

During the winter months, it's rare to drive over 9,425-foot Rabbit Ears Pass when it's not snowing. Today is no exception. It's dumping, and visibility is down to 10 feet-and closing. It won't be long before the transit authority shuts the road. On either side of the highway, snow banks rise 12 feet. Bad news for motorists, good news for skiers.

Measuring winter's intensity in barbed-wire height may seem unusual, but around here it's just the way it's always been done. Ranching and skiing have been tied together since homesteaders first staked claims around Hot Sulphur Springs, at what is now the west end of town. "Back then, they used skis to feed cattle, deliver mail and babies, and navigate the nine-month winters that average 14 feet of snow," explains local historian Sureva Towler. "And there's plenty of evidence that people were using skis recreationally at that time, too."

Locals have been hosting winter festivals since the late 1800s. Those early celebrations were jammed with skating and sledding competitions. But in 1911, Norwegian ski jumping champion Carl Howelsen skied into town and convinced the festival's organizer to let him put on an exhibition. He built a takeoff of boxes and logs and introduced locals to his art. It was so popular that he was invited back the following year for the official First Annual Winter Carnival, now the oldest in the West. He returned again in 1913 and decided to settle in Steamboat-a decision that shaped the town's history.

In 1914, Howelsen spearheaded a two-day Ski Tournament that drew 20,000 spectators. On "The Flying Norseman's" advice, locals worked together to clear what is now called Howelsen Hill. They built a wood scaffold and takeoff (on the current site of the 70-meter jump) and Howelsen jumped 130 feet, wowing crowds and captivating the imagination of the valley's skiers. In the ensuing years, Howelsen donated endless time and energy to developing young locals into world-class skiers. By 1915, local athletes were launching off a 200-yard-long jump. By the time Howelsen returned to Norway in 1921, Steamboat's future course was set.

Since then, the town's two mountains-Howelsen Hill downtown and Steamboat Mountain Resort a mile east-have produced 52 Olympians. That's more than any other town in North America. Today Howelsen Hill is one of three international ski jumping complexes in North America. And while Steamboat Mountain Resort is now the area's main draw, Howelsen was the town's premier attraction for decades.

It wasn't until 1956 that local businessmen turned their attention toward Storm Mountain, the birthplace of Steamboat Mountain Resort. For the next five years, a handful of locals worked at acquiring funding and land, and started clearing runs. Storm Mountain opened on Dec. 22, 1961, with one poma lift. By 1965, an estimated $1.7 million had been spent on the area, and development was well under way. In 1964 it was renamed Mt. Werner Ski Area, for fallen son Buddy Werner, and then in July 1970 it was renamed Steamboat Ski Area. Since then, it's seen five new owners.

Because the ski area was built with local sweat, the community has an especially deep and affectionate bond with the mountain. Even today, residents still feel a strong sense of ownership. Every time the resort changes hands, they fret over whether the new owner is going to ss with "their" mountain. And so when the American Skiing Company-known for base-area real-estate developments and wholesale mountain makeovers-rode into town in August 1997, lassoing Steamboat as part of a bigger resort deal involving Heavenly, Calif., locals got nervous.

Some changes were met with general approval. Terrain expansions, for instance, were gladed rather than cleared. Others, such as staff cutbacks and a large real estate development near the base of the mountain, were met with anger and cynicism. The op-ed page of the Steamboat Pilot, one of three local papers, became a battlefield. Local residents wrote scathing letters about the company, and ASC representatives responded in kind. In March 1999, ASC Chairman and CEO Les Otten took out an ad in the paper in an earnest effort to make amends and win support. In an "Open Letter to the Local Community," he explained his company's operating style and conceded that it wasn't working in Steamboat. "Again, I apologize for the strained relationship that has developed between the company and the community," he wrote, "and intend to work hard to correct the situation."

The power of an olive branch is amazing. When you talked to locals at the start of the 1998 ski season, you got an earful of complaints. Just about anyone you spoke with could rattle off a list of ASC sins: The new management was mandating that instructors follow ASC's Perfect Turn program (they wouldn't); they were using longtime staffers to direct traffic in the lots; they had torn up a beloved hillside to build a monstrous hotel (the company's signature quarter-share project, in this case, the 327-room Grand Resort Hotel). ASC, the local gripe went, was heavy-handed and acted without sensitivity to Steamboat's tradition and the people who helped establish and uphold it. The discontent ran as deep as the resort's plentiful snow. "ASC came in and imposed itself on the community without any sensitivity to tradition, and that pissed a lot of people off," says Irene Nelson, an interior designer and part-time ski instructor of 30 years.

But over the past year, sentiment has started to turn. "At this point the community is still suspicious of ASC, but it's a very forgiving community made up of many people who have done things wrong. And the minute they start doing things right, they're forgiven," Nelson explains.

That much resort management has figured out. It's working to rebuild bridges. Instructors are no longer being made to teach by the Perfect Turn book, released staff have been rehired and the Grand Resort is here to stay. In an added act of community support, the resort only sells locally raised beef.

At the same time, the community is working hard to preserve the area's heritage. A newly established Community Agriculture Alliance works to protect ranch land and foster strategic partnerships between the resort and the agriculture community. In short, ASC's arrival may have brought some tough changes, but it has also spurred a sleepy community to action.

Only the most perceptive repeat visitors would have noticed the tension of the past few years. So only they will notice its absence. But even the least observant will be stunned by the way the resort looks. The most glaring changes have been to Ski Times Square, the resort's retail and lodging hub. Since 1997, three slopeside properties have been built (Christie Club, Sheraton Tower and Creekside at Torian Plum), adding 415 upscale units. And ASC's Grand Resort, at the entrance to the square, was just completed at the end of the summer. All are far more luxurious than what has traditionally been the norm. Once Steamboat was the antithesis of Vail-simple Western hospitality-and it drew like-minded skiers. Now the visitor base is more eclectic: At one end of the spectrum, budget-conscious motel skiers seek rock-bottom deals; at the other, millionaires expect a lavish experience. Both find what they're looking for. In the end, all come for the friendly, authentic Western atmosphere. And the world-class terrain. And, of course, that abundant Steamboat champagne powder.

While conditions were sparse at most Colorado resorts last season, Steamboat was the exception. From January to closing day on April 16, the mountain racked up more than 300 inches of snow, for a season total of 451, the most of any Colorado or Utah resort. And this is snow unlike any other. Most snow in the Rockies has a moisture content of 10 percent. Steamboat's snow, wrung dry by the high desert plateau, averages one-fifth that amount. This meteorological blessing translates into singularly amazing powder.

When dawn breaks to deep snow, locals press glass at the Silver Bullet gondola an hour before it opens. When the pearly doors slide apart, there's a collective whoop. It's an 11-minute ride to the mid-station, where the options are as bountiful as the snow. With 141 trails, 3,668 feet of vertical and 2,939 acres of terrain spread out over six peaks, Steamboat is the second largest ski area in Colorado. Over the past four years, 700-plus acres have been added. The Morningside Park expansion, completed in 1997, came first; then Pioneer Ridge in 1998. Prior to the expansions, both areas were the hike-to domain of local experts only; now they're playgrounds for all levels of skiers. The new Morningside triple chair accesses cruising on the backside of Storm Peak, as well as chutes and glades on the frontside. Pioneer Ridge is all rock-lined gullies and tight glades accessed by Pony Express, one of the mountain's four high-speed quads.

This is the quiet side of the mountain. Pioneer Ridge was sparsely cut, and within its narrow runs, all is silent. Uneven moguls hide beneath a new blanket of snow, but they're small and friendly. Telemarkers who used to stick to the Bar-U-E trees now come here to weave through the Ridge's pines. If you ski it the day a foot or more of snow falls, it's an experience apart. The only thing that will bring you back to reality is that fourth-hour burning in your thighs.

When the sensation becomes unbearable, give in and go for the valley's next greatest pleasure. Before Steamboat became a ski destination, visitors came to the town for the curative powers of its hot springs. Drive the winding 10 miles to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. There's no better way to rejuvenate tired muscles. Five years ago, the only rules around here were No Bottles and No Cameras. Now, the springs have been gentrified, and if you call in advance, you can schedule various types of massage. At night, however, the clothing-optional rule still applies.

For all the luxury amenities cropping up at the resort, downtown Steamboat, a mile from the lifts, retains its Old West charm. On the north side of Lincoln Avenue (the main drag) are the 100-year-old rodeo grounds, near the base of Howelsen Hill. On the other side is old town, where original Victorian architecture sets the tone. Walking down Lincoln early on a weekday morning, you still feel as if a cowboy on horseback might canter into town at any minute. Locals on the street are as likely to be ranchers as ski bums. Nobody wears fur; pickups outnumber SUVs; wolf-hybrids are common pets. The tide may have swept in some new money, but the core is still Old West. Which in this day of purpose-built resorts, is rare, indeed.me for the friendly, authentic Western atmosphere. And the world-class terrain. And, of course, that abundant Steamboat champagne powder.

While conditions were sparse at most Colorado resorts last season, Steamboat was the exception. From January to closing day on April 16, the mountain racked up more than 300 inches of snow, for a season total of 451, the most of any Colorado or Utah resort. And this is snow unlike any other. Most snow in the Rockies has a moisture content of 10 percent. Steamboat's snow, wrung dry by the high desert plateau, averages one-fifth that amount. This meteorological blessing translates into singularly amazing powder.

When dawn breaks to deep snow, locals press glass at the Silver Bullet gondola an hour before it opens. When the pearly doors slide apart, there's a collective whoop. It's an 11-minute ride to the mid-station, where the options are as bountiful as the snow. With 141 trails, 3,668 feet of vertical and 2,939 acres of terrain spread out over six peaks, Steamboat is the second largest ski area in Colorado. Over the past four years, 700-plus acres have been added. The Morningside Park expansion, completed in 1997, came first; then Pioneer Ridge in 1998. Prior to the expansions, both areas were the hike-to domain of local experts only; now they're playgrounds for all levels of skiers. The new Morningside triple chair accesses cruising on the backside of Storm Peak, as well as chutes and glades on the frontside. Pioneer Ridge is all rock-lined gullies and tight glades accessed by Pony Express, one of the mountain's four high-speed quads.

This is the quiet side of the mountain. Pioneer Ridge was sparsely cut, and within its narrow runs, all is silent. Uneven moguls hide beneath a new blanket of snow, but they're small and friendly. Telemarkers who used to stick to the Bar-U-E trees now come here to weave through the Ridge's pines. If you ski it the day a foot or more of snow falls, it's an experience apart. The only thing that will bring you back to reality is that fourth-hour burning in your thighs.

When the sensation becomes unbearable, give in and go for the valley's next greatest pleasure. Before Steamboat became a ski destination, visitors came to the town for the curative powers of its hot springs. Drive the winding 10 miles to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. There's no better way to rejuvenate tired muscles. Five years ago, the only rules around here were No Bottles and No Cameras. Now, the springs have been gentrified, and if you call in advance, you can schedule various types of massage. At night, however, the clothing-optional rule still applies.

For all the luxury amenities cropping up at the resort, downtown Steamboat, a mile from the lifts, retains its Old West charm. On the north side of Lincoln Avenue (the main drag) are the 100-year-old rodeo grounds, near the base of Howelsen Hill. On the other side is old town, where original Victorian architecture sets the tone. Walking down Lincoln early on a weekday morning, you still feel as if a cowboy on horseback might canter into town at any minute. Locals on the street are as likely to be ranchers as ski bums. Nobody wears fur; pickups outnumber SUVs; wolf-hybrids are common pets. The tide may have swept in some new money, but the core is still Old West. Which in this day of purpose-built resorts, is rare, indeed.