This makes me wonder – as does our ancestors’ evolution right out of a perfectly useful tail (just think about the possibilities!) – what “progress” is, exactly.
And yet when my beloved home hill of Arapahoe Basin announced the huge expansion into The Beavers and Steep Gullies—30 percent bigger, with previous extreme backcountry terrain now lift-accessible—I didn’t worry. Not because anything by the name of Beaver makes me laugh, which of course it does, but because A-Basin – with its free parking, A-frame lodge, zero cell service, hunter-gatherer vibe, and the double Pallavicini chair that plods proudly into the clouds—is and will always be the anti-resort. You’ll find no Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton here, or any lodging at all, for that matter. But pop-up campers, Coleman grills, and more retro gear than a ski swap? You betcha. Yes, change is always hard, but if anyone could do it without actually changing, it would be A-Basin.
It becomes clear to me on my first lap in the new zone, however, that all the locals do not agree. I’m slaloming trees and bumps in the run-out with the A-Basin girls—Adrienne Saia Isaac, former marketing and communications manager, and Whitney Henceroth, events and marketing manager and daughter of the resort’s inimitable CEO, A-Basin Al—and as we skate past a dirtbag with a neck beard, we catch the end of his rant to his even dirtier bro.
“It’s already ruined, man,” he whines just before power-wedging between two trees.
Isaac hears it too, and shakes her head. “Most people have been pretty supportive, but we still get that.”
I wonder how anyone could have his panties in a bunch after getting first tracks in nine fresh inches on top of eight the day before in the best Colorado terrain I have skied in recent memory. Then again, he did just get passed by a bunch of girls. But as I swallow the urge to offer him a Kleenex, I remember how I felt when the Montezuma lift opened in 2007, opening up an amphitheater of former backcountry terrain for all the fat-skis masses to plunder.
Of course, I understand wanting fresh powder all to yourself. But I’ve learned a couple thins over my 42 years on this planet: a) we all have far bigger things to worry about and b) to resist change is to try to hold on to a fistful of sand. And besides, if it’s solitude you’re after, well, there are a lot of other mountains without chairlifts around these parts.
The Beavers are perfect treeless bowls that serve up fresh pow on a wide, glittering apron. Having gotten among the first chairs, we didn’t cross a track until we got down to the traverse—a spicy luge that obviously eats neck beards for breakfast. We traverse under the Steep Gullies, which remains hike-out-only even now that the lift is up, and the girls point out the ones we can see.
“Two is the widest and mellowest,” says Henceroth, a former ski racer who attacks the fall line like a snow leopard chasing a grouse. She points up to it, a beautiful gladed swath with a handful of tracks. “Six through eight are narrow, steep, and more treed.”
We reach the bottom, and we throw our skis on our packs for the 20-minute burn up the catwalk to the bottom of the Palli lift. As we hike, we catch Isaac’s and Henceroth’s friends coming down the Steep Gullies. They’re young and strong, and they make me reminisce about the days when I was a ski town local…before cell phones were a thing.
“My sister called today to tell me that her water broke,” one of them said. “I was, like, ‘Ew, that’s gross.”
We laugh and I think about my own progeny, my 10-year-old daughter, Cate, whom I left crying silent tears in her goggles at the ski school corral this morning. The cycle happens every time—when I pick her up at the end of the day, she’ll be bursting to show me all the runs she skied.
Isaac and I are at the back of the pack—”I’m doing pretty well for the Clydesdale division,” she jokes on account of her long legs—and I’m trying to ask her questions, to keep her talking so I can focus on breathing. She tells me before they started doing avy control back there, there were days when 200 people would ski through the gates. Over the years, there were six avalanche fatalities in that area – five in the Steep Gullies, one in The Beavers – one reason A-Basin fought so hard to make the expansion happen.
“The Steep Gullies have a dark history of some bad avy accidents,” CEO Al Henceroth told me a few days earlier. “And our patrol would get called out on dangerous rescues. We felt strongly that it had to change.”
Safety aside, the elder Henceroth maintains The Beavers expansion had been a long time coming. “I have a trail map from 1947,” he said, “and the early A-Basin founders identified The Beavers right away. We’ve been thinking about it seriously for 20 years.”
We round a bend and see the bottom of Palli Wog, and we click back in to ski to the lift. The line is short, especially for a powdery Saturday, and we run into Louis Skowyra, slopes maintenance manager, the guy who oversees the glading and design of the new terrain. I ask him how the expansion has gone over in the local community.
“This vibe—” he gestures to a pack of 10 or so dogs running around on The Beach, ears flapping up and down and rolling around in the snow—”has been here since 1946,” he says, “We haven’t lost our identity.”
He’s not being defensive. Ok, maybe a little, but after three years of back-and-forth with the U.S. Forest Service to get the expansion approved, who can blame him?
“All the ‘ologists’ in the world had to go walk around out there,” says Skowyra, looking over his shoulder for the double chair to swing around. “A-Basin’s been working on this expansion for decades. First there was Montezuma bowl in ’07, and now it’s The Beavers and Gullies in ’17-’18.”
Skowyra has been there since 2006. (“Some of the groomers have been here 40 years,” he says. “We get good people who like it here.”) He’s put in his time, and is now reaping the rewards—flagging, GPS-ing, and skiing these lines over and over to figure out what’s in his way. “Once in a career are you able to pick your line, enhance it, then ski that line for the rest of your life with your kids and grandkids.”
In terms of the resort’s agreement with the Forest Service, Skowyra says they’re committed to leave the new terrain as natural as possible, cutting down only the trees that are necessary. “They tell us to take 20 percent, and we take 5. We leave it the way Mother Nature intended it to be. We take terrain that might scare you in the backcountry and we make it more accessible.”
Down below, off West Turbo, we see a kid who’s younger than mine ripping through the uneven, rocky bumps, and I wonder if I was too generous about my daughter’s ability in her ski-school form. “Skis blacks with confidence” should probably have been “skis blacks rarely and with many tears, regardless of any promises of cocoa, whipped cream, cake, or ponies.”
“Every day here I see someone half my age and twice my age, and they’re crushing it,” says Skowyra. He’s right—the committed come here, because, well, skiing is the only thing to do here. The closest lodging is in Keystone, down the road, and because A-Basin’s base area is public land, that’s likely never going to change.
SKI Resort Guide 2021: Arapahoe Basin, No. 18 in the West
We get off the lift and ski part way down to the entrance to the Steep Gullies. I am following the younger Henceroth and we pause for a moment to survey our line on the Fourth Gully. It’s a chute so steep even two tracks rip all the snow off it. “Let’s hike up to Three,” she says, “It’ll be less tracked.” We skitch across a rocky traverse and, sure enough, the only thing marring the snow are the bomb holes and metal-gray dust from the avy explosives. It’s the real deal, for experts only – even then, they should only come back here with someone who knows the terrain. A steep and narrow couloir that threads between big spires and rocks and dumps into tight trees – it reminds me of some of the lines in Jackson Hole’s Granite Canyon.
Henceroth gives me the nod, which no doubt pains her slightly, and I take first tracks in greedy jump turns.
Patrick O’Sullivan, director of risk management, clearly has food on the brain. Over lunch of grilled salmon and shared waffle fries at mid-mountain Black Mountain Lodge – another one of A-Basin’s improvements over the last decade – he likens the ski area’s terrain to a combo platter, a jumbo shrimp, and a spicy buffet all in the space of a few minutes.
“If the [East] Wall is still cooking,” he says, his ice blue eyes glittering, “hit Zuma, then you can spirograph-tour around and hit all different kinds of things off the 360-degree summit, You can get everywhere from patrol HQ, and it’s all got its own flavor. We punch above our weight in terms of acreage.”
He’s right, of course. There are so many different zones here that it skis so much bigger than its now 1,4280 acres, all situated around a 13,000-foot summit – some of the highest resort terrain in North America.
According to O’Sullivan, there’s still a lot that’s unknown with the new expansion. “Zuma changed the flow of the mountain dramatically,” he says, referring to the huge Montezuma expansion into the backside in 2007 that nearly doubled its existing acreage. “It’ll be interesting to see how this change compares.”
A-Basin’s skier visits increased dramatically with the Montezuma expansion, and increased again when The Beavers opened without a lift last season. This brings up the issue of parking, which is namely that there is not enough. When the upper lots (a mouth-breathing hike at the end of the day that has catalyzed more than one of my child’s full-body meltdowns) fill up nearly every weekend, they shunt people to pull-outs down valley and bus them up. And because there is no space to build more parking, A-Basin will have to work harder to find solutions. “We’ll put a big focus on carpools and the bus,” O’Sullivan says, an answer that is both frustrating and refreshing at the same time.
I wake up early the next morning in our Dillon condo to the pine trees out the window draped in fresh snow. I look up the snow report on my phone: nine more inches. I pad barefoot into the room my daughter’s in and crawl into bed, scooting behind her to cuddle. She wakes for a second, then her breaths get rhythmic again as she falls back to sleep. I briefly contemplate putting her in ski school for another day, but I don’t want to miss her first legit powder day.
We lie there for another 15 minutes or so, and then I rub her back and wake her to start getting ready. She immediately sits up and picks up the old-school phone—plugged into the wall!—by the side of the bed and studies it. “What does ‘flash’ do?” she says, putting the receiver to her ear.
We make it to the A-frame early enough to go inside for breakfast. There are all kinds of skis already pitched against the racks—from retro 210 cm KVC Comps to shiny new fat skis collecting the huge flakes that are still falling. It’s like a living ski museum.
“I feel like a walking puff ball,” Cate says on account of her hand-me-down ski jacket, and tries to put her arms down by her sides.
The 6th Alley Bar is busy – people are drinking bloodies and getting pumped about the pow. We order eggs, crispy bacon, and biscuits from the friendliest resort cook ever, and find a seat under the spider plants hanging in the windows. Cate has snuck a Rice Crispy treat that’s bigger than her head on her tray, and I ask her how she’s going to carry that in her pocket. She tilts her head and says, “Well, I’ll just have to have dessert after breakfast.” “That’s reasonable,” I reply.
We stash our pack with our shoes and snacks in it near the wall and head out and get in line at the Black Mountain Express quad, and Cate’s already listing the runs she wants to ski, psyched to show off what she skied yesterday in ski school. She usually takes far more than pocket-candy bribes to motivate, so I’m trying – hard – to play it cool.
“I bet Slalom and Powder Keg are gonna be good, Mom. Wanna ride up Palli?”
“The line is pretty long…” I say, swallowing a smile.
“Yeah, but it’s worth it,” she says, and plants her poles purposefully in the snow.
We skate over to Palli, and once we’re mid-way I point out the entrance to The Beavers. “Mom, they call it ‘The Beav,'” she says, her eye roll visible even beneath her goggles.
We get off and I follow her through the pow – knee-deep for her – to Slalom and Powder Keg. It’s perfect for her because she doesn’t really have to turn to slow down, and soon we find ourselves stuck on a knoll, laughing, because we didn’t have enough speed. She starts to sidestep and then falls over, still laughing, and suddenly every single one of the tearful days of our past feels worth it.
I sidestep next to her and pull her up, and then she follows in my tracks to the top. “Mom, come this way. There’s a jump over here.”
I allow myself a small fantasy, about a few years from now, when she might follow me into “The Beav.” She might even be happy about it. And then I think more about evolution. How even though you might miss things the way they used to be, a shiny new thing is always right around the corner.
Then I vow to stop thinking, and just follow her into the trees, where she’ll probably throw her legs into a pizza, and where surely we’ll get stuck again. But maybe, just maybe, she’ll still be laughing.
Trip Planner: Arapahoe Basin
Where to Sleep
There’s no lodging at the base of A-Basin, so the closest digs are down U.S. 6/Loveland Pass in Dillon, either at or near Keystone Resort. At Keystone, village condos range in size from studios up to four bedrooms, with kitchenettes or full kitchens. River Run village is home to the most restaurants, bars, and shops, and all the bustle that comes along with that. The Mountain House base boasts the huge Keystone Lake ice rink. Those looking for the best value should seek out options in the Forest neighborhood. Keystone’s Ski Tip Lodge is a charming, knick-knack filled B&B with a welcoming vibe. A little further afield but closer to the outlet shopping, grocery stores, and civilization, Dillon and Silverthorne lodging options range from budget hotels to condo complexes galore.
At A-Basin, the Legends Café, a.k.a. the A-Frame cafeteria, makes a mean made-to-order egg sandwich for breakfast. Don’t miss the house-smoked barbecue for lunch at the Black Mountain Lodge—you can’t go wrong with any of the menu offerings. We love the pulled pork sandwich and sweet potato fries. For an upscale meal, make a reservation at the Ski Tip Lodge or Keystone Ranch. If the timing is right, don’t miss A-Basin’s Moonlight Dinners at the Black Mountain Lodge, offered on six nights throughout the season.
Shuttles to A-Basin run from various points around Keystone, as well as through the town bus service in Dillon and Silverthorne. Check with your accommodations on additional transportation to the ski area to avoid the parking lot schlep.
We’re happy to report that former SKI Mag editor Kimberly Beekman no longer has to bribe her kid to ski on powder days.
Originally published in the January/February 2019 print edition of SKI Magazine.
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