Optimism builds for ski season

Copper Mountain Resort is expecting a busy 2013-2014 season, after flat pass sales last year.

Copper Mountain Resort is expecting a busy 2013-2014 season, after flat pass sales last year.

It’s still weeks before the first snow flies, but Colorado’s ski resorts already are starting to build the hype — hoping that last season’s late snows bring this season’s early pass sales.

Resorts throughout the state have spent millions in the off season, prepping snow-making equipment and wishing for a better winter.

Some resorts have added new bars and restaurants, others have lowered the price of ski school for kids and still others are offering free ski days to kids 14 and younger. It all adds up to one goal: bringing more people to the Centennial State this winter.

“I think the overall message is that skiing isn’t necessarily as expensive as people think it is,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications manager at Arapahoe Basin. “We’re all working to keep prices down, to make it more affordable for families.”

Some of the 21 resorts associated with Colorado Ski Country USA, scattered from Telluride to Steamboat Springs, sent representatives to Colorado Springs a few weeks ago to tout the latest in prices and resort improvements.

In nearly every case, they were optimistic, coming off a mediocre ski season and a dismal one the year before that.

Arapahoe Basin

“We’re really excited about the 6th Alley Bar,” Isaac said. “It’s now the 6th Alley Bar and Grill. We spent $1 million renovating it. It’s not totally finished, but it will be finished by Thanksgiving.”

A-Basin’s bar is in its main A-frame building, meant to be temporary when first built in the 1960s. The remodel will fit more guests and feature a lunch menu as well as bar favorites. That’s part of A-Basin’s charm: Skiers don’t need the latest clothes or the fanciest equipment.

“We have kind of an ‘everybody’s welcome’ vibe,” Isaac said. “And we want to keep that going.”

The area did some upgrades to retain heat inside the building with environmentally friendly construction. Other investments include snow-making upgrades and a new snowcat, with the goal of opening terrain earlier in the season.

“But we’re still A-Basin,” she said. “We’re authentic. We’re comfortable. We’re come-as-you-are.”

And kids younger than 14 ski for free.

“It’s an extension of the fifth and sixth grade program,” Isaac said. “There are no blackout dates; we just want to make sure families know they can come here, and it’s affordable.”

Steamboat

Construction crews had a busy summer at Steamboat Springs. When it opens, the resort will showcase its biggest capital projects in a decade. There’s a new, 13,000-square-foot lodge on the mountain and a restaurant seating 200 and featuring an outdoor barbecue, indoor bar and a retail area.

“The lodge is three-fourths the way up the mountain,” said spokesman Michael Lane. “And we’ll have lights for night skiing for the first time. We’re also pretty excited about new flights — one from Seattle and expanded flights from Los Angeles and Dallas.”

Steamboat also added two new Bison groomers and upgraded its snow-making equipment. Preseason sales are “looking pretty good,” he said.

“We’ll open right around Thanksgiving,” he said. “And one of our big events features a Colorado Springs connection.”

Lane’s talking about the 40th annual Cowboy Downhill, a race featuring cowboys from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, whose Hall of Fame is in the Springs, and the Professional Bullriders. They compete to ski downhill, go over a jump and lasso a standing object. More than 100 cowboys take part in the January event, coinciding with Denver’s annual National Western Stock Show.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “People really love it.”

Winter Park

For skiers who like to get away from groomed areas, Winter Park has a new “Cirque Sled,” which spokeswoman Rachel Anderson says resembles Santa’s sleigh. Pulled by a snowcat, the sled takes skiers to the Cirque, an area of 1,332 acres of off-piste terrain. A pass for the sled costs $10 and is good for unlimited rides.

“The Cirque is safer than back-country skiing, because it’s maintained,” Anderson said. “But it’s still untracked powder; it’s steeper, more difficult, terrain. And now it’s easily accessible.”

Winter Park is also adding three snowcats and replacing its snowmaking pipe. The resort is offering a new four-pass with no blackout dates. It’s $179 and people can ski anytime they choose.

“People want to ski over Christmas, they want to ski at New Year’s,” she said. “And now they can, with this pass.”

Copper Mountain

No blackout dates seems to be the trend among Ski Country resorts. They’ve been removed from nearly all passes, including the $99 four-pass at Copper.

“If they buy them before Sept. 20, we add an extra day,” said Austyn Williams, public relations manager. “So it’s five days. This is a pretty good deal for us.”

Copper has added about $7 million in improvements, she said. The Storm King lift has been replaced with a new T-bar lift. There’s also a new “West Ridge Platter,” a surface lift that provides easier access to more terrain.

The Woodward at Copper Barn underwent a $500,000 renovation and now includes skis, snowboards, skateboards, BMX and slopestyle mountain bike terrain.

“We have a new foam pit, so it will help even beginners learn to access the terrain park,” Williams said. “We wanted to open it up to more people, more sports.”

But the trending topic at Copper: the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“We have the only full-length Alpine training center in the world,” Williams said. “And we have a partnership with the U.S. Ski Team. Some of the trials will be going on at Copper, and that always draws a crowd.”

Monarch

Monarch always has billed itself as the local ski mountain for Colorado Springs. Still small, it works to maintain that family-friendly atmosphere.

“We don’t want ever to shuttle people from the parking lot,” said Greg Ralph, director of marketing. “We pride ourselves in the fact you can walk from the parking lot right to the ski lifts, and there are seldom lift lines.”

To keep that tradition going, the resort added an acre of parking, 80 spaces. It’s also improved on the multi-million dollar base lodge that debuted in 2012-2013. There’s a new upper-level bar and a remodeled rental shop, part of preparation for an expanded ski area in coming years, Ralph said.

“If we’re going to be even busier than we already are, we had to start with some infrastructure improvements,” he said.

Soon, skiers will be able to ski on the back side of the mountain, which will include more intermediate terrain with trees and glades — not the wide-open terrain of the easier slopes.

“We’re going to add a lift so you can ski both sides of the Continental Divide,” Ralph said. “How cool is that?”

Telluride

Telluride is one of Colorado’s true destination resorts. People come from New York, Texas, Illinois and California to ski its slopes. And it can be a weekend destination for Springs residents, PR Manager Tom Watkinson said. “About 80 percent of our skiers come via airlines,” he said. “But we’re still driveable.”

To entice more visitors, the resort recently purchased the Inn at Lost Creek in the village of Telluride.

“It’s ski-out, ski-in from two lifts,” he said. “And it’s given us the opportunity to hold corporate conferences. We held a couple this summer, including the No Barriers conference, which was an awesome event for disabled athletes.”

The center can seat 500 people at dinner and hold 800 in its conference rooms.

“The goal is to stay sustainable, to get people out,” he said. “We’re adding to the experience.”

Aspen/Snowmass

Aspen expanded its terrain last year on Burnt Mountain, and this year completed renovations to Elk Camp Restaurant at Snowmass. During the off-season, the resort remodeled its five-star hotel, The Little Nell. The only five-star, five-diamond ski-in and ski-out lodging in Aspen, The Little Nell renovated two of its VIP suites this fall. Holly Hunt, who remade the guest rooms and lobby in 2009 also oversaw the remodeling.

Mount Crested Butte

The resort is focusing on family-friendly entertainment this year, said Erica Mueller, PR and communications manager for Mount Crested Butte, which is owned by a Vermont ski company.

New this year — a Waffle Cabin.

“It’s really popular in Vermont,” she said. “They have lines out the door. It smells so good, and people love it.”

The resort is also cutting new kid-specific trails that will give children the feeling of skiing through the forest. In addition, Mount Crested Butte will be building façades to create an “Elk Avenue” along one of the trails for children to ski through and play around. Mount Crested Butte has also added a ski-through bear cave and gold mining building for families.

Loveland

Every year, A-Basin and Loveland compete to be the first resorts open for skiers and snowboarders.

And Loveland is working this year to compete with other resorts by adding the first on-hill cabin and food service. The resort is also renovating the lodge at Loveland Basin and making it possible to accommodate an additional 320 guests.

Silverton

Silverton is the only ski resort in the state that offers heli-skiing — and bills itself as an “extreme adventurer’s paradise.”

Silverton now offers overnight heli-touring ski packages for $429 a person per day. The trips include a helicopter drop onto a peak with a guide, followed by a full day of skiing or snowboarding. Guests will then stay overnight in a North Face dome tent and sleeping bags, food and beverages are provided by guests. After another full day of skiing or snowboarding, an additional helicopter drops guests on a peak to ski down to the base.

Sunlight

Sunlight Mountain Resort has partnered with a local ski/snowboard/longboard manufacturer, Meier Skis. The ski company uses beetle kill wood from Colorado to produce its products — reducing wildfire risks and aiding productive forest growth.

Wolf Creek

The Wolf Creek Ski Area is replacing the Treasure Lift, its main lift that connects skiers to a wide variety of terrain. The new lift will make it easier to load and unload passengers.

The Elma Lift, Sports Center remodel, Race Hutch and Water Tank projects have been approved by the U.S. Forest Service and will have a two- to three-year completion time frame. Once finished, the Elma Lift will give skiers a way to get back to the base area and eliminate the long traverse across the mountain.

The Sports Center upgrade and remodel includes creating a two-story building and the existing Race Hutch will be rebuilt. The resort also plans to add a new 500,000-gallon steel water tank to make snow — and allow for summer fire-fighting. Wolf Creek was threatened by the South Park complex fire this summer.

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Skiing is big business in Colorado, one of the reasons these resorts are spending millions to attract new tourists to the state. According to some figures, the winter sports in Colorado bring 12 million people to the state — more than a fifth of all skier visits in the United States — and have an annual economic impact of $2.6 billion.

Resorts are trying harder than ever to compete for those ski visits, especially after last year’s flat season and the dismal snow levels in 2011. All signs, they say, are pointing toward a good year.

“We had late-season snow, and that tends to get people excited for the next year,” said Crested Butte’s Mueller. “Colorado has great snow, and the signs this year are hopeful. We certainly are seeing some pent-up demand.”