The skin track from the valley floor to Benchmark—a dome of snow towering above the condos and second homes of East Vail—is steep and arduous. So much so that hardly five minutes into the climb, my partner and I already are ditching layers, overheating despite temperatures in the low teens. The first storms of the season have filled the bowls and chutes above us with untracked powder, muffling the murmur of Gore Creek below as we grunt higher into the alpine.
The terrain here is convoluted. Red rock cliffs offer a stunning juxtaposition to the green of pines slumbering beneath a downy blanket of snow. With skins on our backcountry skis we ascend higher, avoiding obvious avalanche paths funneling into tree-choked gullies. To be caught in a slide and swept into one of these terrain traps would be fatal, despite the self-rescue gear—beacons, probes, and shovels—we carry.
An hour later as we crest the final ridge, we’re greeted with a malevolent icy wind, which quickly makes us question the wisdom of even being here. Far below, the parallel ribbons of Interstate 70 snake west from the Gore Range to the Main Vail exit, the long-haul truck drivers, resort workers, and tourists oblivious to our presence, two bright dots lost in a crown of white. If I squint, I can see the roof of my home.
Locals know this sidecountry oasis as the East Vail Chutes. A maze of avalanche funnels, bowls, and timbered slopes, it’s a prime backcountry skiing zone, seemingly remote yet ridiculously easy to access, a short walk from the bus stop on Main Gore Drive, or a 15-minute uphill hike from the resort exit gate at the top of the Poma lift in Siberia Bowl. It’s vertiginous, deep, and wild, the kind of expert-only terrain that—if it was ever commercialized and opened to the public—would put Vail Mountain on the map as finally having the adrenaline-fueled steeps that the resort currently lacks. The skiable lines are numerous and varied, the most obvious just below Benchmark is Abraham’s, a series of relatively short, slide-prone pitches punctuated by large flat benches. Head east across the ridge, and there’s impressive tree skiing with open glades carved out by avalanches (bearing gulp-worthy monikers like “Charlie’s Death Chutes”). East Vail is beautiful and wonderful and often sees double the reported snowfall of Vail Mountain, thanks to windloading and a “choke” effect as storms bounce off the towering Gore Range and are forced through the narrow gap of Vail Pass as they flow eastward.
But should close-in wilderness terrain like this be absorbed into the resort’s boundaries? Or is the prospect of a 32nd chair serving East Vail just a fantasy like several other “dream lifts,” including the holy grail—a gondola connecting Vail to Beaver Creek—that, like snowflakes on a stiff wind, remain swirling ideas shared during après-ski bull sessions and over late-night cocktails. A chairlift in East Vail? Sure, why not? In fact, the concept was first voiced by Vail co-founder Pete Seibert, who envisioned the terrain above the homes that dot the resort’s easternmost neighborhood as an ideal location for a World Cup downhill venue, with a tram running straight up the gut of the Chutes.
After we rip skins, lock down our heels, and huck ourselves into Abraham’s, powder swirling around our knees, it becomes apparent that while the Chutes may be idyllic for recreational powder skiing, it’s not exactly the kind of terrain that works for downhill racing. From Benchmark, we’ll descend roughly 3,000 vertical feet to the first homes on Snowshoe Lane, and the nearby bus that takes us back into town, then ride lifts to Siberia Bowl to lap it again or kick back and savor the experience with cold beers and hot slices at Vendetta’s.
With all that powder beckoning, the number of skiers and snowboarders dropping into East Vail, with or without the sweat and tears of a long approach and with or without avalanche gear and the knowledge to use it, has skyrocketed over the past decade—now reaching an estimated average of 300 users per day, especially when all the pow’ to be had inbounds has been tracked out. Paradoxically, just when conditions seem optimal in East Vail, the danger is most extreme. With no avalanche control, slides here can be massive and deadly (witness the 2014 incident that claimed the life of Tony Pardee Seibert, grandson of Vail’s co-founder).
There’s little doubt that lift access would make this area safer for skiers—the resort’s ski patrol would control the terrain and close it when avalanche risk was too high—but opening East Vail to all comers would also create new challenges, such as siting a base area in a densely populated neighborhood where residents already bristle at the daily conga line of backcountry skiers cutting through yards to get to the bus stop.
Since East Vail remains outside Vail’s US Forest Service–approved operational area, annexing the terrain would present a nightmare of permitting hurdles for Vail Resorts, including potential environmental litigation (this is protected lynx habitat) and other issues already bedeviling the Vail Village and Lionshead base areas, like parking. And then there’s the fact that new ski lifts and new terrain rarely make economic sense when a publicly held corporation’s accountants start taking a close look at the numbers.
“You have to look at the additional money you’d make from putting in a new lift,” says Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management magazine, who has spent decades covering resort area expansions, lifts, and lift technology. “If you put a restaurant at the top of East Vail and it also becomes a summer tourist attraction, maybe it pencils.”
Kahl notes that Vail’s newest lift, Chair 9 (Sun Up Express, which opened this season), was an investment that most resorts couldn’t justify but was deemed reasonable here because it replaced an aging lift and because, well, Vail is Vail.
“The problem with bean counters and lifts at most ski areas,” notes Kahl, “is that they say, ‘we have an old rickety thing that’s running, so why should we put in a new lift? It doesn’t pencil out.’ But I would say you have to replace that lift. The longer you let it run, the more you have to spend on maintenance.”
“In Vail’s case,” he adds, “it’s different. You have already been increasing your lift revenues because you have been selling Epic passes. And the Vail clientele is high-end. So if you are going to charge $800 for a season pass or $180 a day, you damn well better offer a good product.”
In other words, as Kahl sees it, at Vail, old triple chairlifts don’t cut it. Nor does embarking on an extended and costly battle to expand into terrain and install lifts that only appeal to a small, core group of skiers.
That sentiment is echoed by Vail Mountain Senior Communications Manager Sally Gunter, who notes that in the immediate future, lift investment at Vail will be focused on upgrading existing infrastructure rather than expanding it. By way of example, she cites the planned replacement of Chair 11, currently a high-speed quad, with a high-speed six-pack during the summer of 2017. Nevertheless, more than a few residents of Minturn would rather see that money spent on a lift connecting their economically challenged hometown—a historic railroad hub that’s the only authentic frontier town in the valley—with Vail Mountain.
Chasing that dream lift, a week after my East Vail Chutes excursion, I exit a resort gate just off Lost Boy on the western edge of Vail Mountain, onto a popular backcountry run known as the Minturn Mile. It’s still early in the day, and I’m the only one there. Unlike East Vail, the gently pitched meadows on this route rarely avalanche, and there are no large cliff bands to navigate. I ski to the bottom of the first pitch, stop, put on my climbing skins, and tour back up to carve more turns in the virgin powder. Later, dozens of skiers and snowboarders will follow my tracks and, like me, at the bottom they’ll head out the long, winding drainage, shoulder their skis, and clomp down the street to the Minturn Saloon, one of the valley’s most venerable watering holes. Those who aren’t lucky enough to call Minturn home, and haven’t planned ahead and left cars in town, face the prospect of hitching a ride or catching a bus back to the resort. But on a powder day, that seems like a small price to pay for fresh tracks and a cold one at the end of one of the most memorable runs in Vail.
If you’ve never skied the Minturn Mile, the terrain is similar to Vail’s Back Bowls: challenging enough for experts to have fun but also manageable for strong intermediates who don’t mind mixed snow conditions. It’s about as close to the European experience of skiing from village to village as you’ll find in Colorado. And it would be one of the prime runs that skiers would use should the ultimate dream lift—a gondola connecting Vail to Beaver Creek—ever come to fruition. Meadow Mountain, a public transit hub just north of town, was once home to a small ski area in the 1960s and long has been deemed a logical gondola midpoint. The caveat is that since the two-lift Meadow Mountain ski area shuttered in 1969, the area has become adored by locals as a prime spot for snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ski touring. Given opposition to a recent proposal to develop Meadow Mountain (half the town’s population signed a petition against it), it’s unlikely that Meadow would ever revert to lift-served ski area status. But if the US Forest Service vacates its headquarters building there as anticipated, perhaps Meadow Mountain may have a future not as a ski resort but as an aerial transit hub and full-service gondola waystation (with public restrooms open on weekends and a dining room/lodge, which the area now lacks) for commuters, resort skiers, and backcountry recreationists.
Ski lifts as public transportation aren’t a new idea. Telluride’s free mass transit gondola links that historic mining town with the ski area’s recently completed Mountain Village development, shuttling locals and tourists between the two destinations (by way of a mid-station that’s home to the popular Allred’s Restaurant, which does a hopping bar and dinner business, no valet parking needed) until midnight during the ski season. And in Colombia, the city of Medellin’s extensive Metrocable system features three gondola lines that transport more than 30,000 people per day. (Closer to home, the City of Portland’s $57 million aerial tram ferries more than a million riders a year between that city’s tony South Waterfront District to the top of Marquam Hill—just 500 vertical feet over little more than a half mile—since it opened a decade ago.)
According to Kahl, with most resorts trying to get every last mile out of existing lifts, public transportation opportunities are what make traditional ski lift manufacturers like Doppelmayr (which built Portland’s tram) and Poma optimistic when it comes to the future.
“This type of use for an aerial lift or a gondola is something that lift companies are pushing,” says Kahl. “And it’s common already in some parts of the world. A gondola can be a good way to get people up or down a steep hill, where public transportation doesn’t work very well, and it gets people, cars, and buses off the streets.”
For some residents of Eagle-Vail, including Eagle-Vail Metropolitan District board member David Warner (who ran for election in 2015 on a platform that included exploring the prospects of a ski lift linking that golf course neighborhood with Beaver Creek), that’s the point. However, a transportation tax that could have partially funded that project failed by fewer than 30 votes in November, leaving advocates unsure about how to proceed. Warner, however, isn’t deterred.
“We’re not giving up on it,” he vows. “We’re going to continue to pursue the lift.”
Aside from taking perhaps a thousand cars off the street (assuming residents garage their rides and walk to the chairlift, which would start at the EagleVail Golf Club’s 18th green and end near the last switchback on the Cinch catwalk above Allie’s Cabin), Warner says an Eagle-Vail lift promises other benefits, including an increase in property values for homeowners, and the ability to repurpose and wring revenue from the community’s golf clubhouse and restaurant, shuttered during the winter, as a base lodge. “We have to do a better job of presenting this to the community,” Warner adds. “People are concerned about the impacts of this in the winter, but it’s no different than what we have already in the summer in regards to traffic from golf, tennis, and swimming.”
But building a community swimming pool is one thing. Permitting a ski lift is another.
“It’s not a new idea,” notes Aaron Mayville of the proposed Eagle-Vail–to–Beaver Creek link. “It’s been around since Beaver Creek was established.” Still, says Mayville, who is the district ranger for the US Forest Service’s Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, the environmental, cost, and other issues are “very large hurdles to overcome.”
“I won’t go so far as to say it will never happen,” he adds. “But it would take years if it ever happened at all.”
For backcountry enthusiasts, a lift in Eagle-Vail would be a boon. As at East Vail, every day during the winter, powder-seekers exit Beaver Creek’s Rose Bowl and ski down to the neighborhood via the Stone Creek drainage. A lift would allow fast and easy laps (and eliminate a long walk to the bus stop, and an even longer ride back to the resort).
That’s also the case in Minturn, where the thought of connecting lifts to Vail and Beaver Creek makes those who run the Mile salivate: a lift at the bottom would provide options (making laps, or sampling another resort) other than walking to a bar or bus. But with industry figures like Kahl and Mayville pointing out the challenges of building new lifts, Vail Resorts bean counters keeping a relentless eye on the bottom line, and local voters skeptical of new taxes, skiers and snowboarders will probably just have to keep hiking to their dream lines because, for now and the foreseeable future, those dream lifts remain just that: a dream.