One Perfect Day In Blue Sky Basin

With wide-open bowls, powder-choked glades, and a no-frills day lodge modeled after a 10th Mountain Division hut, Blue Sky Basin lets skiers and boarders experience the thrills of the backcountry without taking the risks. Join them.

By Devon O'Neil February 1, 2016 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2016 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Super Bowl XVI

Realizing the promise of a powdery wilderness tract south of the Back Bowls

“That’s Super Bowl,” Eaton remembers saying to his friends. “It’s going to be developed someday.”

Thinking back now, the 51-year-old Eaton concedes, “It always just seemed like a faraway dream.” But he and Pete Jr. knew the plan their fathers, Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert, had devised upon discovering Vail in 1957. When they applied for their original permit, the resort’s founders did not include only the terrain they planned to open right away. They included everything they ever hoped to develop, be it in five years or 50. That meant China Bowl, Siberia Bowl, and Mongolia Bowl to the east and, perhaps most notable, Super Bowl to the south.

“Dad and Pete had all these grandiose ideas in the beginning,” says Carl Eaton, who has worked at Vail or Beaver Creek for 32 years. “Blue Sky was in their maps and drawings and thoughts from Day 1.” The fulfillment of their vision spanned decades and continued long after the two founders had sold Vail and moved on with their lives. But neither ventured all that far away. So on January 6, 2000, when Vail finally opened Blue Sky Basin to the public after years of exploratory cat-skiing missions and developing the runs to suit every ability, there were Pete and Earl, families in tow, cutting the blue ribbon to culminate their grandiose plans.

“My dad had the flu, and he was kind of slow, so we skied along the Sleepytime catwalk with him and the kids at our own pace,” Pete Siebert Jr. recalled while riding the Skyline Express this January. “We had to make our way through this huge crowd to get to the front, right there at the bridge, where they cut the ribbon. Then everybody went nuts: ‘Let’s go ski it!’”

Although only Earl’s Bowl opened that day (Pete’s Bowl, just east of the corniced ridge that divides Earl’s from Pete’s, opened the following year), Blue Sky in its totality would add 19 percent more terrain to Vail’s already massive tenure. It cost $20 million to develop, which seems like a bargain now given the infrastructure involved—three chairlifts and a rustic lodge at Belle’s Camp—as well as the cost of cutting the runs.

At Blue Sky: Vail cofounder Pete Seibert Sr., his son “Circle” and grandson “Three Pete”

Whereas it might have taken half a day to reach Blue Sky if it had been developed in the ’70s, by the turn of the millennium slow, fixed-grip double chairlifts had been replaced by high-speed quads, including three in Blue Sky. Today, skiers and snowboarders can carve around aspen, pine, and fir trees before riding one of the quads back to the top at roughly 11,500 feet in elevation.

During Blue Sky’s development, plenty of people questioned whether Vail—already the biggest resort in America—really needed another ski zone. But as Pete Seibert Jr. tells it, critics were missing the point that had driven the resort all along. Anyone who said Vail already had enough terrain was spreading what Seibert believed to be “an uneducated idea of what is enough skiing.”

“One of the things that makes Vail great is the way you move around,” Pete Jr. says. “I’ve worked a lot of different areas and skied a lot of areas, but what we lack in steeps—like you might find in Jackson Hole or Aspen Highlands—we make up for in breadth. We can start in the morning, ski all day, and not repeat ourselves. The broader the experience, the better. That’s what my dad believed, and it’s a lot of what Blue Sky is all about.”


How Blue Sky survived the crucible of environmental protest

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Two Elk Lodge consumed by flames.  

Nobody who saw it will ever forget the black plume of smoke and bright orange glow that hovered above Vail Mountain on the morning of October 19, 1998. Something enormous was burning at 11,200 feet.

Mike McWilliam, the on-call detective with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office that day, remembers looking east from his home in Edwards and seeing the flames.

“I saw two huge glows on the mountain, and I knew two giant structures had to be on fire,” recalls McWilliam, now the county’s undersheriff. “Originally they talked about it being a wildland fire, but we had snow that night, an inch or two of snow, and I’m like, There’s no way that could’ve happened.”

Soon he and everyone else in the valley would learn the truth: an ecoterrorist cell that called itself the Family had set fire overnight to eight structures along a mile of Vail Mountain’s ridgeline, including four chairlifts, Two Elk Lodge, and Ski Patrol Headquarters (PHQ), destroying the drive station of the High Noon lift, gutting the buildings, and causing $12 million in damage. The Family quickly claimed responsibility for the fires—which, members wrote in an e-mail, were set to protest the development of Blue Sky Basin. The arsons became the most infamous (and destructive) among dozens of crimes the Family committed around the West in the name of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) or the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

They also came at the end of a series of protests in Vail, carried out by various individuals and groups, many of whom were young environmentalists camped where Two Elk Creek meets the Eagle River south of Minturn. Not long before the arsons, a protester had built a tipi to block Gitalong Road at the top of Pepi’s Face and thus prevent service vehicles from accessing the mountain. Two other men ran out of the woods and handcuffed themselves to a vehicle that had come to remove the first man’s tipi. 

At least some of the discontent could be tied to the Canada lynx, a rare, 20- to 30-pound cat that once roamed the Colorado Rockies but disappeared from the state in the mid-1970s—when, not coincidentally, mountain development began to boom. Many believed that Blue Sky Basin was prime lynx habitat and that building chairlifts and ski runs would ruin it.

Overwhelmed by the scope of destruction from the fires, McWilliam called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Denver and asked for help. The ATF called in two national response teams to aid the investigation. Then the FBI showed up. “I’m not sure how they got involved,” McWilliam says, “but I think they probably saw it on CNN.” Before long, more than 100 law enforcement officers were working the case, chasing leads and ruling out suspects.

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The smoldering ruins on the morning after

Image: Jack Affleck

“We looked into all sorts of possibilities; there were rumors of disgruntled ex-employees, and there were rumors even that Vail Resorts had burned it down for insurance fraud,” McWilliam says. “But we were able to rule all of those out and come to the conclusion that it was these ecoterrorists from the Pacific Northwest.”

The FBI and ATF worked the case for seven years (McWilliam spent three himself) before making their first arrests. Other indictments followed. The prime conspirator, William “Avalon” Rodgers, who owned a bookstore in Prescott, Arizona, had allegedly run along the ridge igniting the buildings one by one with fuel hauled up and cached on the mountain days earlier. Rodgers later killed himself in his jail cell. McWilliam is still amazed no one was hurt.

“If somebody had been at PHQ, where they usually have somebody living, they would’ve been killed. Or if someone had been working late at Two Elk, they would’ve been killed. Because [he] lit the fires from the outside of the building, and it burned in,” McWilliam says.

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Courtesy colorado department of natural resources

As for the lynx (pictured below), a reintroduction program delivered 218 of the cats to southwest Colorado between 1999 and 2006. They have since populated mountain ranges throughout the state. Bill Andree, district wildlife manager for Vail, says lynx or their tracks have been sighted around Shrine Pass, up and down the Highway 24 corridor, and in the Lime Creek drainage just south of Blue Sky Basin. “We know that we have lynx in that part of Eagle County and that they’ve successfully produced kittens,” Andree says. Vail is not alone. Earlier this winter in Silverton, two lynx were even photographed running across a ski run.


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FBI file photo; courtesy colorado department of natural resources


Unarrested Development


Deconstructing Blue Sky Basin’s terrain puzzle, piece by piece

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Blue Sky Basin’s 645 skiable acres can seem daunting, especially if it’s your first visit to the terrain. To simplify things, think of the area as two big bowls: Pete’s and Earl’s. Pete’s generally includes anything to the east of Belle’s Camp (Blue Sky’s rustic lodge), while Earl’s encompasses anything to the west. The north-facing runs between the two bowls, below what some refer to as Blue Sky’s “nose,” serve as a sort of middle third, albeit smaller than the other two thirds.

The steepest terrain sits directly under Skyline Express and is mostly visible from the lift. Earl’s Bowl offers a backcountry-esque menu of low-angle open slopes, with gladed terrain on either side. Champagne Glade is the signature run in Earl’s Bowl, with well-spaced tree shots running more or less from top to bottom. You will want to ride Earl’s Express while skiing or riding Earl’s Bowl; it takes you from the bottom of the drainage back to the top in a short time. Earl’s Bowl also includes unpatrolled, uncontrolled, cliff-rimmed runs above the resort’s southern boundary that you can access only after passing through a backcountry exit point near the top of the lift.

Pete’s Bowl, meanwhile, serves up a wide variety of intermediate and advanced terrain, including two of the signature groomed runs at Vail: Grand Review and Big Rock Park. Each winds through widely spaced old-growth trees on a mellow pitch. Whereas the moguls in areas like Lover’s Leap and Steep and Deep can grow to the size of Galapagos tortoises on steroids, rarely do you find big bumps with deep troughs off of Pete’s Express. This is where you go to relax in Blue Sky—to soak up sunny rays and cruise. Of course, Pete’s Bowl also offers adrenaline via short, steep pitches like the aforementioned Lover’s Leap, a good place to test your cliff-jumping skills on a day with fresh snow. Just make sure the landing zone is rock-free.

“It’s fun to be able to pick out where you want to drop off the cornice and have a nice steep pitch below you,” Pete Seibert Jr. says. “Then you can wander into the trees a bit. I love going out to Iron Mask on a good snow day.”

Skyline is the most popular and versatile lift in Blue Sky, since you can use it to access runs for all abilities and in both Pete’s and Earl’s bowls. It also exposes you to a wicked west wind on chilly days, so bundle up before you get above the trees. One other thing to remember about Blue Sky: it isn’t the best place to rack up vertical feet, if that’s your thing. You tend to do a lot of traversing at the bottom of each run. But don’t fight that. Instead, embrace the catwalk like a lazy river, and go with the flow. It’s a nice chance to clear your head.

When it’s time to head back to civilization, or at least back to the rest of the mountain, take Orient Express or Tea Cup Express. Either lift delivers you to the ridge that separates Vail’s frontside from its back. From there, you could really go anywhere.


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The view from Lover’s Leap: Pete’s Express, Grand Review, and the Gore Range

Image: Zach Mahone

Start with the crème de la crème when it comes to groomed runs. Take a left off of the Skyline Express and ski along the catwalk until you reach Big Rock Park. Weave your way through the giant boulders and comfortably spaced trees down to Pete’s Express. Hit Grand Review next, then the Star. If it’s a powder day, save everything we just mentioned for later. Instead, start with a run down In the Wuides, bobbing back and forth in the soft, open expanse. Hit it again if you want, or move over to Montane Glade if that’s not too bumpy. Once you’re feeling confident, head back to Pete’s Bowl and hit Resolution. The pitch flows like water down a luge track, and the moguls don’t get very big, even after long stretches without fresh snow.


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Chris Anthony negotiating a landing on the nearly vertical face of Lover’s Leap

Image: Zach Mahone

It is nearly impossible, especially on a powder day, to ride up Skyline and ogle the snow beneath the Lover’s Leap cornice and ski your first run anywhere else. The leeward aspect tends to collect snow by the foot when everywhere else—even the Blue Sky snow-stake cam—collects it by the inch. Drop into the fluffy stuff and milk it all the way down, then continue on Iron Mask or Little Ollie. Once that terrain is tracked out, proceed further west with each run, first into Heavy Metal, then into the trees skier’s left of the run.

Legs warmed up? Good. Dive into Steep and Deep, which offers the steepest and most sustained pitch in Blue Sky. After that, keep moving east to Skree Field, a fun if somewhat short mini-bowl that spits you out with ample options for the lower pitch. Hit Champagne Glade next, then start either repeating the best runs or seeking out some late-day freshies on the edge of Montane Glade ... or in the trees between the Divide and Heavy Metal.

Belle of the Ball

How Blue Sky was tamed, yet retains its wilderness heart

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A no-frills day lodge: grill your own lunch

Image: Zach Mahone

The effort to make Blue Sky Basin feel different from the rest of Vail required a unique look and understated infrastructure. So when it came time to design the flat, open area at the top of the Skyline and Earl’s Express chairlifts, Paul Testwuide, the senior VP who oversaw Blue Sky’s development, aimed for maximum functionality with minimal construction. That’s why Belle’s Camp doesn’t have a restaurant. Instead, there are barbecue grills outside the foggy-windowed warming hut and a sprawling alpine patio with picnic tables to enjoy a meal you cook yourself—while staring at the majestic Sawatch Range, headlined by 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross.

“We wanted Belle’s Camp to feel kind of European, because in Europe you go from one spot to another and have lunch, then work your way back to the main village,” Testwuide says.

Aesthetics were a high priority at Belle’s Camp, but not in a luxury sense. Instead, Testwuide drove over to the Roaring Fork Valley outside Aspen and took photos of old barns, then came back and asked his builders to construct the chairlift buildings so they resembled those barns (and looked unlike any other buildings at Vail). The entire area bears at least a passing resemblance to a 19th-century mining camp.

On a sunny day at Belle’s Camp, it’s easy to collapse into the snow and fall asleep in the sun. If for some reason you find yourself without a rack of ribs to grill before your nap, consider a treat from the chalkboard menu inside. It’s not cheap ($6.50 for a Gatorade), but the energy-rich Belle’s Bar remains a bargain at $4.95. You can also buy a deli sandwich, chips and candy, and a variety of cold and hot drinks. 

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Heading into the wild from Belle’s Camp

Image: Zach Mahone

Heading into the wild from Belle’s Camp

Lest anyone get lulled into thinking the backcountry terrain abutting Blue Sky Basin is safe to ski because the inbounds terrain is safe to ski, remember this: You could be six inches or six miles outside the resort boundary. Either way, it’s unmanaged and unpatrolled terrain, which means unstable snow can swallow you without a trace, and a rescue can be hours away.

Never leave the resort without proper avalanche-rescue gear if you plan to ski terrain steeper than 30 degrees. This includes an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, and a probe—and ideally a GPS mapping unit you know how to use, a headlamp, some food and water, a warm layer, matches or a lighter, and a cell phone in case you need to call for help. Practice searching for a buried friend before you enter steep terrain. Expose only one member of the group to a suspect slope at a time. Have at least a general idea of the avalanche hazard that day. (Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s daily forecast at avalanche.state.co.us.) And always travel with a partner.

If you can meet all of those conditions, there are plenty of backcountry options to explore from Blue Sky. For starters, Miller’s Cliffs and Bushwacker drop from the north-facing rim on the southern edge of Earl’s Bowl. You can return to Earl’s Express from the bottom of either run, provided you know the way beforehand. Lime Creek Bowl takes you south from the exit point into the Lime Creek drainage. If you take this route and plan to exit at Red Cliff (and a cocktail at Mango’s), get ready for a long road down (and sometimes up). “The way I describe it,” Pete Seibert Jr. says, “is you probably get two-thirds the number of turns you get in the Minturn Mile [another backcountry run accessed from Vail Mountain] and twice the runout.”

If you take a left when you get off of Pete’s Express and hug the ropeline downhill, you will come to another backcountry exit point that takes you into Seibert’s Stash. Pitches here run steep and deep, but beware the cliffs, and get ready to navigate a thick stand of trees as you make your way out.

Having second thoughts? You should be. Especially when there’s a 645-acre playground of safe and patrolled terrain that’s every bit as wild—after all, just 16 years ago Blue Sky Basin was itself out of bounds. Now it’s all yours to enjoy, just a few lift rides and a glide away. 

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