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The Passavant Perspective: America’s Most Underrated Ski Resort Comes On Strong

    North American ski resorts have gotten plenty of media coverage so far this winter, but most of it has not exactly been the kind of news that publicists dream of. Instead we've heard all about avalanches at Jackson Hole, bomb threats in Aspen, falling gondola cars at Whistler, and that now legendary incident a few weeks ago where a guy at Vail somehow slipped out of a chairlift and found himself dangling head first with his ski pants down–or maybe it was up–around his ankles.
     And of course, that's only when everyone took a few minutes away from lamenting how bad business has been this winter at ski areas from coast to coast.
     Amid all this gloom, there have been some very positive developments in ski country, including a new tram to the summit of Jackson Hole;  significant new lodges at Telluride, Stowe, and Avon, the gateway to Beaver Creek; and a gondola that connects spectacularly the upper reaches of Whistler to adjacent Blackcomb mountain.
     But by far the biggest development in more ways than one has been the debut in late December of the first phase of the new Base Village project at Snowmass, Colorado.

    Snowbase For decades, Snowmass, which lies about eight miles west of Aspen, its glamourpuss sister, accumulated a reputation as a refuge for intermediates in every sense. It teemed with skiers who were content with mellow groomed runs, diners content with passable family-friendly chow, and lodgers content with increasingly outdated condos.
     Now fast-forward to the ribbon-cutting on December 22nd, when Snowmass suddenly blossomed forth with dramatic upgrades, some obvious, others more subtle. After checking out the new restaurants, condos, shops, and lifts, and seeing first-hand how the terrain itself at this huge ski mountain has been tweaked over the last few years, I feel confident in saying that Snowmass has just become America's most underrated ski resort. If you haven't been there yet this winter, brace yourself for change we skiers can believe in.
     Snowmasstreehouse The center of attention, not surprisingly, is Base Village itself. Among the notable amenities are a 20,000-square foot Treehouse Kids Adventure Center (see photo- Snowmass long lacked a first-class staging area for children), 90 sleek new condominiums, and half a dozen restaurants that raise the bar on local dining by roughly 500 percent. Sneaky's is the kind of upscale pub that Snowmass has long lacked, while Junk and Liquid Sky attempt to bring a touch of Las Vegas hip not to mention tuna burgers, a salumi platter, and matzo  ball soup–to Petticoat Junction. By early February, Buchi, a Japanese-casual lounge and dining room developed by one of the co-founders of Aspen's Matsuhisa, should be rolling and slicing sushi as well.
     A clutch of new shops have appeared as well: a North Face concept store, Aspen Sports, and a branch of Aspen's classy Performance Sports ski and clothing shop. And perhaps best of all, everything in Base Village is wrapped around the kind of wide-open and welcoming plaza that any area needs for skiers to feel the love: a big, sunny amphitheater perfect for relaxing with a beer and watching everyone else at lunch or the end of the ski day. 
 Snowbase2     To be sure, there are still plenty of construction cranes hovering over the area building Viceroy Snowmass (opening Dec. 2009; www.viceroysnowmass.com ) and The Little Nell Residences Snowmass (opening Spring 2010) as the developers, Related West-Pac (partner Related is responsible for landmark projects like New York's Time Warner Center) complete what will eventually be $1 billion worth of new development at Base Village. Roughly a third of the commercial space is now open, and every building is designed to achieve various levels of environmental correctness in the form of LEED certification, including Silver LEED certification for Viceroy Snowmass, a highly ambitious goal for such a large project. Based on what I've seen in buildings under construction, however, Related is making good on their promises to incorporate things like recycled wood, low VOC paint, and even carpeting made without the usual chemical stew.
      As for the lifts, it's important to understand just how big Snowmass is, and why moving a chairlift or adding a new lift can change the skiing experience so significantly. With over 3,100 acres of skiable terrain, Snowmass is bigger than all three other Aspen ski mountains (Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, and Aspen Highlands) combined. Indeed, all by itself  it's the second biggest ski area in the country, trailing only Vail. There are over 90 runs, with vast stretches of treed bowls and steep cliffs in between the major sections of the mountain. There's a lot of thrilling, and gnarly, terrain up there, and until recently it could be tough to reach without knowing where to duck into the trees or taking off your skis and hiking.Snownew
     In the past three years, Aspen Skiing Company, which operates all four mountains, has made over $70 million in improvements to the lift system, and it shows. The most obvious addition is the Elk Camp gondola, which whisks skiers from Base Village all the way over to the heretofore underused east side of the ski area. For  several years, I had the good fortune to live right around the corner from the Elk Camp lifts, and I often had the runs on this part of the mountain to myself a stroke of luck I knew would end because up there were not only some superb intermediate trails (with hidden pockets of soft powder long after a storm) but also a vast stretch of beginner terrain so wide open and gently-pitched that it was inevitable someone would figure out how to get more classes and instructors up there. With the Elk Camp gondola, they now have.
     The other lift improvement out of Base Village is the Sam's Knob six-person chair, which allows much faster access to the Big Burn chairlift meaning that skiers can now ride two fast chairs and be all the way to the top of the mountain in far les time than before.
     And finally there's the less heralded but, in my opinion, significant replacement and realignment of the Sheer Bliss chair. What was an endless snooze on an ancient double lift (so underutilized that SkiCo only ran it on weekends and holidays) up the isolated east side of the Big Burn is now a nine-minute trip to what is surely some of the finest upper-intermediate and expert terrain in Colorado, including superb glades among the pine trees and, after a storm, the deepest powder on the mountain, in a narrow little canyon called Garrett Gulch.
     By removing some trees for the installation of the new lift towers, SkiCo literally left Garret's much more exposed to skiers who previously would skim right by it without a glance; here again a loss for locals is a big gain for proficient visitors looking for thrills on Snowmass. Other improvements in glading and trail marking, including the addition to the trail map of the previously obscure Powerline and Sneaky's glades, have also added to the allure of Snowmass for good skiers
who want dip a toe into powder or tackle some soft moguls in the trees.

      Even with these upgrades, Snowmass still has a lot of steep and deep terrain that takes work and nerve to access. But skiers and snowboarders who are willing to forgo the cachet of Aspen Mountain and the hairy-chested reputation of Highlands are discovering that Snowmass is no longer just for the meek on or off the slopes. 

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