Colorado resorts open ski season with momentum

By Catherine Tsai

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

This undated photo courtesy of Vail Resorts/Jack Affleck shows The 10th restaurant in Vail, Colo. The 10th is Vail's newest fine-dining restaurant.

Vail Resorts, Jack Affleck, Associated Press

DENVER — Last winter, La Nina brought so much snow to northern Colorado that Arapahoe Basin ski area stayed open until July 4. A snow gauge near Steamboat Springs had to be extended because it kept getting buried, with total accumulation over the season topping 200 inches.

It was a skier's bonanza. Colorado resorts recorded more than 12 million skier visits last winter for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, according to figures from Vail Resorts Inc. and the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA.

In short, Colorado hosted roughly one in every five skier visits in the nation last winter.

While there's been enough snow for several Colorado resorts to open this fall, forecasters say skiers shouldn't expect another record winter.

"The odds are decent for at least a normal season, but people shouldn't have expectations we'll have a repeat," said climatologist Klaus Wolter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado.

As the economy slowly recovers, there also appear to be fewer flash sales that resorts have used to hook last-minute vacationers during the recession. But there are still plenty of discounts, and resorts say they have more to offer after spending millions of dollars on faster lifts, new terrain park features and better trail grooming.

"We're coming off a big season last year," said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. "We're going into this year with some momentum."

The group's 22 member resorts have invested more than $50 million for this season, including a remodel of the Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands and heated pavers in Steamboat's base area so skiers don't have to walk through as much snow and ice.

That doesn't include spending by Vail Resort Inc.'s Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail resorts, which together invested almost double what other Colorado resorts have, CEO Rob Katz said. New this year are a fine-dining restaurant at Vail and a high-speed lift to replace a slow two-seater at Beaver Creek.

Here's just a handful of things to look for this season:

— FREE SKIING: Crested Butte is sharing the wealth to celebrate its 50th birthday. Skiing is free on opening day, Nov. 23, and on your birthday if you're an adult (and it falls during the season). Just be sure to bring a valid photo ID with your birthdate. Lift tickets for visitors 75 and older are always free at tiny Echo Mountain outside Denver, and they're free at Wolf Creek past your 80th birthday.

— SKI PASS PLUS: Resorts big and small are selling passes that offer access to more than one ski area, and sometimes pass holders can get other discounts. Telluride pass holders can get three days of skiing at Taos in New Mexico. This year, holders of Telluride adult, senior and college passes can get 20 percent off non-holiday group lessons, with some restrictions.

For the first time in recent memory, Aspen is teaming with Steamboat and Winter Park on the Colorado Triple Play — http://www.coloradotripleplay.com — which offers two days of skiing at Steamboat, two days at Winter Park, and two at Aspen Skiing Co.'s four mountains of Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass for $299, for teens and adults. It's designed to offer a more affordable, sample platter of mountains, considering Aspen's peak single-day lift ticket price last season was $102. The nontransferable passes must be bought seven days before the first day of use and can't be used Dec. 27-31.

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