A-Basin at 70: Long live the Legend on the eve of The Beavers expansion (video)
Best of Arapahoe Basin
Can’t get enough of the Legend? Click through for additional stories, videos and photo spreads from the past decade at A-Basin.
February 2017 — Take a tour of The Beavers expansion with COO Alan Henceroth
One of the originals
A-Basin sounds old at age 70, but it’s hardly the oldest continuously operating resort in Colorado. We take a look at the state’s 10 most storied winter getaways, plus A-Basin’s Summit County neighbors.
1915 — Howelsen Hill Ski Area (near Steamboat Springs)
1937 — Loveland Ski Area
1939 — Monarch Mountain
1940 — Winter Park Resort
1942 — Ski Cooper
1946 — ARAPAHOE BASIN
1947 — Aspen Mountain
1958 — Aspen Highlands
1958 — Buttermilk
1961 — Breckenridge Ski Resort
1970 — Keystone Resort
1972 — Copper Mountain Resort
Source: International Skiing History Association.
Tony Cammarata remembers well the exact moment he first laid eyes on Arapahoe Basin. It was love at first sight.
In October 1998, the East Coast native made his first-ever trip to Colorado. He was an avid skier and whitewater rafter, the sort who spent days on end in the woods and mountains, but he’d only ever taken his skis on the heavily wooded slopes of Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts. Towering peaks for miles and miles around were something he knew from Warren Miller flicks, not real life.
Then, on that fateful day in ’98 — just a few weeks before the start of the longest-running ski season in North America — the current director of ski patrol at A-Basin finally saw his new home in all its steep, soon-to-be-snowy glory.
“When I came over (Loveland) Pass this was the first place that I saw, and it struck me that it was exactly what I pictured the Rocky Mountains being,” said Cammarata, who immediately stopped by the ski hill’s iconic A-frame for a job as a lift operator. “Everyone told me there was no way I was ever going to be a ski patroller out here in the Rocky Mountains, being an East Coaster. But these guys taught me how to ski.”
A few weeks later, Cammarata suited up for his first day on the A-Basin liftie crew. He joined a staff of no more than a dozen operators and patrollers, because then, like now, working at the Basin — one of the final ski areas to avoid the Interstate 70 mega-resort renaissance — was a hot commodity: “someone would have to die” for a patrol position to open up, he remembers.
One thing led to another, then another (no one died), and after four months of working lifts, Cammarata’s dream came true when he was invited to join ski patrol.
“I just happened to be in the right place,” he said. “At the right time.”
Birth of the Legend
Cammarata’s story of love at first sight is one you’ll hear over and over again from A-Basin patrollers, lifties, skiers, snowboarders and even the random dudes dressed as bananas drinking beers on the Beach, the ski area’s beloved dirt parking lot steps from the base-area lifts. There’s a reason marketing campaigns call A-Basin “the Legend” — it has a way of sticking in your brain.
Cammarata’s story of right place, right time is close to the one you’d likely hear from the ski area’s five founding fathers. In the mid-1940s, as war was raging in Europe, this group of Colorado, East Coast and Austrian natives were hired by the Denver Chamber of Commerce’s winter sports committee to evaluate sites for ski areas across the state, according to a 1979 history by U.S. Forest Service ranger Paul Hauk. The area that would soon become Arapahoe Basin was the highest site at 10,800 feet — developers were worried about access and road plowing come winter, not to mention the effects of altitude on visitors — but it was also one of the most enticing, with the type of high-alpine terrain so popular in Europe.
By May 1946, the founders — Larry Jump, Sandy Schauffler, Max Dercum (of Keystone Resort fame), Dick Durrance (of Aspen Highlands fame) and Thor Groswold — commissioned a $150,000 development plan, Hauk said. It was approved 11 days later — a far cry from the years-long waiting period these days — and by the start of the ski season in November, the founders had installed a single rope tow. That was located near the modern-day Black Mountain Lodge, with additional plans for up to two chairlifts, including the nation’s first two-person chair.
“Although Jump and Schauffler were skiers and had seen some of the ski resorts in Europe, neither one had any previous ski-area operating experience since they were ‘pioneers’ in a risky new enterprise,” Hauk said of the two primary founders. “It took a dedicated and deep-seated enthusiasm, courage and far-sightedness to survive the skiing scene during the 1940’s and 1950’s.”
Vibe of the Legend
The founders continued building and improving at A-Basin, first with ski runs, then with service roads, and finally with the two promised chairs. During the 1947-48 season, the resort saw about 13,000 skier visits for total gross income of $30,000, Hauk said, with $3 lift tickets for the chairs and $1 tickets for the rope-tow only.
Hauk, who was the local “snow ranger” from 1952 to 1957, worked with the founders to craft the unmistakable A-Basin vibe: extreme skiing on extreme terrain, surrounded by a laid-back, low-key village in a laid-back, low-key atmosphere. He championed avalanche mitigation work on the ski area’s towering East Wall — patrollers would us military-grade C-3 explosives and even good-old dynamite — while attracting big-name patrollers from Aspen and other burgeoning Colorado resorts.
By 1961, A-Basin had built the original A-frame building for $250,000 — the 2016 renovations share the same foundation and framework — and installed the area’s newest lift, Pallavicini Chair. Today, Pali Chair is hardly different than in ’61. Only ticket prices have changed: $12 then, $92 now.
“A-Basin is my favorite place to ski, period, and I don’t say that just because I work here,” said Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer at A-Basin since 2005. “I work here because it’s my favorite place to ski. There are a lot of other great ones, but this one is my favorite.”
Like Cammarata, Henceroth fell hard for A-Basin when he moved to Colorado as a youngster. The COO arrived in 1983 and started working as a bus boy at Keystone Resort. He and his friends didn’t plan on staying, but soon enough he was hired as a ski patroller at Keystone, then applied for the patrol director gig at A-Basin — and got it.
“To me, what is great about the Basin is the place itself — the mountain itself — and the people,” Henceroth said. “We’ve tried really hard to keep the culture and the vibe the same, and to really focus on the mountain, on the place… on the people.”
Since taking over as COO, Henceroth said he’s worked hard to keep up with the “stuff” of an aging resort — building renovations, trail maintenance, upgraded lifts, a new 6th Alley Bar — but his primary focus has always been the mountain and the people it attracts. At 960 total acres, including the 400-acre Montezuma Bowl expansion in 2008, A-Basin is still one of the smallest ski areas in Colorado. But does it matter?
“I don’t think it’s all just about numbers or acres or vertical,” Henceroth said. “If you’re the kind of person who likes that kind of high-alpine stuff, our base is at 10,800 feet, and that’s higher than a lot of ski area’s summits… A-Basin has that really special alpine feel that you just don’t get at very many places.”
With unusual terrain comes unusual people, and just about everyone who works at or has visited A-Basin knows what to expect: onesies, banana hammocks, gorilla suits and plenty of skin on opening day, Halloween, Gaper Day and all of June until closing day. There are regulars like Edward “Dead Head Ed” Boardman, who hasn’t missed an A-Basin Enduro in 27 seasons, along with Everyday Dave, Tele George and a couple in their 70s, Ken Willoughby and Doris Spencer, who skin up and ski down the slopes six days per week every season — all before lifts open for the day.
Growth of the Legend
Changes have been few and far between at the Basin in the past 70 years, but Henceroth and his employees agree that A-Basin must evolve to be its absolute best. In the past decade alone, the ski area has expanded to Montezuma Bowl, replaced the Black Mountain lift with a high-speed quad, improved summer access and, most recently, completed sweeping renovations on the original ’61 A-frame.
But the Basin’s biggest change is yet to come. When the snow melts, crews will begin expanding into The Beavers and Steep Gullies terrain, a 468-acre stretch of expert steeps, gullies and glades that is currently accessed by a backcountry gate only.
“I think it’s going to add a lot,” Henceroth said. “The stuff we’re doing is not going to bring a whole lot more people here. What it’s going to do is spread people out more and make the prominent stuff that much better.”
A-Basin’s expansion is the only major one approved for any Colorado resort at the moment, a process that took nearly a full decade between proposal and approval. Run cutting, glading and lift installation will begin this summer, with terrain expected to open in time for the 2017-18 ski season.
As the world keeps spinning and A-Basin keeps changing, employees like Henceroth and Cammarata are as dedicated as ever to their first love. But evolution doesn’t come without a little heartache. When Cammarata first started working there — before Black Mountain Lodge was built at mid-mountain — his favorite memories are from the old barbecue under the Exhibition Chair, and they smell like burgers, brats and hot dogs.
“I will never forget the smell of that barbecue on a day like today,” Cammarata said on a stunning, bluebird day on the newly renovated third A-frame deck overlooking his mountain. “With a much smaller crew, we used to go down there, flip burgers, and I think our guests love seeing patrollers behind the grill, flipping burgers and hot dogs.”
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