‘Closest thing to heaven’ | SummitDaily.com

‘Closest thing to heaven’

EDWARD STONEReagle county corespondent

NWS Blue Sky5 BH 12-20

VAIL – Despite the contention that came with the Blue Sky Basin expansion in 2000, the area continues to attract skiers from around the country and elicit rave reviews.”The closest thing to heaven you can get on Earth on a powder day,” said Sarah Stetson of Golden as she stood at Belle’s Camp at the top of Blue Sky. Vail Mountain had gotten 13 inches of snow the day before, and there was still plenty of untracked powder in Blue Sky.The environmental issues related to the expansion – which brought about protests and litigation in the late ’90s prior to the opening – are important to Stetson, she said, but she thinks skiers and wildlife can coexist.”It never gets real crowded,” she said. “As long as they take care of it.”Alex Theobald of Springfield, Mo., was in Vail for just one day during a ski trip to a few Colorado resorts, she said. She came to Blue Sky on Wednesday for the first time.”I’ve heard from everyone that it’s awesome,” she said. “And it’s not crowded.”

Molly Cuffe of Colorado Ski Country USA, which promotes skiing in Colorado, said Blue Sky helps attract visitors within Colorado as well as from California and the Pacific Northwest.”It has enough prestige on a national level that people do recognize it outside of the state,” she said.Fires and protestsThe 885-acre Blue Sky Basin expansion was a heated issue during the leadup to its opening in January 2000. Before 1999, the expansion was known as Category III.The controversy came to a head with the 1998 Two Elk arsons on top of Vail Mountain that destroyed four buildings and three lift terminals. Two suspects, Chelsea D. Gerlach of Portland, Ore., and William C. Rodgers of Prescott, Ariz., were named in the arsons this month, but neither was charged and Rodgers killed himself after being arrested.

In the months leading up to the fire, environmentalists tried to halt construction by suing the U.S. Forest Service over the approval of the expansion. A federal court gave the green light to begin construction on the expansion just three days before the Oct. 19, 1998, fires.Protests continued by environmentalists through the summer of 1999, with protesters demonstrating at Vail Resorts’ Avon headquarters, in Vail Village and Lionshead, and on Mill Creek Road and Gitalong Road on Vail Mountain.’Backcountry light’Blue Sky has three lifts, Skyline Express, Earl’s Express and Pete’s Express, and 19 named trails, and 645 acres of skiing. It has glades, tree runs, cliffs and cornices. “An Unparalleled Adventure” is the tagline that Vail Resorts uses to promote the area.Some have dubbed the area as an example of “backcountry light” – terrain that’s similar to backcountry, but that’s inside ski area boundaries and with lifts that allow lap after lap.

Cuffe said the Blue Sky-type area is part of a trend the ski industry has seen over the last few years – more demand for backcountry or backcountry-like experiences.”It’s the way our society is going,” she said. “Nissan Xterra has come out with the extreme, getting back to nature ad campaign. … There’s more of a movement of a certain group of people, not just in skiing, but in their overall lifestyle.”She cited the recent opening of the Silverton ski area, which has guided tours, and the opening of the Imperial Express lift at Breckenridge, which offers above-tree-line, lift-served skiing.Jeff Goeller of Boulder, riding the lift out of Earl’s Bowl, said he “lives” in Blue Sky when he comes to Vail.”It’s my favorite part of the whole mountain,” he said. “If you found perfection, why go elsewhere?”He was vaguely familiar with the recent naming of suspects and the 1998 fires, he said.”I think there’s plenty of land back here for wilderness to live,” he said.