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Touring new terrain

Reid Williams
Summit Daily/Reid WilliamsBackcountry Skiers Alliance board member and Summit County Avalanche Office forecaster Mike Zobbe stands at the northern rim of Little Bowl Saturday, which, along with Erickson Bowl in the distance at right, is proposed for Keystone cat skiing and sightseeing operations. The access gate for the terrain is proposed for a high point near Keystone Mountain, center, near the shadow line. Bear Mountain is at left, with Jones Gulch below.
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KEYSTONE – For nearly a decade, ski patrollers at Keystone Resort have roamed the bowls beneath Keystone Mountain and known that others would enjoy it – if only they could easily get there.

Hard-core backcountry enthusiasts have long been the only souls to venture through Erickson and Little bowls – the drainages that sit between Keystone’s Outpost and the saddle that marks the southern ridge of Jones Gulch.

Saturday, skiers got an opportunity to give feedback to Keystone staff and U.S. Forest Service representatives as the resort prepares to open the terrain east of the Windows glades to hardy hikers, skinners and snowcat tours.

The expansion represents the most significant addition of terrain and services at Keystone since January 2000, when the Windows area opened, and it could put more human pressure on a wildlife corridor over the Continental Divide.

The expansion will have the positive effect of dispersing crowds at Keystone and providing visitors with more options.

Saturday’s questions from telemarkers and avalanche experts to the Keystone and Forest Service officials, however, focused on safety and logistics.

Forest Service Dillon Ranger Rick Newton and other Forest Service staff, as well as Keystone director of mountain operations Chuck Tolton and senior patroller John Ulbrich led a group of about 20 skiers into the proposed service area for a closer look.

Tolton explained that the terrain expansion will not involve any tree removal or other lasting impacts aside from signs, some ropes and two gates marking the ski area’s boundary and backcountry access points.

“It begs to be skied,” Tolton said. “And when the conditions aren’t so favorable, we think a certain segment of our visitors would enjoy sightseeing in this area.”

Historically, the bowls have seen moderate use.

A 25-year-old cross country trail that skirts the bowls is still used by lift maintenance snowmobiles and a snowshoe race each winter, even though Keystone’s Nordic operations have now moved to the golf courses. In the summer, the resort’s llama picnic treks use the trail.

Keystone’s plan is to offer as many as five guided trips a day during a good snow cycle. Two of those tours would be skiing trips, the rest sightseeing via snowcats.

“We’ll keep the (access) gate high along the ridge to discourage entry into Jones Gulch, which, as anyone who’s tried to ski down knows, is a pretty rough slog,” Ulbrich said. “And we’ll try to combine some of these opportunities with an avalanche awareness program that we’ll be running through February.”

Some skiers joined the tour simply for the opportunity to see new terrain and make some turns. Others, such as Frisco resident and skier Tom Castrigno, attended to see how the proposal might affect his activities.

Castrigno said he and friends frequently cross through the area to access Independence and Bear mountains to the east of Keystone, and the Sts. John drainage near Montezuma.

Castrigno said he worried that patrollers’ avalanche work in the area would disrupt access to those points.

“Like anything, though, I think their proposal can be done responsibly,” Castrigno said. “It’s good to be able to come out and point out our concerns.”

Mike Zobbe, a member of the Backcountry Skiers Alliance and the Summit County office of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and CAIC forecaster Brad Sawtell also attended.

“If we know where more people are going to be going, we can better direct our forecasts,” Sawtell said. “We have more information on specific areas we should be looking at for activity.”

Keystone also plans to rename the bowls for one of the resort’s founders, Bill Bergman. Bergman worked with Keystone pioneer Max Dercum to secure the initial funding for the ski area. Keystone renamed its foremost peak for Dercum in a ceremony last summer.

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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