A closer look at night skiing: Why Keystone stands alone
Each day, as the sun begins to set, the long, broad slopes of Keystone’s Dercum Mountain begin to shine in a different way.
At around 3 p.m. the metamorphosis begins, as several hundred powerful metal-vapor halide floodlights come to life.
As the evening progresses and the lights become more prominent, Keystone’s runs begin to look more like a giant constellation sitting on the eastern horizon of the county.
And by 4:30, almost every other lift in the state of Colorado stops turning while five of Keystone’s lifts keep on cranking every Wednesday through Sunday until 8 p.m.
While in other parts of the country light poles can be as prolific as lift towers, this is not the case in Summit County, or just about anywhere in Colorado.
“There are some realities of night skiing,” said Mike Lee, communications manager for Keystone. “It’s colder and there’s not as many runs.”
In the bigger picture, though, Lee points out that everything a ski resort does falls under its permit from the U.S. Forest Service.
“It involves agencies all over the place,” Lee said. “Yes, there’s the Forest Service, but there are other parts.”
Everything from laying the electrical wires to installing the poles to simply changing the way a mountain looks after dark (or any time of day) all fall under the processes which define how a ski resort runs.
“Putting in 50-foot poles requires a significant amount of digging, and all of that would require Forest Service approval,” Lee said.
of night skiing
Night skiing actually goes a long way back into Colorado’s history. In the heyday of the Climax molybdenum mine near Fremont Pass, the company offered night skiing to its employees at a now-defunct ski hill as early as 1936.
At one point, Eldora Mountain Resort, Sol Vista Golf and Ski Ranch and Durango Mountain Resort also offered night skiing, though all three have stopped.
Howelsen Hill, a small ski area in Steamboat Springs known more for its ski jumps than its alpine skiing, offers night skiing until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays of each week.
Hesperus Ski Area, a small, privately owned hill 10 miles outside of Durango, offers night skiing on a limited basis. Due to its small size, it only opens on weekends, and only when snow conditions permit.
To go with the erratic scheduling, both areas put together account for just over 100 acres of night-skiable terrain, or less than half of Keystone’s 235 acres.
“We want to own the night,” Lee said. “We’re introducing airboards and snowbikes. We’re doing more and more to encourage not just night skiing, but nighttime activities.”
a business decision
Rick Sramek, vice president of mountain operations for Breckenridge Ski Area, doesn’t recall guest surveys ever revealing a need for night skiing there.
“Quite honestly, it would seem that in a lot of places in the West, it hasn’t been the sort of thing where there’s been a demonstrated demand for it,” Sramek said.
“It would appear with all of the skier visits we have in Summit County, with Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, Keystone and Copper Mountain, that the one ski area that has it has more than satisfied the need,” he said.
Sramek points out that the popularity of night skiing in the mid-Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest is fed by many ski resorts closer to much larger metropolitan bases than Denver provides for Colorado’s ski resorts. “We’re a destination resort, and the demand just doesn’t seem to have been there, so it hasn’t happened,” Sramek said.
Brian McCartney, vice president of mountain operations for Vail Mountain, seems to understand why there are few night skiing operations in Colorado.
“Keystone is easily accessible from Denver for an evening of skiing, yet we’re just that much farther away,” McCartney said. “So would we have a market for it?”
And that’s just one of the smaller issues facing Vail on the matter of night skiing.
“We’ve run it up the flagpole before and there are many people who like dark after dark,” McCartney said. “They like the solitude and the tranquility of the mountain after we close.”
Even if a group was able to drum up support within the community, there’s the difficult approval process mentioned by Lee.
“The environmentalists and wildlife folks think that lighting can completely change the habits of mountain animals who are nocturnal,” McCartney said. “That includes a prohibition we have against grooming in Blue Sky Basin because (snow cat) lights would, in many people’s opinions, affect wildlife.”
There is some support for night skiing, McCartney said. For example, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail would like to provide training venues for its competitors, many of whom are young and in school during the winter.
But such support is not enough to overcome the hurdles standing in Vail’s way, such as local town opposition as well as environmental and business concerns.
On the other side of the Sawatch mountains from Vail, Aspen has considered night skiing several times, and much like Vail, has run into community opposition before they even considered such things as the permitting process.
With the creation of the A51 Terrain Park and some upgrades to the lighting systems in the Packsaddle Bowl where the park is located, Keystone now boasts having the largest after-dark terrain park in North America.
All 66 acres of the park are lit, and it features dozens of hits, rails and kickers along with a 450-foot long, 17-foot high halfpipe – all served by a dedicated lift that runs late into the evening hours with the rest of Keystone’s night skiing.
“Some of the bigger hits will have shadowed landings, but the entire park is rideable,” Lee said. “It’s really cool to be able to jib rails or hit a 60-foot kicker at 7 at night.”
McCartney pointed out that terrain parks may very well be the niche of night skiing in America in the future, but added that the market share likely can only support a limited number of parks such as A51.
“How many of those would you have, and how many would you need?” McCartney asked.
Richard Chittick can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at email@example.com.
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