Moving a Mountain
Sun Valley, America’s oldest destination ski resort, is guiding its magnificent centerpiece, Bald Mountain, firmly into the future.
Following the approval of Phase 1 of the ambitious Bald Mountain Master Plan, Trevor Schubert and Greg Stahl investigate the pending changes—a gondola, terrain park and new glade skiing—as well as those we may see in the future.PHASE 1 (Approved)
-Thin trees by 40 percent on Guyer Ridge with no grading or snowmaking for a new expert tree-skiing run.
-Add snowmaking on Frenchman’s Gulch terrain—the pipes are already in the ground, and Sun Valley Company has been waiting for approval to attach snowmaking guns.
-Remodel Roundhouse Lodge and expand the operating season to include summer.
-Add snowmaking on Olympic Lane, Olympic Ridge, Lower Olympic, Lower Broadway, Broadway Face, Christmas Bowl, Upper Cozy, Upper Hemingway and Brick’s Island.
-Install a terrain park to skier’s left of Janss Pass, along the bare side of the south-facing slope.
-Re-align and grade Olympic Lane.
-Build a new Seattle Ridge ski trail.
-Install River Run gondola.
-Remove Exhibition chairlift.
Change is in the Air
Abruptly jutting 3,400 vertical feet out of the quaint neighborhood of West Ketchum to a summit 9,150 feet above sea level, Bald Mountain is the centerpiece of Central Idaho recreation. Baldy, as the mountain is affectionately known, is the primary reason Ketchum, Sun Valley, and for all practical purposes, Blaine County, have risen out of the economic plains to the peak of affluence and mountain-town grandeur.
In the modern era of alpine recreation pursuits, Bald Mountain—once the premier destination ski resort in the nation—faces multiple challenges. The ski business is highly competitive, yet "the ski industry is a no-growth market," said Wally Huffman, Sun Valley Company general manager. "And we have known this since the 1970s."
Fierce competition combined with extremely limited growth potential makes the task of bringing the mountain, along with its 14 ski lifts, 65 ski runs and five restaurants, into the 21st century no small one.
So, what direction is Sun Valley Company, the resort owner, taking to keep the area competitive? Will skiing in Sun Valley live on only as a snapshot of a bygone era, of tradition and Old World mystique? Sun Valley Resort’s first marketing campaign in the 1930s coined the phrase "The Alps of America," and 70 years later, the quaint retro-styles still influence its public image.
A peek into Bald Mountain’s future was revealed in August 2005, when Sun Valley Company unveiled a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—the managers of Bald Mountain’s public lands, on which all skiing occurs—to update the existing Bald Mountain Master Development Plan. The company also requested a 40-year extension to its ski area-operating permit, which expires in December 2007.
The process of issuing and renewing development plans and permits for ski areas on public lands is common throughout the United States. "Ski areas are a part of the national forest developed recreation program," said Sawtooth National Forest Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson. "National forests have the terrain but don’t have the capability to develop ski areas without a private partner."
Sun Valley Company’s master development plan contains three phases, to be implemented over the next 10 years. Phase 1 focuses on enhancing skiing and snowboarding facilities, installing a gondola from the River Run base area to Roundhouse Lodge, adjusting ski-area boundaries and adding considerable amounts of new snowmaking equipment, as well as implementing forest health projects. Sun Valley Company officials say the improvements will bolster the resort’s level of service and help boost skier numbers, which have stagnated at around 400,000 per year.
Both the Forest Service and the BLM undertook environmental impact studies of Phase 1 before bestowing their required approval. On November 7, 2007 they said yes to a modified version of Phase 1, along with renewing the 40-year ski area-operating permit. Phases 2 and 3 of the plan will be similarly evaluated over the next 10 years.
The federal review process was followed by two separate 45-day appeal periods. The period ends in mid-December for the Forest Service and in early February for the BLM. If no public appeals halt the process, Sun Valley Company can move forward with their changes—possibly implementing snowmaking in the Frenchman’s Gulch area as early as this winter and beginning installation of a terrain park, additional snowmaking and the River Run gondola as early as summer 2008.
If all changes in all three phases of the master development plan are eventually approved, the mountain would receive up to $20 million in improvements. That is a cause for concern for some residents. Ski-pass prices are already near the summit of North American ski resorts. "I would encourage Forest Service officials to at least express concern over price escalation," wrote Bellevue resident Jay Coleman in March 2007, during the official public comment period for the plan. "Baldy is not a country club."
While it is difficult to predict the effect capital improvements may haveon pass prices, many believe change is needed. "Sun Valley is falling behind," wrote Sun Valley residents Bill and Jeanne Wright. "As other North American ski resorts expand capacity and add amenities, Sun Valley Resort is struggling to maintain its historic pre-eminent status. The proposals now under consideration, though modest, are important building blocks for the future."
Terrain: Carving up Baldy
The Guyer Ridge trail project was possibly the most contentious issue in the master development plan. Guyer Ridge lies to the immediate northwest of the existing ski area boundary, above the neighborhood of Lower Board Ranch, on the western edge of the Warm Springs area of Ketchum.
Sun Valley Company’s proposed action called for a 100- to 200-foot-wide intermediate trail, extending north of the International ski run, traveling roughly 6,000 feet along the natural fall line of the ridge, eventually tying into Upper and Lower Cozy runs. It would have required 100 percent tree removal within the proposed trail and extensive rock and earth excavation to level the steep, serrated ridge. Snowmaking was proposed along the entire 29-acre run.
"To mow down this ridgeline and add snowmaking to create a ‘super highway’ for skiing would be a travesty to the natural characteristics of this area," Ketchum resident Roger Crist said of Sun Valley Company’s plan. Crist favored tree-thinning, saying, "What Baldy really needs is more glade skiing."
The environmental impact study conducted by the Forest Service also came to a similar conclusion, resulting in a sound rejection of the proposal.
The final decision for Guyer Ridge rested with one of Sun Valley Company’s proposed alternatives: the creation of an expert glade-skiing run along the ridge where the trail was proposed. The decision eliminated snowmaking, but allowed for thinning roughly 40 percent of the trees to create an off-piste feel within the ski area boundary.
New trails for novices
A comprehensive study of Sun Valley Company’s resort assets conducted in 2005 by Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners, a Canada-based consultant, found that more intermediate and novice runs are needed at the resort. Even including the primarily novice runs on Dollar Mountain, Sun Valley still falls short of the optimal percentages of beginner and intermediate runs a ski resort should aim for, Ecosign found.
Going some way to address this deficit, the proposed low-intermediate ski trail at Seattle Ridge was approved under Phase 1. The trail will run in the southern section of the bowls, between Broadway and Christin’s Silver. The purpose of the run is to alleviate congestion in the popular area.
Phase 3 proposes additional novice ski runs on the southeast-facing, gently sloping hillside behind Seattle Ridge Lodge, known as Turkey Bowl. The area would be serviced by a detachable quad chairlift rising 483 vertical feet. Two novice runs would stretch 3,000 feet and be fitted with snowmaking. That addition would not include the steeper terrain that is part of Turkey Bowl proper, which stretches along the east side of Baldy to the valley floor near state Highway 75.
Time for a Terrain Park
An approximately 5.2-acre terrain park has been approved as part of Phase 1 and will be installed in the gully to the skier’s right of Janss Pass in Frenchman’s Gulch. The site was chosen over a roughly 5-acre area on the lower portion of Greyhawk. The terrain park will include installation of snowmaking, and construction could begin as early as summer 2008, Nelson said.
While Guyer Ridge was among the most contentious facets of Phase 1, "the terrain park has been the most commented-on issue," said Joe Miczulski, master plan project leader for the Forest Service.
Terrain parks are a relatively recent addition to a ski mountain’s repertoire, and Sun Valley Resort is five to seven years behind its competitors in providing such play-oriented features. Most terrain parks run down slopes with a 30- to 34-percent grade and feature a series of jumps and rails for skiers and snowboarders.
Parks are geared toward the new school of skiing and snowboarding, and the approved park will complement the Lower Warm Springs superpipe, which has already become a popular feature.
To some, the lack of a terrain park has been a drawback for the community at large. "Without a terrain park, tourist dollars are spent elsewhere due to individuals and families choosing to spend their vacations at resorts offering such facilities," wrote Dana Monson, an attorney in Ketchum.
Sun Valley Company concurred that a terrain park is essential to address "changing market demands." The company went on to note, however: "Bald Mountain offers limited opportunities for a terrain park that are not overly steep or already utilized and valued for traditional skiing."
Step Up the Snowmaking
Baldy boasts arguably the finest snowmaking system in the world, and for good reason. Sun Valley averages 217 inches of snow a year, substantially less than some competitors.
Snowmaking guns mix compressed air with water sprayed in a manner that, when conditions are cold enough, becomes snow on its way to the ground. Sun Valley already has more than 400 acres of snowmaking in place. Phase 1 will add an additional 99 acres of manmade cover, for a total of 507 acres.
Runs that will now get snowmaking as part of Phase 1 include: Olympic Lane, Olympic Ridge and Lower Olympic; Broadway Face, the entire rim along the top of Baldy’s famous bowls, the newly approved Seattle Ridge trail, Christmas Bowl and Lower Broadway; Upper Cozy, Upper Hemingway and Brick’s Island; Can-Can, French Dip and Undergraduate.
Snowmaking in the Frenchman’s area was initially one of the biggest concerns about the master development plan. Frenchman’s has predominantly been an alpine skiing area of choice for those seeking natural snow. "For some people that’s an added bonus, and for others—they’d rather ski on man-made snow," Nelson said. "But if you look at that lift, it is one of the most under-used lifts, in part because it’s not available at certain times because of lack of snow."
Sun Valley is the nation’s oldest ski resort, but it has been without one of the high-end amenities of the ski industry’s standards: a gondola. That is soon to change.
The River Run gondola proposed as part of Phase 1 has been approved. The gondola cables will travel up the slope between Olympic and Exhibition ski runs, replacing the antiquated Exhibition chairlift.
The proposal to add two gondolas to Bald Mountain—in Phase 1 (the now approved River Run gondola) and Phase 3 (on the Warm Springs side, which will be examined at a later date)—was somewhat controversial. For some, the very notion of gondolas is synonymous with Bald Mountain’s leap into the upper echelon of North American ski resorts. Others viewed the proposals as just another audacious and unnecessary amenity.
Gondolas, enclosed cabins with a sliding door, are considered easier to enter and exit for non-skiers. Skis and snowboards are removed before entering, but "the speed and comfort of the gondola will very quickly become the standard," Huffman said. "I have heard a lot of people say, ‘We don’t need no stinking gondola.’ And from a skiing perspective, it’s questionable."
But, the gondola is not only for skiing. "The weather is usually not that bad up here," said Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley Company’s director of public relations. "But it will be a public benefit. Dining (on the mountain) in the evenings—be it winter or summer—will be beautiful."
The new gondola will whisk skiers and non-skiers from the River Run base to Roundhouse Lodge, where they will be able to enjoy lunch and dinner at the historic restaurant during winter and summer seasons. Currently it is only open during the ski season for lunch. Alongside gondola access, the approval by the Forest Service of extensive renovations (as long as the building’s character is maintained and is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act) will make Roundhouse Lodge accessible to all.
Phase 3 calls for a gondola on the Warm Springs side of the mountain, running from the base to the summit, replacing the Challenger chairlift. Written public support for this project has been scant at best, and it is fighting an uphill battle.
Also, outside of U.S. Forest Service and BLM purview, Sun Valley Company’s long-range plans include running a gondola from Sun Valley Village to the River Run base. The company has studied two potential routes.
The first route runs the gondola along the edge of Dollar Road, stopping near Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge in Sun Valley. From there, it would travel up Hidden Valley on Dollar Mountain to the saddle at the top, where skiers could exit and ski Elkhorn’s Hidden Valley. The gondola would then continue carrying skiers and non-skiers down the back side of Dollar, over state Highway 75, the Reinheimer Ranch and southern Ketchum to the base of River Run at Baldy, offering another exit point before heading up Baldy to Roundhouse Lodge.
The second alternative, and the one resort owner Earl Holding appears to favor, would send the gondola down Sun Valley Road with a turn station near the historic Red Barn and a stop near Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum. From there, passengers would head over the heart of Ketchum with a stop at the Simplot lot adjacent to the Ketchum Post Office and then on to River Run, with a stop at the base and finally up to Roundhouse Lodge.
A Rosy Future?
The decisions by the Forest Service and the BLM to allow Sun Valley Resort to move forward with most elements of Phase 1 of its 10-year master plan should have a positive impact on Sun Valley Resort’s image, enhancing its ability to compete in a very competitive market.
What’s more, change is not limited to Bald Mountain. Sun Valley Company has also embarked on a multi-year improvement plan for Dollar Mountain, which it owns entirely. Changes already in evidence include the impressive Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge, as well as the snowmaking and new lifts that have been installed for the 2007/2008 ski season.
"Even though this decision is limited to Bald Mountain, concurrently as an overall ski resort, they are making major improvements on Dollar, which is enhancing beginning skiing opportunities for people coming to the Sun Valley area," Nelson said.
How much farther down this new path the company travels, however, rests with the powerbrokers within the resort and with those who hold it dear. Phase 2 and Phase 3 are still coming and will require completely new environmental impact studies by federal agencies "in order to keep the decision fresh," Nelson said.
But one thing is certain: Whatever direction Baldy leans, the communities upon which its shadows are cast will ultimately lean with it.