Alan Henceroth picks his way down the partially frozen tundra high above his office at Arapahoe Basin, carefully navigating a steep hillside covered by rocks, tufts of grass, and trees. Two groups of ski-area employees huddle in small leeward divots as Henceroth, A-Basin’s chief operating officer, passes with a wave and quick hello. They are waiting for a bulldozer to finish grading a new snowcat road before they can get to work. It is mid-September, just after 9 a.m., and the 31-degree temperatures, frosty wind, and fresh dusting of snow on Lenawee Mountain remind us how close winter is.
The coming season marks a turning point in A-Basin’s 71-year history. Once snow conditions permit, the ski area plans to open the bulk of a 468-acre expansion into a pair of popular—and, in places, precarious—backcountry zones known as the Beavers and Steep Gullies. It is the largest expansion in A-Basin’s history and, when complete next year, it will add a 1,500-vertical-foot chairlift as well as perhaps 50 percent more terrain than “The Legend” offered before. Henceroth and other staff members believe the expansion will catapult A-Basin into a new tier of steep-skiing awesomeness, on par with larger resorts like Telluride and Crested Butte. “It’s going to ski like the biggest 1,428-acre ski area in the country,” Henceroth says, standing at the top of Beaver Bowl, pointing out some of the steep, north-facing glades that he predicts will become the surprise star of the expansion.
A lot of A-Basin’s longtime devotees, however, worry that the area’s beloved intimacy could be on its way out with their 30-year powder stashes. The multimillion-dollar expansion undoubtedly means more people and fewer parking spaces, though its effect on lift lines remains to be seen.
I follow Henceroth down the cat road to Loafer, one of two rolling, steeper-than-you’d-expect groomed runs that come with the expansion. Then we sidehill through the glades, where employees have been thinning 17 swaths, each 100 feet wide, for optimal skiing. Their permit allows them to take 20 percent of the trees in each swath, but Henceroth explains they’ve gone light so as not to do anything they can’t reverse once they test it out this winter.
“A lot of people ski out here a lot,” Henceroth says on a natural bench in a glade called Jager, in honor of one of A-Basin’s first avalanche dogs, “but most of ’em just ski their 10 favorite lines. And with what we’ve done here, now where there were 10, there’ll be 20 or 30.”
Eventually, our path takes us around the corner to the top of the Steep Gullies, five rock-lined couloirs where a half dozen people have died in avalanches over the years. A major selling point for the proposal was the addition of professional avalanche mitigation here. This summer, workers rigged a cable system to deliver explosives to key, hard-to-reach points on the face, and A-Basin plans to have 15 more patrollers on the mountain to cover the added demands.
“We certainly have a lot of challenging terrain,” Henceroth says, peering over the edge into the first Steep Gully, “but this is going to be the most challenging terrain we have.”
If you don’t mind the 15-minute hike back to the Pali chair, you could spend an entire day in the Steep Gullies and never run out of lines to explore. Which is wild, considering it’s only one-quarter of the expansion.
On one of the last powder days of the 2017 spring—and as such, one of the last backcountry powder days ever in the Beavers and Steep Gullies—two friends and I joined the hordes heading west from the top of the Pallavicini lift. I lucked into a virgin line down Face Shot Gully and skied to the valley floor, stopping at the base of a steep bootpack up to Highway 6, where we would hitchhike a half mile back to the ski area. Just as we were about to start hiking, three more skiers arrived. Then four more. Then two more pairs. And another foursome. All within a few minutes.
Everyone shouldered their gear and booted up to the road. A truck pulled over; seven of us piled into the open bed. I don’t know how long it took the other dozen to get back.
That’s been the system for decades at A-Basin, and it has functioned just fine. Rarely does it get overloaded like it did last spring, but even then, it still worked—everyone survived and caught a ride back to the chairlift.
When Henceroth hears the gripes about this expansion ruining the A-Basin experience by opening up the prized terrain to everyone instead of just those who seek it out themselves, he stops to make a distinction. “Some people think of it as backcountry skiing, but my take is let’s just call it what it is: lift-served skiing,” he says. “One thing about the Beavers and Steep Gullies is all the usage up to now, 100 percent of it, has been lift served. When someone gets hurt out there, the first thing they do is call ski patrol. What we’re doing is not a radical change to what was already happening.”
Aside from a passionate and outspoken snowboarder named Danny Ferrari, who claims A-Basin is endangering more users than it will protect by opening the terrain, longtime locals have resisted criticizing the expansion publicly—perhaps because The Legend still inspires more love than hate, or perhaps because it’s happening no matter what, so there’s no point raising a fuss. But it’s hard to miss the stickers, which have been popping up across the county: A-Basin’s classic flaming “A” logo splashed across a silhouette of Mickey Mouse, who is burning in orange flames, next to the words “The Legend is over.”
Slopes Maintenance Manager Louis Skowyra, who spent a decade as a patroller at A-Basin and was Colorado Ski Country USA’s patroller of the year in 2015, says he and his crew spent hours talking about the expansion’s implications on tradition. “I understand the angst that a lot of our locals feel about the Beavers and Steep Gullies coming inbounds, and I’m empathetic to them,” Skowyra says. “Those guys are my friends. I see ’em all the time. But this expansion for Arapahoe Basin is appropriate, and it fits. This is the type of terrain that A-Basin has been making more accessible to people since 1946.”
Jody Thompson, known as Tele Jody at A-Basin and often one of the first in line on a powder day, says she sees both sides. Ultimately, as long as the expansion doesn’t infringe on the hometown vibe at the base of the Pali chair, or anywhere else for that matter, Thompson views the gain in terrain as being worth the change.
“The Basin is my family, my second home,” she says. “I don’t want it to be so vast that it’s not going to be so intimate.” She pauses. “But I’m psyched, to be honest with you. Because we’re going to get to ski more. And it’s spreading people out.”
Henceroth, who worked as A-Basin’s patrol director for 11 years and has been at the ski area for 35, says he heard plenty of grumbling before the Montezuma Bowl expansion in 2008. That one added 400 acres of largely intermediate terrain, including a backcountry bowl that locals had skied for decades, but it also relieved pressure on the Pali chair, which delighted the diehards. After the first year, a number of skiers who’d been opposed to the expansion thanked Henceroth and admitted it had shortened lines elsewhere.
“I don’t blame anybody who doesn’t want to see things change. I get why people love stuff,” Henceroth says in September, just above Face Shot Gully. “But I think what’s important about that and what’s cool about the Basin is there’s a lot of good pressure on us to do things right, and do things really well. There’s always someone who is going to express doubt or be critical. But we’re OK with that. What’s important is that when we do things, we’re doing them for the right reasons, and we do a good job.”
The list of “things” A-Basin has done over the past 10 years ranks among the most impressive in the industry, especially for a midsize ski area: it added almost 900 skiable acres to the original 560—a 160 percent increase; built a stunning midmountain restaurant; replaced a slow base-area triple chair with a more efficient quad; added 300 parking spaces; expanded its rental and retail shops and renovated the 6th Alley Bar & Grill; built a new children's center; next year, the Basin will add another quad capable of carrying 1,800 people an hour in the Beavers (until then, everyone will hike back to Pali).
The investments have paid off handsomely. A-Basin set another record for skier visits last year (besting its previous season by 16,000). With the Beavers expansion, Henceroth says he doesn’t expect a windfall of new visitors; if anything, he hopes it brings more weekday business instead of adding to the crowds on weekends. “We’re not focused on bringing in a gazillion people. There’s only so many parking spots down there,” he says of the Beavers. “We’re focused on making the skiing and riding here as good as it possibly can be.”
To decide where to put the lift, A-Basin staff studied the snowfall in the Beavers for four winters and realized their season could be substantially longer—up to 150 days—if they built it above the valley floor. (They also learned the Beavers received much more snow than the existing ski area, just a mile to the east.) On a similar note, the decision to require Steep Gully skiers to hike back to Pali was made to preserve the snow and weed out unfit, and perhaps lesser skilled, users. “It’s no accident that we went with a hiking element here,” Henceroth says at the top of the face. “We did that to keep the quality high.”
“One of our mantras is, yeah, we’re gonna keep working on fixing stuff,” he adds. “But we want to keep the culture and the vibe of this place alive and strong, because that’s what’s special about it.”
That’s also why the stakes are higher. As everyone waits to see how it shakes out, Skowyra has a hunch. Call it insider knowledge from a guy who knows the new terrain as well as anybody.
“I think overwhelmingly,” he says, “we’re going to put more smiles on people’s faces than frowns.”