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Ski Resort Expansion Pays Off at Keystone, Colo.

March 09, 1986|JEFF FREES | Frees is a Colorado Springs, Colo., free-lance writer.

KEYSTONE, Colo. — Experience has taught skiers to be wary of reports extolling ski resort expansion and new development. More often than not, the pre-opening hoopla doesn't quite square with the post-opening reality.

This is particularly true when the resort has to push to complete its project by the season's opening day. So it is that many skiers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude for matters concerning ski resort growth.

That was my game plan for Keystone's $15-million expansion that was unveiled last winter with loud national fanfare. I was not one of the first to rush over. I waited until March when the snow was deep and the management (Ralston Purina) had things fine-tuned.

What a rare surprise. This could be the most intelligently conceived and executed expenditure of money that the Colorado ski industry has seen, since Walter Paepcke had the vision to string a chairlift up Aspen Mountain in 1949.

Top Echelon

With it, Keystone is no longer in the "we try harder" category of Colorado ski spas. It has risen to the top echelon with Aspen, Vail and Telluride (not Steamboat; that's the Mouton Cadet of Colorado ski hills).

Keystone amended its two greatest flaws--runs that were too bland and lift lines that were too grand. It did this by adding a whole mountain of steep runs, North Peak, two triple chairlifts and a gondola called River Run that might well be the dandiest ski lift anywhere in North America.

In Keystone's previous 15 years of life, its lift line gridlocks and milk-toast runs had driven many of us Colorado skiers to steeper, less crowded mountains. We especially took to Arapahoe Basin (also owned by Keystone) just up the road. There the steep runs off the rarely crowded Palavaccini chairlift became our home park while Keystone proper was thought to be for tourists only.

North Peak

North Peak completely negates that notion. It takes just one lift ride to show you that. As I rode up the Santiago lift that serves the mountain, I gulped. The mogul beaded surfaces of the Geronimo and Powder Cap runs menaced below on the left and right. The one consolation was that the two runs didn't look deadly steep from the elevated chair.

But that was a false consolation, for the runs are much steeper when you're standing in their hip-high bumps than what they appear from the lift.

My maiden descent was on Geronimo, which summarily put me in my place with its sustained steepness. It's a mile long. No 50-yard steep and the rest boring run, this one just kept going and going. All 1,600 vertical feet are put to work and this is essentially why the new mountain is so terrific.

After that introductory thrashing, I tried out one of the two new intermediate runs. It was called Last Alamo. Ah, what a way to rebuild your confidence. It's 1 1/2 miles long and the operators keep it as smooth as a pool table. The run sustains a formidable pitch from top to bottom.

Groomed Smooth

In several hours, because there wasn't a hint of lift wait, I skied all six of North Peak's runs. Their lengths and sustained pitches seem to be familial characteristics. The two intermediate runs are both groomed smooth. I wrapped up the day with a bash down Cat Dancer. They say this trail keeps the ski patrol busy with disabled skiers. I could see why. I will never call Keystone a milk-toast resort again.

I never waited more than two minutes for an uphill ride. This was not the Keystone of years before, where lift lines seemed to begin right at the parking lot.

My "long" two-minute wait came at the new River Run gondola. It was more the result of a family loading a car with children than of any sort of lift line backup. This lift moves skiers up to the mountaintop at a clip of 2,400 an hour. It's the longest and highest climbing gondola in North America.

What a stylish ride; the sliding doors close automatically and you're whisked out of the building. It's a gliding, quiet ascent. High above the spruce trees you go. Fine views are east and west--Mt. Evans to the east and the sawtoothed Gore Range to the west. In 10 minutes the doors slide open and out you go, two miles away and 2,340 feet high.

Keystone Mountain

From that point you can ski down to North Peak or to any place on Keystone Mountain because you are atop the whole ski ensemble.

River Run Plaza, from where the gondola climbs, is every bit as stylish as the gondola. It's by the Snake River, taking every opportunity to exploit the setting with a deck or porch beside the gurgling waters.

The buildings are finished in natural wood, blending into the sylvan milieu. Shops, restaurants and after-ski bistros fill up the retail space. Nicest of all is that special care was taken to preserve as many trees as possible, so you feel a closeness to nature rather than a closeness to an architect's brainstorm.

75 Miles From Denver

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