Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
ASPEN – As Vail/Beaver Creek prepares to host the 2015 FIS World Alpine Championships, the most prestigious of skiing events, Aspen is looking at an international racing future that is exciting too, but complicated.
Awarded the World Cup Finals for 2017 in a surprise decision that went against the sport’s powerful alpine executive committee, Aspen may risk losing the event unless Lift 1A is replaced, FIS officials have suggested.
Aspen Skiing Co. officials maintain that they were awarded the finals based upon the as-is condition of the base area, including the 42-year-old chairlift. SkiCo, however, has recognized that the FIS, ski racing’s ruling body, wants Aspen to bring the venue up to par with its classic race hill. With the 2017 Finals a little over two years away, there seems a renewed urgency to implement these improvements.
Markus Waldner, men’s World Cup chief race director, said during the Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek, “The capacity of the lift is not enough for the World Cup finals.”
First built in 1972, FIS believes the “Shadow Mountain” lift and the lack of base area fall short of what is needed to properly accommodate these international races.
Waldner suggested that SkiCo could lose the event unless the lift was replaced in time.
John Rigney, SkiCo’s vice president of sales and events, said the lift issue has been a topic of discussion “off and on for years,” but he didn’t believe it posed an immediate threat.
Rigney added there is a punch list of site improvements to the entry portal that must be completed before 2017, but “a new lift is not on that list.”
“We’ve discussed numerous things including improving the sense of arrival and basic infrastructure that will be at the base by March of 2017,” Rigney said. “We don’t have any reason to believe that’s changed.”
In a series of e-mail exchanges, Waldner’s counterpart on the women’s World Cup tour, Atle Skaardal, wouldn’t directly answer if Aspen would lose the finals and future women’s races if the lift wasn’t replaced. Instead, he referred the issue back to SkiCo.
Skaardal wrote: “Aspen, like any World Cup organizer, must fulfill a number of minimum requirements to host World Cup races. The chairman of the organizing committee, Mr. John Rigney, is your best contact person. He knows all the necessary improvements.”
Gary Black, a managing partner at Ski Racing magazine, published a column on Dec. 16 about Aspen’s World Cup challenges.
“The key for Aspen’s future hinges on a rejuvenated organizing committee and a firm commitment to replace the ancient 1A lift with a new conveyance according to sources within the FIS,” Black wrote.
He also wrote, “In due fairness to Aspen, there is much more to be done than just putting in a lift and changing the finish arena. A new lift means rethinking Ajax Mountain access and providing an economic justification for opening up the south end of town to a high-speed uphill lift, all of which demands change. And, like most places worldwide, change is seldom welcomed with open arms.”
SkiCo has been upfront in saying it won’t replace the lift on its own just for the races, as most times of the year the chair satisfies current capacity demands. Including planning and installation, the price tag for a new, high-capacity lift could run $8-10 million. A lift replacement may also require some review by the U.S Forest Service.
The company has said that improvements to the base area must be developed in concert with parcels in the surrounding neighborhood because of the jigsaw puzzle of property ownership in and around South Aspen Street.
During the past decade, comprehensive proposals that were developed, which included a two new hotels and a new lift location, have failed to receive majority support from either Aspen City Council or the public at large. A new condo hotel for the east side of the street was approved in 2011, but developers have not indicated that construction will begin in the near future.
“No new private proposals have been put forth detailing other alternatives,” said David Corbin, SkiCo’s vice-president of planning and development.
The last mountain master plan for Aspen Mountain was approved by Pitkin County in 1997. In the master plan, SkiCo stated that the company “will replace the existing Shadow Mountain Lift (#1A) with a high-speed detachable lift in a new alignment,” with the base “to the west of the top of Mill Street,” or in the same alignment.
The upper terminal for the new high-speed double was to be located “on upper Roch Run above Zigg Zaugg pitch. This location will allow skiers access to Last Dollar, Rayburn’s/Cone Dump, Silver Queen and Aztec, as well as the terrain accessible from the present terminal of the Shadow Mountain Lift,” SkiCo’s master plan states.
The master plan also noted that SkiCo “will work with the city of Aspen and the Aspen Historical Society to recreate a section of the orginal Lift One at Willoughby Park and create a new Town Lift. The lower terminal of the Town Lift will begin where the remaining superstructure of Lift One is today. The upper Terminal will be near the Summer Road and will provide access to the new Shadow Mountain Lift as well as to the Silver Queen Gondola.”
In some ways, the World Cup Finals, scheduled for March 15-19, 2017, are tailor-made for Aspen. The season-ending series, open only to the top 30 racers of each gender, offers almost the same number of events as the World Championships but in a more compressed time period. The awarding of the final World Cup “globes” lends the series added stature and glamour.
Vail/Beaver Creek has hosted the finals twice, in 1994 and 1997, according to John Garnsey, Vail Resorts’ president of global mountain development. Like Aspen, Vail/Beaver Creek has worked with FIS on many occasions to satisfy venue upgrade requests in advance of the 1989 and 1999 World Championships, and again on the cusp of the 2015 event.
Vail Valley Foundation, the non-profit that runs the event, has a budget of $59 million for the 2015 World Championships, according to Ceil Folz, VVF president. A hospitality/VIP building and a 30,000-square-foot international broadcast center are some of the recent improvements the organizer has made to the Red Tail Stadium.
“The biggest thing that has changed since 1999 are requests for TV production and the sponsors,” Garnsey said. Eurovision, host broadcaster for international TV, is providing more than 900 hours of coverage over the two-week event to an estimated 750 million viewers across more than 70 countries during the championships. NBC Sports Group has the domestic broadcast rights and is planning more than 25 hours of live coverage, including during prime weekend periods.
Men’s race director Waldner, in his first season on the job, wasted no time recommending changes to how the Birds of Prey downhill course is set in order for the racers to find more speed and bigger air off the jumps.
“This is the FIS’ event and they’re the host,” Garnsey said. “At the end of the day, we were able to find compromise and common ground” on their suggested improvements.
Aspen hasn’t always been able to find common ground with the FIS. In the mid-1990s, SkiCo decided against relocating the men’s downhill to the front of Ajax, as that would have required a large retaining wall to be built above Kleenex Corner. After losing the men’s speed races, Aspen has regularly hosted a women’s giant slalom and slalom on the 1A side.
A source within the FIS suggested that the ever-increasing cost of entry as well as the governing body’s intransigence is why fewer U.S. resorts have hosted World Cup races in recent years.
Tiger Shaw, the U.S. Ski Team’s president and CEO, has said publicly he would like to have an East Coast resort host a World Cup race sooner rather than later.
That may be an easier move than relocating some of the 2017 World Cup Finals races from Aspen Mountain to Aspen Highlands, which has an (FIS-approved venue and about $5 million in venue improvements. When asked if this was a possible solution to the Lift 1A problem, the FIS source suggested that wasn’t going to happen now or anytime soon.
Not only is a venue that finishes in downtown Aspen most desirable, but the Ruthie’s Run/Strawpile course remains a favorite among competitors, coaches and some race officials.
And, while the Birds of Prey courses are thrilling for the speed events, the section of the course used for technical events like giant slalom isn’t extraordinary, said Finnish racer Marcus Sandell.
“Aspen’s giant slalom hill is more difficult than Beaver Creek’s,” Sandell said during a training day.
Back in Aspen, FIS representatives have visited Aspen twice since September to offer “specific suggestions that are very fluid,” Rigney said. “Every time they visit, we’re going to continue to tweak that list.”
Just like Aspen’s neighbors to the north are working on their final tweaks for the World Championships.
“The 2015 Championships are so much larger than ‘89 or ‘99 and require a tremendous commitment from the community as a whole,” said the Vail Valley Foundation’s Folz. “For two weeks, we will be at the center of the ski racing universe and we need to ensure that we put our best foot forward once again when the world comes calling on February 2.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News collaborated on this story. The Daily News published a version of this story on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.