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True Love and Devotion

True Love and Devotion

Travel
By Natalie Kurylko
posted: 09/24/2001

Even if you've never heard of Loveland, chances are you've seen it. Straddling Eisenhower Tunnel, where the I-70 ski corridor burrows through the Continental Divide, it's arguably Colorado's most visible resort. More than a million people drive by annually on their way to Summit and Eagle county mega-resorts such as Vail and Copper.

Unlike those behemoths, Loveland is decidedly an anti-resort. With no high-speed lifts, gondolas or lodging, it's certainly not a destination resort. But with 1,265 skiable acres and a vertical drop of 2,410, it isn't as small as your average hometown hill, either.

No, Loveland is like no other place in the country.

Consider its location. Topping out at 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide, most of Loveland's terrain is above treeline. Those who've skied Europe can't help but draw the comparison. It even skis like Europe, with a lot of "if-you-can-see-it-you-can-ski-it" terrain. While its wide-open, 270-degree bowl shape atop the Divide affords great views, it also means the weather is unpredictable. One minute it's sunny, the next it's blizzarding. Even in spring, when other resorts are shuttering their lifts, snowstorms keep Loveland skiers coming into May. "Loveland sits so high and right on the spine of the Continental Divide, it's favored by storms not just from the west and northwest, but also from the east," Loveland pro patroller and avalanche forecaster Dale Atkins says. "In Colorado, only two other ski areas do well when storms come from the east, and those are nearby Berthoud and Cuchara to the south."

Diehards come here not just because it's closer to Denver and consistently snowier than any other Front Range resort. They come because they dig its low-key demeanor. Take Al Argon, a 73-year-old three-track skier who's been skiing Loveland since 1964.

Argon consistently logs more days than any other pass holder, averaging 120 days per season. "I ski all the resorts every winter, but Loveland is where I come most." On weekdays, the slopes are largely populated by a retired crowd that is devoted to the area. "I've been coming here since 1948," laughs Evie Kyle, 74, of Lakewood, Colo. "In that time, I've only missed a couple of years here, due to pregnancies. Now there are about 10 of us that ski together a few times every week," Kyle says.

Weekends bring in a radically different-and larger-crowd. For every retiree who calls this place home Monday through Friday, three families and a carload of pierced and tattooed twentysomethings move in on the weekends. Beginners and families with small children head to the 67-skiable-acre Loveland Valley area, a quarter-mile from the main base area. This is ski-school central and home to Chair 7, a slow triple that services a wide-open and gently graded beginner area. It also features Chair 3, site of the annual Loveland Derby, billed as the oldest and largest ski race in the country.

Each year, Loveland gives 26,000 lessons, 80 percent of those to beginners. Last season, the return rate was up 13 percent, a testimonial to the quality of instruction. Much of the credit belongs to Serge Couttet, Loveland's ski-school director. Born and raised in a mountain- and ski-guiding family in Chamonix, France, Couttet came to Vail in 1963 to learn English, planning to stay just "a few winters." He's lived in Colorado since. "I was at Vail and then these people here got in touch with me and asked me if I was interested in running the school," he says in heavily accented English. "Thirty-five years later, I'm still here."

Anyone who has experienced the mysticism and grand beauty of Chamonix can't help but wonder why the member of a well-established guiding family would stay at little ol' Loveland and live 12 miles away in Georgetown, a community of 900.

"It took some decision-making, but it was worth trying to be boss here, and it worked out. I work up here, live down there. It's perfect. Perfect. I've found my peace here," he says.

Ses quite a few staffers have. Among them, Bill Gooch, 53, who has directed the area's strong race program for more than a decade. He's had other offers from higher profile programs, but plans on sticking with Loveland. "A long time ago I decided I wanted to be at a level where the kids wanted to come to me and I could make it fun for them. As you go up that ladder, the fun gets left behind."

Not your average race coach talking, but that doesn't mean he doesn't get results. Many of his racers have gone on to compete at the collegiate level. A few have even been invited to U.S. Ski Team camps. He also coaches the area's Masters racers, who perennially dominate the Rocky Mountain Series. When they're not training at the Valley, Loveland racers head to the Basin, where most Loveland skiers make their turns. "I've skied everywhere," Argon says, "and Loveland has everything the bigger resorts have, just on a smaller scale." It's true. The five bump runs to skier's right of Chair 1 offer as much challenge as any. Zoom is the locals favorite for the clean zipper lines produced by the steep pitch and consistent fall line. Fire Bowl off Chair 2 is the perfect warm-up run-wide open and meticulously groomed. And for run after run of big, swooping GS turns, you can't beat the expanse atop Chair 9.

But Loveland's most unique asset is its natural terrain-park feel. Around every corner are little rollers and gulleys you only find by exploring the sides of trails. When you tire of skiing Chair 8's short gladed runs, for example, ski just below the liftline to a gate, and you're in The Face, a narrow alley between trees and rocks. From here it's a short, precipitous ski/sideslip to a 40-foot tunnel under I-70 that leads back to the base area.

As you exit the tunnel, resort GM Ken Abrahamson may be watching you. His corner office is 20 feet from the tunnel's exit and not much more from the base of Chair 2. This vantage gives him a clear perspective on the customer experience. Abrahamson points out one longtime season-pass holder, then another. "You'd be surprised how many of us are on a first-name basis," he says. "There's a good feeling about that. Our customers feel like they're a part of Loveland."

Before becoming GM, Abrahamson was assistant general manager for six years and mountain operations manager from 1972-85. Raised and still living in Georgetown, he's stayed for various reasons. A main one is Chester Upham, Loveland's owner since 1956, the year the first chairlift was installed. "I can't imagine having had a better career opportunity than I've had," he says.

"Mr. Upham has shown a lot of loyalty to the employees. I recently turned 55, and 37 of those years have been here, so I guess that pretty well sums it up."

Abrahamson is candid about the hurdles the ski area faces. "Times are definitely more challenging right now than I have ever witnessed. Especially for privately owned, smaller ski areas," he says. Loveland does about 225,000 skiers per year. Neighboring Breckenridge alone does almost six times the volume. Add to that Winter Park, Keystone, Vail, Beaver Creek and Copper, and Loveland has some serious competition. "Big resorts and publicly held companies have financing and offer packages that small areas simply can't compete with," Abrahamson says. Take, for instance, Buddy Passes. In 1997, Loveland's pass price of $580 was half that of the competition. Then, in 1998, Winter Park introduced a four-person $799 Buddy Pass. Most other Front Range resorts were quick to follow, and suddenly, Loveland's trump card held little value. Nowadays, people can buy a Colorado Pass for $299 that lets them ski Keystone, A-Basin and Breck all season long, plus 10 days at either Beaver Creek or Vail. As an independent, Loveland has no such sister resorts to partner with, but it still has to charge $269 for season passes to keep operations afloat. So the area has had to refocus its marketing efforts. The flood of Buddy Pass skiers has meant a huge increase in traffic on I-70, and weekend daytrippers on the ski corridor between 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. can count on a three-hour commute.

Loveland's solution is a discounted flex ticket, which lets you ski any four consecutive hours of the day. "It's been real popular," says Abrahamson. But will it be enough?

Industry insiders aren't sure, but they realize that the health of the ski industry relies on feeder areas like Loveland. And Buddy Passes won't be around forever, because they simply aren't economically viable for resorts. Loveland also has tradition, a dedicated following and loyal staffers on its side. Among them, Abrahamson, Couttet, Gooch and Patrol Director Ron Kidder account for 150 years of devoted service. That kind of longevity is unusual in an industry known for transiency. As for the future, things aren't likely to change anytime soon. Funds for capital improvements come from revenue, and, likewise, any revenue goes straight back into the mountain. As long as revenue can support the operation, the Upham family intends to stay the established course. Which, for skiers like Argon and Kyle, is a good thing.iers has meant a huge increase in traffic on I-70, and weekend daytrippers on the ski corridor between 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. can count on a three-hour commute.

Loveland's solution is a discounted flex ticket, which lets you ski any four consecutive hours of the day. "It's been real popular," says Abrahamson. But will it be enough?

Industry insiders aren't sure, but they realize that the health of the ski industry relies on feeder areas like Loveland. And Buddy Passes won't be around forever, because they simply aren't economically viable for resorts. Loveland also has tradition, a dedicated following and loyal staffers on its side. Among them, Abrahamson, Couttet, Gooch and Patrol Director Ron Kidder account for 150 years of devoted service. That kind of longevity is unusual in an industry known for transiency. As for the future, things aren't likely to change anytime soon. Funds for capital improvements come from revenue, and, likewise, any revenue goes straight back into the mountain. As long as revenue can support the operation, the Upham family intends to stay the established course. Which, for skiers like Argon and Kyle, is a good thing.

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