Tony Cammarata knows this terrain as well as anyone. As assistant director of the ski patrol at Arapahoe Basin, he spent much of summer 2007 hiking in A-Basin’s newly opened Montezuma Bowl, placing ropes and signs and scouting the terrain. But as he and I prepare to dive into the dense trees on the bowl’s lower flanks, Cammarata stops and squints at the woods ahead. “Let’s see if we can find the gate for Lightning Trees,” he says, scratching his goatee and looking lost.
Shouldn’t the assistant director of the ski patrol know how to find Lightning Trees?
We forge on through a maze-like spruce/fir forest in powder that should be skied off by now, since it hasn’t snowed in days. After a few turns, we reach a gate informing us that we have, in fact, arrived at Lightning Trees. Any farther and we’ll have to hike 20 minutes back up to the lift. Hiking’s fine by us, so down we go.
The slope steepens a bit and the trees open up. I follow Cammarata down a benchy little pitch, and finally we swoop down one last steep shot to the bottom of a groomed track that leads to the new Zuma fixed-grip quad. We’ve descended 500 feet from the gate, and not once have we crossed another track. In fact, we haven’t even seen another track. Montezuma Bowl has nearly doubled Arapahoe Basin’s skiable terrain, adding 410 acres and 1,400 vertical feet. There’s now so much terrain in this high-alpine cirque that you’ll rarely have to ski the same line twice. If you can even find it.
A-Basin has long been known as a haven for the hardcore. With its imposing steeps and nosebleed elevation (the 13,050-foot summit is the highest in-bounds terrain in North America), it’s no place for the weak. There are no shops or hotels. No homes or condos. Until two seasons ago, all eating and commerce took place in a military-surplus A-frame that the resort’s founders purchased in the mid-1960s. There’s no cell service and no childcare facility, unless you count a few mats on the top floor of the A-frame, and the closest thing to nightlife is the après-ski scene on late spring afternoons, when revelers set up beach chairs in the parking lot to drink beer and watch the snow melt. The most glamorous aspect of A-Basin is its defiant anti-glamour.
But after six decades of reassuring sameness, A-Basin has undergone some changes. In 2002, a snowmaking system was installed. In 2004, a mountaintop patrol headquarters and warming hut were built. In 2005, a rental and tuning facility went up. In 2007, the resort unveiled Black Mountain Lodge, a mid-mountain restaurant that offers very un-A-Basin-like fare—Kobe beef burgers, smoked salmon, elk stew—in a pleasant space with views of the near-vertical East Wall terrain.
And then last January, Montezuma Bowl opened. The first time I visited, I was my own guide, riding two lifts up to 12,472 feet and scooting over a ridge to the top of the Zuma lift. It seemed quite obvious. Down the middle, six intermediate runs—long a rarity here—dropped tamely toward the treeline. On my right, a stream of hikers bootpacked up a ridge to access a number of south-facing couloirs. To my left lay an array of advanced and intermediate runs. I skied one meandering trail through the open bowl, then a second on Jump—a 35-degree, 100-foot-wide chute named for A-Basin co-founder Laurance A. Jump—and then headed back to the frontside, reckoning I had this new terrain dialed.
But when I return a few weeks later and follow Cammarata into Lightning Trees, I realize I had only scratched the surface. I had missed the whole ecosystem of glades below treeline. Besides Lightning Trees, there’s Torrey’s, Gray’s and Bierstadt on the bowl’s southern flank; Elephant’s Trunk, Gentling’s Glade, Montezuma’s Revenge and Black Forest on the north side. All have lots of snow and, for now, a scarcity of skiers.
After a couple of runs, Cammarata takes his leave, and I decide to give Lightning Trees another try. I traverse across the bowl’s southern ridge until I reach the spot where Cammarata had stopped to take his bearings. I scratch my chin, ski a few turns, angle left, bear right, scratch my chin a couple more times and ski on. Finally, I bomb down an open, trackless glade to the bottom.
I ski plenty of powder. But I end up nowhere close to Lightning Trees.
MORE DETAILS>>> Arapahoe Basin, CO
900 skiable acres; 360 annual inches; 105 trails; summit elevation 13,050 feet; vertical drop 2,270 feet; seven lifts, including one quad, two triples and three doubles. Lift tickets: $58 (2007–08)
Lodging: There’s nothing at A-Basin, so your best bet is nearby Keystone. There’s a shuttle every half-hour. For an experience steeped in ski heritage, try the Ski Tip Lodge, a 19th-century stagecoach stop converted into a lodge in the ’40s by one of A-Basin’s founding families; $119– $199; skitiplodge.com; 877-753-9786.
Dining: Even if you’re not a guest, stop by the Ski Tip for a four-course dinner with inventive-but-not-fussy offerings such as Nebraskan bison stew and raisin-stuffed roulade of rabbit. Or go upscale at the Keystone Ranch, where six-course feasts include selections such as seared foie gras with nectarine cinnamon foam, braised Berkshire pork cheeks and Grand Marnier soufflé; 800-354-4386.
Getting There: Take I-70 West from Denver to exit 205 (Silverthorne) then go 12 miles east on U.S. Highway 6.
Info: arapahoebasin.com; 888-272-7246