Steamboat Ski Area promises untracked snow for a price

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— You can call it "der" or you can call it "freshies," but untracked powder snow is the siren call that lures everyone who comes to the Colorado Rockies to ski. Now, at Steamboat, you can pay for first tracks. And some local powderhounds are howling about the practice.

The Steamboat Ski Area has inaugurated a new program this year called "First Tracks" that allows skiers who have always dreamed of skiing untracked snow, but never attained the goal, to get a head-start on the rest of the eager skiers waiting in the Silver Bullet Gondola line. For $35 beyond the price of a regular lift ticket, skiers at Steamboat this winter will be able to join a ski instructor acting as a guide and catch a gondola ride at 8 a.m. 30 minutes ahead of everyone else.

"I was really bummed when I first heard about it," said Jennifer Ebeling, who's been skiing here for 10 years and skis "at least six times a week."

"I feel as a local who bought a pass, I got the shaft," Ebeling said. "Ski corp. is here to make as much money off us as possible. It's about the soul. Nothing is going to convince ski corp. to stop this. It has to come from the heart. They're selling something you can't sell."

Ski corp. officials say First Tracks will be available every day, regardless of whether fresh snow fell overnight.

Ticket to ride

Once they arrive at the summit of Thunderhead, skiers under the escort of an instructor will be able to duck under the closure rope at Spur Run and head for the bottom of Priest Creek. From there, they will ride the Priest Creek double chair, typically used only to transport ski area employees to Rendezvous Saddle. Once at the top, depending upon the group's ability level, the skiers will either push off into the gladed tree runs of Shadows and Closets or head for a combination of intermediate trails.

"This isn't a ski lesson," said Steamboat's Director of Skier Services Jim Schneider. "The instructor is there to act as a guide. The skiers who sign up should be high intermediates who make strong parallel turns."

Just the same, Schneider, whose job description includes ski school manager, predicted that most of the visiting skiers who sign up for First Tracks won't have a huge impact on local powderhounds simply because they won't be ready for the stashes in Shadows and Closets. Instead, he predicted many of them will be more comfortable on trails such as High Noon and One O'clock. Those two trails wouldn't make it to the top of any locals' list of first runs to hit on a powder morning.

Still, the diehards who were "pressing glass" while waiting for the Silver Bullet to open up Thursday morning weren't convinced.

"(On Wednesday) we waited in line, and we waited in line to get first tracks. We finally got to Priest Creek and it was already tracked up," Craig Frithsen said. "It's just another way to make people pay for their freshies. We paid $900 for a ski pass, why should we pay more for freshies?"

Schneider said most of the skiers who tracked up the 7 to 9 inches of powder in Shadows on Wednesday were instructors in training for the First Tracks program. The true impact of First Tracks won't be known to local skiers until the first wave of holiday skiers arrives later this month. Schneider pointed out that season pass-holders get a 50 percent discount on the First Tracks program, bringing the cost down to $17.50. The price includes a full breakfast buffet, Schneider said. Locals who are now paying $10.80 so they can ride up the gondola at 8:15 would actually pay just a $6.70 premium to join a First Tracks group.

The 'breakfast' club

Schneider said Charlie's Breakfast Club has become a problem for the ski corp. because the local cadre of glass pressers isn't stopping to have breakfast when they got up top. Instead, they are using the club as a way to get their first run in before 8:45 a.m., when they can catch the Burgess Creek chair for the first ride of the day.

"It wasn't meant to be that way," Schneider said. "It was meant to be a breakfast club, not an early access lift. But the skiing public found a way to sneak around the (gondola) building and start skiing."

Ski corp. spokesman Mike Lane said Steamboat decided to start the First Tracks program because it was getting requests from the public.

"A lot of people have asked for a program like this that goes beyond the breakfast club," Lane said. "It's not just for powder skiing. It could be the person who wants to ski (groomed) corduroy. It's designed for locals, too we recognized the request" and discounted First Tracks for season pass-holders.

Schneider said First Tracks emphasizes safety. All of the early skiers are with an instructor or they won't be loaded back onto the Priest Creek lift. And ski patrol is making an extra effort first thing in the morning to scout the runs used by First Tracks for obstructions such as logs and rocks. They do that with all the trails, but now, they'll put Priest Creek at the top of the list to ensure the safety of First Tracks skiers.

Mike Besser, who is beginning his eighth winter here, says he understands ski corp.'s safety issues, but he thinks First Tracks to too expensive.

"I can see the need to regulate the breakfast club for safety concerns," Besser said. "But I wouldn't pay $17.50. I think $35 is kind of cost-prohibitive just for a couple of runs."

Other mountains

Aspen Ski Corp. spokeswoman Corinne Foley said that like Steamboat, Aspen has a program called "First Tracks," intended to help skiers, locals and visitors alike experience untracked powder. But unlike Steamboat's program, Aspen's is free of charge to people who have already purchased a lift ticket.

The catch is that the program is limited to 30 people on any given day. People who want to join an Aspen ambassador and a ski instructor to ride the lifts 30 minutes ahead of the crowd can contact a ski area concierge the day before they hope to ski. First Tracks reservations in Aspen are on a first-come, first-served basis. The program is available daily at Ajax and on Wednesdays and Fridays at Snowmass.

Kristin Yantis, a spokeswoman for Vail Associates, said their ski area doesn't really have anything comparable to Steamboat's First Tracks. However, they will arrange to run a chairlift early for large corporate groups on a negotiable fee basis. That limited program is called "First Light, First Tracks."

Down and out

The First Tracks program in Steamboat runs until 9:30 a.m., when the instructor delivers skiers back to Thunderhead for the breakfast buffet. Schneider predicted it will take a very aggressive skier to get in more than two runs before the rest of the skiing public catches up and begins making their way down the trails in Priest Creek.

A group of ski area officials who boarded the gondola at 8 a.m. sharp on Wednesday was able to ride up the Priest Creek chair seconds past 8:20 a.m. The Priest Creek chairlift is minutes slower than the Sundown Express, which parallels it, and the skiers were just nearing the top at 8:45 a.m. With a stop for a quick photo session in the middle of Shadows, the first trip through the powder wasn't over until after 9 a.m. And midway through the second run, other skiers, hooting and hollering all the way were already in the Closets.

Rod Porteus is 55 years old and has been skiing here since 1969. Porteus arrived at the gondola at 8:20 a.m. on Thursday and said, First Tracks or not, he knows where to find untracked snow without pressing glass.

"It doesn't matter to me," Porteus said. "I still get my tracks."

Ben Tiffany works as a cook and a painter to support his Steamboat ski habit of 20 years. He said he can understand how people living in distant states dream of untracked powder and find it hard to come by. But his empathy isn't boundless.

"They have my sympathy, but (the ski corp.) is creating a class system here. Everybody should be equal in line," Tiffany said. "The first person in line should be the first person to ski."

Skier Brian Arel suggested that the ski corp. should allow everyone who has a season pass to head up the gondola at 8:30 a.m. with the breakfast club crowd. Michele Toner suggested that allowing First Tracks skiers into the sacred powder stashes of Priest Creek is the wrong idea.

Toner, in her eighth season at Steamboat, skied 130 days last winter, including a spring trip to Blackcomb, British Columbia.

"For me, the most important race is the race for first tracks," Toner said. "You know what? We have a lower mountain, too. They can have that. But Priest Creek is one of my favorite runs. To go top to bottom with no tracks that's why I get up so early in the morning."

Adam Fernley said he works on the front lines of the tourism industry in Steamboat as a food server. He said First Tracks is a blow to local service industry workers who live for powder.

"It's a cruel thing to do to locals, who are the heartbeat of your town and keep it running," Fernley said.

Fernley predicted that some vacationing families who can't afford to write a check for First Tracks will be resentful of the program. Mostly, he's worried about what it does to the spirit of local skiers.

"It puts us into that elitism," Fernley said. "I love our mountain. I love our town. I just don't want to see us selling fresh turns. It hurts too many people."

Ebeling said First Tracks will undermine the sense of camaraderie among Steamboat's glass pressers.

"Half the fun of pressing glass was to have a cup of coffee and be sociable, then go up there and disperse yourselves all over the mountain to find your own powder stash."

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