Expansions important to ski area growth

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— With more than 65 miles of trails and almost 3,000 acres of terrain, the Steamboat Ski Area has a reputation for being one of the biggest in North America.

It took a few expansions from its original form to get it that way. The most recent were the addition of Pioneer Ridge and the Pony Express lift in 1998 and the addition of Morningside Park in 1996.

But it was in the 1970s that two key expansions transformed Steamboat into a world-class ski destination.

The two expansions came about differently.

The first was installing a gondola to mid-mountain and a poma lift to the Summit of Storm Mountain.

John Fetcher, president of the Mount Werner Ski Company through the 1960s, said those expansions had been planned for some time.

"We always wanted to figure out how to get to the top of the mountain," he said. "We thought about the gondola for a long time, probably since the beginning of the ski area. We probably didn't really start thinking seriously about it until 1965."

When the ski area was sold to the LTV Corporation, a deal that closed in 1969, there was finally the money to do it.

"That's when I got the O.K. and signed the contract for the Bell gondola," Fetcher said.

The poma lift also was installed to give access to the top of Storm Peak.

The second key expansion happened in 1972, when the Priest Creek and Elkhead lifts opened. Though the lift access of that expansion initially remained at Priest Creek (where the Sundown Express lift is today) that expansion ultimately moved the ski area's southern boundary from the Storm Peak face to its current location, just south of the Tomahawk run.

Dick Randolph was the supervisor of lifts and ski area planner in the late '70s. He said his first thoughts of expanding into Priest Creek came from looking at the view from the top of Storm Peak.

"Nobody ever talked about it," Randolph said.

He began pursuing an expansion after his children, who were in junior high at time, were talking about skiing the "closet."

Randolph said he never heard of the area but his kids said it was marked.

"I said, alright, next week we'll go over there," he said.

The next week, when his children took him to the area, he realized that the "closet" run was actually spelled c-l-o-s-e-d.

"They worked it out so they could go down and then get out at the Rainbow saddle. Otherwise you'd have to walk," Randolph said. "I skied it and thought, 'oh boy, this is good."

He said he realized that this was an area the ski area needed to embrace. He had a snow cat road built at the bottom of what today is Closets to help get people out of the area.

Not long after that he invited Pete Wingle to ski there. Wingle was the forester in charge of recreation in the Rocky Mountain region for the U.S. Forest Service.

Randolph took Wingle into the Priest Creek trees on a powder day.

"He said, 'If you don't expand here then you're nuts,'" Randolph recalled.

The ski area had to resolve a few issues over grazing rights in the area. But by 1972, the ski area acquired what today is it's southern boundaries and built the Priest Creek lift fairly easily, he said.

A significant portion of the original Priest Creek expansion area didn't open for skiing until 1984, when the Sunshine Bowl opened, along with the South Peak lift. In 1985, the Sunshine lift also opened in the Sunshine Bowl.

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