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Vail Mountain upgrades eyed

Resort plans to add gondola and new lifts, improve others

By John Meyer, The Denver Post
Published: April 6, 2024, 5:31am

DENVER — The flagship of the Vail Resorts ski empire has big plans for the next decade, according to a new master development document filed with the White River National Forest.

The proposed improvements on Vail Mountain include the construction of a third gondola, the replacement of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, adding several new lifts and upgrading or replacing others. Also on the drawing boards are two new restaurants and a small base in West Lionshead.

The point of many of the upgrades would be to help ease congestion on trails and at Vail’s two main bases, Vail Village and Lionshead, according to the master development plan. More specifically, Vail wants to “improve circulation, ease congestion, spread skiers out, more fully utilize under-utilized terrain and keep wait times at lifts at a comfortable level and, therefore, maintain a high-level ski experience for guests,” the plan says.

Ski areas are required by the U.S. Forest Service to file master development plans every 10 years or so. Vail’s latest MDP, which runs 157 pages, was accepted by White River National Forest Superintendent Scott Fitzwilliams in January.

That doesn’t mean every project in the plan will happen, though. For example, a new lift at West Lionshead and a new restaurant in Blue Sky Basin were previously approved by the Forest Service. Neither was built. Both are listed again in the new MDP.

“Vail Mountain is always assessing guest flow, circulation, terrain utilization, among many other inputs, which informs potential future lift projects outlined in the MDP,” said Vail spokesman John Plack. “These plans help the ski areas articulate their long-range vision for the use of public lands, and they help the Forest Service anticipate future use. The MDP is an articulation of possible projects and improvements, but these projects are not currently approved.”

No new lifts planned

White River National Forest spokesman David Boyd said any new lifts, new runs or new development needs to go through an environmental analysis before being approved. “Those are going to be project by project.”

Ski areas operate on national forest land through special-use permits issued by the agency. White River has the highest visitation of any national forest, running about 18 million annually, in large part because it is home to 12 ski areas stretching from Arapahoe Basin to Aspen. According to the MDP, Vail has averaged 1.6 million skier visits annually over the past eight years.

Here are some of the highlights of the MDP:

  • The Eagle Bahn Gondola from Lionshead to Eagles Nest was installed in 1997, the year Vail Associates was renamed Vail Resorts after merging with Breckenridge and Keystone. “Given its year-round, day and night operations, freight hauling duties, and limited capacity, the gondola will need a major overall or potentially an upgrade during the life of this plan,” the MDP says.
  • The previously approved new lift at West Lionshead would originate near the location of the old Amoco gas station on the South Frontage Road and would terminate near the bottom of Chair 26, otherwise known as the Pride Express. It would take pressure off the two main base areas, Vail Village and Lionshead. “The lift would create a new access point, enhancing access to the western portion of the mountain especially during the morning staging period,” the MDP says. “Providing a lift in this area would decrease congestion at Lionshead and Cascade Village base areas, as well as increase utilization of Pride Express.”
  • The Riva Bahn, also known as Chair 6, is a four-person chair that was was built in 1996. “Chair 6 is the only chairlift out of the Golden Peak base area,” the MDP states. “Reliable service is critical in this area. The new gondola will be extended up to Two Elk Lodge and have a mid-station near the top of Whippersnapper at the existing mid-station. Due to the extended alignment, it will have an enhanced role in transporting guests to the back bowls rather than having guests access this terrain using Chair 11.”
  • Other lifts being eyed for replacement include Chair 2 (Avanti Express), Chair 3 (Wildwood Express), Chair 4 (Mountaintop Express), Chair 8 (Born Free Express), Chair 15 (Little Eagle), Chair 20 (Cascade Village), Chair 21 (Orient Express) and Tea Cup Express (Chair 36).
  • For summer operations, a second mountain coaster, which would be longer than the existing mountain coaster, is planned. “The track would be roughly 12,000 feet of track, descending approximately 1,200 vertical feet. This coaster was not approved in the 2014 ROD (Forest Service record of decision) as further-site specific and resource-specific analysis was required; however, the close proximity to Eagle’s Nest and the potential use of existing winter infrastructure still makes this location ideal to expand the summer guest experience and for providing a diverse summer experience a wide range of guests can enjoy.”