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Chris Sorensen, Vice President and General Manager of Keystone, Colorado
September 11, 2023
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Vail Resorts
Located in: Keystone, Colorado
Year founded: 1970
Epic Pass: unlimited access
Epic Local Pass: unlimited access
Summit Value Pass: unlimited access
Keystone Plus Pass: unlimited access with holiday blackouts
Tahoe Local: five days combined with Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Park City
Epic Day Pass: access with All Resorts and 32-resorts tiers
Closest neighboring ski areas: Arapahoe Basin (:08), Frisco (:19), Loveland (22 minutes), Breckenridge (:25), Copper (:25), Vail (:44), Beaver Creek (:53), Ski Cooper (:56) – travel times vary considerably given traffic, weather, and time of year.
Base elevation: 9,280 feet
Summit elevation: 12,408 feet at the top of Keystone Peak; highest lift-served point is 12,282 feet at the top of Bergman Bowl Express
Vertical drop: 3,002 feet lift-served; 3,128 feet hike-to
Skiable Acres: 3,149 acres
Average annual snowfall: 235 inches
Trail count: 130 (49% most difficult, 39% more difficult, 12% easiest)
Lift count: 20 (1 eight-passenger gondola, 1 six-passenger gondola, 4 high-speed six-packs, 3 high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 1 triple, 2 doubles, 7 carpets)
Why I interviewed him
Keystone arrived in 1970, a star member of the last great wave of western ski resort development, just before Snowbird (1971), Northstar (1972), Telluride (1972), and Big Sky (1973). It landed in a crowded Summit County, just down the road from Arapahoe Basin (1946) and five miles overland from Breckenridge (1961). Copper Mountain came online two years later. Loveland (1937) stood at the gateway to Summit County, looming above what would become the Eisenhower Tunnel in 1973. Just west sat Ski Cooper (1942), the mighty and rapidly expanding Vail Mountain (1962), and the patch of wilderness that would morph into Beaver Creek within a decade. Today, the density of ski areas along Colorado’s I-70 corridor is astonishing:
Despite this geographic proximity, you could not find more distinct ski experiences were you to search across continents. This is true everywhere ski areas bunch, from northern Vermont to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Wasatch. Ski areas, like people, hack their identities out of the raw material available to them, and just as siblings growing up in the same household can emerge as wildly different entities, so too can mountains that sit side-by-side-by-side.
Keystone, lacking the gnar, was never going to be Jackson or Palisades, fierce and frothing. Sprung from wilderness, it could never replicate Breck’s mining-town patina. Its high alpine could not summon the drama of A-Basin’s East Wall or the expanse of Vail’s Back Bowls.
But Keystone made its way. It would be Summit County’s family mountain, its night-ski mountain, and, eventually, one of its first-to-open-each-ski-season mountains. This is the headline, and this is how everyone thinks of the place. But over the decades, Keystone has quietly built out one of Colorado’s most comprehensive ski experiences, an almost perfect front-to-back progression from gentle to damn. Like Heavenly or Park City, Keystone wears its steeps modestly, like your quiet neighbor with a Corvette hidden beneath tarps in the polebarn. All you notice is the Camry parked in the driveway. But there are layers here. Keep looking, and you will find them.
What we talked about
Hopeful for that traditional October opening; why Keystone is Vail’s early-season operator in Colorado; why the mountain closes in early April; breaking down the Bergman Bowl expansion and the six-pack that will service it; the eternal tension of opening hike-to terrain to lift service; building more room to roam, rather than more people to roam it; the art of environmentally conscious glading; new lift-served terrain in Erickson Bowl; turning data into infrastructure; why the Bergman sixer won’t have bubbles; why Bergman won’t access The Windows terrain; the clever scheme behind renaming the Bergman Bowl expansion trails; building a new trailmap with Rad Smith; where skiers will be able to get a copy of the new paper trailmap; comparing the Peru upgrade to the Bergman lift project; the construction mistake that delayed the Bergman expansion by a full year; the possibility of lifts in Independence, North, and South Bowls; falling in love with skiing Colorado, then moving to Michigan; why Vail bought a bunch of Midwest bumps; when you get to lead the resort where you started bumping lifts; what makes Keystone stand out even though it sits within one of the densest concentrations of large ski areas in North America; thoughts on long-term lift upgrades, and where we could see six-packs; whether the Argentine lift could ever return in some form; the potential for a Ski Tip lift; where Keystone could expand next; whether a Windows lift is in play; North American Bowl; when we could see an updated Keystone masterplan; why Keystone gets less snow than its neighbors; assessing Epic Pass access; and night skiing.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Keystone is opening one of three large lift-served ski expansions in Colorado this winter: the 500-plus-acre Bergman Bowl, served by a high-speed six-pack (the other two are Hero’s on Aspen Mountain and Mahogany Ridge at Steamboat). While this pod has occupied the trailmap as hike-to terrain for years, more people will likely ski it before noon on a typical Monday than once slogged up the ridgeline in an entire winter. Keystone has renamed and somewhat re-sculpted the trails in honor of the occasion, inviting the masses onto a blue-square oasis at the top of Summit County.
Which is always a good excuse for a podcast. But… this terrain was supposed to open in 2022, until the project ran into a high-altitude brick wall last July, when construction crews oopsied a road through sensitive terrain. Vail Daily:
Construction of a new chairlift at Keystone Resort was ordered to cease this week after the U.S. Forest Service learned that an unauthorized road had been bulldozed through sensitive areas where minimal impacts were authorized.
Keystone Resort, which operates by permit on U.S. Forest Service land, was granted permission by the White River National Forest to construct a new chairlift this summer in the area known as Bergman Bowl, creating a 555-acre expansion of Keystone’s lift-served terrain. But that approval came with plenty of comments from the Environmental Protection Agency, which recommended minimal road construction associated with the project due to Bergman Bowl’s environmentally sensitive location. …
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said while the Forest Service does approve many projects like Bergman Bowl, officials typically don’t allow construction of new access roads in Alpine tundra.
“When you drop a bulldozer blade in the Alpine, that is very fragile, and very difficult to restore,” Fitzwilliams said.
In Bergman Bowl, the Forest Service has found “damage to the Alpine environment … impacts to wetlands and stuff that we normally don’t want to do,” Fitzwilliams said.
As a result, Fitzwilliams issued a cease and desist letter to Vail Resorts. He said the company immediately complied and shut down the impacted parts of the project.
The Forest Service has not yet determined if a full restoration can occur.
“When you impact the Alpine environment, it’s not easy to restore,” Fitzwilliams said. “Sometimes, although achievable in some areas, it’s difficult.”
Vail Resorts, which has staked much of its identity on its friend-of-the-environment credentials, owned the mistake and immediately hired a firm to design a mitigation plan. What Keystone came back with was so thorough that it stunned Forest Service officials. Blevins, writing a week later in the Colorado Sun:
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams on Thursday said he accepted Vail Resorts’ cure for improperly grading 2.5 acres outside of approved construction boundaries, including 1.5 acres above treeline in the fragile alpine zone. The company’s construction crews also filled a wetland creek with logs and graded over it to create a road crossing and did not save topsoil and vegetation for replanting after construction, all of which the agency found “were not consistent with Forest Service expectations.”
Fitzwilliams rescinded his order of noncompliance and canceled the cease-and-desist order he issued last month after Forest Service officials discovered the construction that had not been permitted. …
“Quite honestly, it’s the best restoration plan I’ve ever seen in my life. Even our staff are like ‘Oh my god,’” Fitzwilliams said. “The restoration plan submitted by Keystone is extremely detailed, thorough and includes all the necessary actions to insure the damage is restored as best as possible.”
The damage to fragile alpine terrain does require additional analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, but Fitzwilliams said that can be done while the construction continues.
On Thursday afternoon, resort officials said the further environmental review will keep Bergman Bowl from opening for the 2022-23 season, a development Keystone general manager Chris Sorensen said is disappointing but necessary.
Indeed. The only way out is through. But how did that plan go? And what is Vail doing to make sure such mistakes don’t recur? And how do you manage such a high-profile mistake from a personal and leadership point of view? It was a conversation worth having, and one that Sorensen managed well.
What I got wrong…
About the exact timeline of Vail’s Midwest acquisitions
I kind of lumped Vail Resorts’ first three Midwest acquisitions together, but there was quite a bit of space between the company’s purchase of Afton Alps and Mt. Brighton, in 2012, and its pickup of Wilmot in 2016. The rest came with the Peak Resorts’ acquisition in 2019.
About Copper Mountain’s season pass price
I said that it was “about $750” for a Copper pass or an Ikon Base Pass. Both were undercounts. Copper’s 2023-24 season pass debuted at $799 and is now $849. The 2023-24 Ikon Base Pass, which includes unlimited access to Copper Mountain, debuted at $829 and now sells for $929.
About the most-affordable big-mountain ski passes in the United States
I said that Keystone offered “the most affordable big-mountain season pass” in the country. With peak-day walk-up lift tickets scheduled to hit $269 this season at Keystone, that may seem like an odd declaration. But it’s almost true: Keystone sells the second-most-affordable unlimited season pass among America’s 20 largest ski areas. Sister resort Park City comes in cheaper on a cost-per-acre basis, and Vail Mountain is tied with Keystone. In fact, four of the top five most affordable big-mountain passes are at Vail-owned properties (Park City, Keystone, Vail, and Heavenly):
About night skiing
I said that Keystone had “the largest night-skiing operation in America.” This is incorrect. I tried to determine who, indeed, hosts America’s largest night-skiing operation, but after slamming my head into a wall for a few hours, I abandoned the exercise. There is absolutely no common standard of measurement, probably because 14-year-olds slamming Bang energy drinks and Faceposting from the chairlift aren’t keen on fact-checking. Here’s the best I could come up with:
Even that simple chart took an embarrassing amount of time to assemble. At some point I will return to this exercise, and will include the entire country. The Midwest will factor significantly here, as nearly every ski area in the region is 100 percent lit for night-skiing. New York and the Mid-Atlantic also host many large night-skiing operations, as do Bolton Valley, Vermont and Pleasant Mountain, Maine. But unless I wanted to publish this podcast in June of 2024, I needed to flee this particular briar patch before I got ensnared.
Why you should ski Keystone
The Keystone you’re thinking of is frontside Keystone, Dercum Mountain, River Run and Mountain House, Montezuma and Peru. That Keystone has a certain appeal. It is an approachable outsiders’ version of Colorado, endless and wide, fast but manageable, groomed spirals ambling beneath the sunshine. Step out of the Suburban after a 16-hour drive from Houston, and find the Middle Earth you were seeking, soaring and jagged and wild, with a pedestrian village at the base.
Keep going. Down Mine Shaft or Diamond Back to North Peak: 1,600 vertical feet of moguls bigger than your car. A half-dozen to choose from. Behind that, yet another peak, like a third ski area. Outback is where things start to get savage. Not drop-off-The-Cirque-at-Snowbird savage, but challenging enough. Slide back to Timberwolf or Bushwacker or Badger – or, more boldly, the trees in between – for that wild Colorado that Texas Ted and New York Ned find off Dercum.
Or walk past the snow fort and click out, bootpack a mile and drop into Upper Windows, the only terrain marked double black on Keystone’s sprawling trailmap. A rambling world, crisp and silent beneath the Outpost Gondola. Until it spits you out onto Mozart, Keystone’s I-70, frantic and cluttered all the way to Santiago, and another lap.
On Keystone’s 2009 masterplan
Keystone’s masterplan dates to 2009, the second-oldest on file with the White River National Forest (Buttermilk’s dates to 2008). The sprawling plan includes several yet-to-be-constructed lifts, including fixed-grips up Independence Bowl and Windows, a surface lift bisecting North and South Bowls; and a two-way ride out of Ski Tip. The plan also proposes upgrades to Outback, Wayback, and A-51; and a whole new line for the now-decommissioned Argentine:
Since that image isn’t very crisp, here’s a closer look at Dercum:
Sorensen and I discuss the potential for each of these projects, some of which are effectively dead. Strangely, Keystone’s only two new chairlifts (besides Bergman), since 2009 - upgrading Montezuma and Peru from high-speed quads to sixers – were not suggested on the MDP at all. Argentine, which once connected the Mountain House Base directly to the Montezuma lift, was a casualty of the 2021 Peru upgrade. Here’s a before-and-after:
Argentine, it turns out, is just the latest casualty in Keystone’s front-side clean-sweep. Check out this 1996 trailmap, when Dercum (called “Keystone” here), hosted nine frontside chairlifts (plus the gondola), to today’s five:
On the new Bergman Bowl trail names
Bergman Bowl has appeared on Keystone’s trailmap since at least 2005. The resort added trail names around 2007. As part of the lift installation, we get all new trail names and a few new trails (as well as downgrades, for most of the old lines, to blues). Keystone also updated trailnames in adjacent Erickson Bowl, which the new lift will partially serve. Sorensen and I discuss the naming scheme in the pod:
On Rad Smith’s new hand-painted Keystone trailmap
Since 2002 or so, Keystone’s trailmap has viewed the resort at a slight angle, with Dercum prioritized, the clear “front side.”
The new map, Sorensen tells us, whips the vantage around to the side, giving us a better view of Bergman and, consequently, of North Peak and Outback. Here’s the old map (2022 on the left), alongside the new:
And here’s the two-part video series on making the map with Rad Smith:
On Vail’s new app
I’ve driven round trip between New York City and Michigan hundreds of times. Most of the drive is rural and gorgeous, cruise-control country, the flat Midwest and the rolling mountains of Pennsylvania. Even the stretch of north Jersey is attractive, hilly and green, dramatic at the Delaware Water Gap. All that quaintness slams shut on the eastbound approach to the George Washington Bridge, where a half dozen highways collapse into the world’s busiest bridge. Backups can be comically long. Hitting this blockade after a 12-hour drive can be excruciating.
Fortunately, NJDOT, or the Port Authority, or whomever controls the stretch of Interstate 80 that approaches the bridge after its 2,900-mile journey from San Francisco, has erected signs a few dozen miles out that ominously communicate wait times for the GW’s upper and lower decks. I used to doubt these signs as mad guesses typed in by some low-level state employee sitting in a control room with a box of donuts. But after a couple dozen unsuccessful attempts to outsmart the system, I arrived at a bitter realization: the signs were always right.
This is the experience that users of Vail’s new My Epic app can (hopefully) expect when it comes online this winter. This app will be your digital Swiss Army Knife, your Epic Pass/stats tracker/snow cam/in-resort credit card/GPS tracker with interactive trailmap. No word on if they’ll include that strange metal spire that’s either a miniature icepick or an impromptu brass knuckle. But the app will include real-time grooming updates and chairlift wait times. And if a roadsign in New Jersey can correctly communicate wait times to cross the George Washington Bridge, then Vail Resorts ought to be able to sync this chairlift wait-times thing pretty precisely.
On Mt. Brighton being built from landfill
Depending upon your point of view, Mt. Brighton, Michigan – which Sorensen ran from 2016 to 2018 – is either the most amazing or the most appalling ski area in Vail’s sprawling portfolio. Two-hundred thirty vertical feet, 130 acres, five chairlifts, seven surface lifts, and about four trees, rising like some alt-world mini-Alps from the flatlands of Southeast Michigan.
Why is it there? What does it do? Who would do such a thing to themselves? The answer to the first question lies in the expressways that crisscross three miles to the east: crews building Interstate 96 and US 23 deposited the excess dirt here, making a hill. The answer to the second question is: the place sells a shit-ton of Epic Passes, which was the point of Vail buying the joint. And the answer to the third question is obvious as well: for the local kids, its ski here or ski nowhere, and little Midwest hills are more fun than you think. Especially when you’re 12 and the alternative is sitting inside for Michigan’s 11-month winter.
On Keystone’s potential West Ridge expansion
Sorensen refers to a potential “West Ridge” expansion, which does not appear on the 2009 trailmap. The ski area’s 1989 masterplan, however, shows up to five lifts scaling West Ridge between North Peak and Outback (which was then called “South Peak”):
On Keystone being among Colorado’s least-snowy major resorts
It’s a strange fact of geography that Keystone scores significantly less snow, on average, than its Colorado peers:
This makes even less sense when you realize how close Keystone sits to A-Basin (115 more inches per season), Breck (118), and Copper (70):
When I hosted OpenSnow founder and CEO Joel Gratz on the podcast last year, he explained Keystone’s odd circumstances (as well as how the mountain sometimes does better than its neighbors), at the 1:41:43 mark.
On pass prices across Summit County creeping up over the past several years
Summit County was Ground Zero for the pass wars, during which a preponderance of mountains the size of Rhode Island fought to the death over who could give skiing away the cheapest. There are many reasons this battle started here, and many reasons why it’s ending. Not the least of which is that each of these ski areas hosts the population of a small city every day all winter long. Colorado accounts for approximately one in four U.S. skier visits. The state’s infrastructure is one rolled-over semi away from post-apocalyptic collapse. There’s no reason that skiing has to cost less than a load of laundry when everyone wants to do it all the time.
As a result, prices are slowly but steadily rising. Here’s what’s happened to pass prices at the four Summit County ski areas over the past six seasons:
They’ve mostly gone up. Keystone is the only one that is less expensive to ski at now than it was in 2018 (on a season-pass basis). This chart is somewhat skewed by a couple of factors:
For the 2018-19 ski season, A-Basin was an unlimited member of the Epic Pass, Epic Local Pass, and Summit Value Pass, a fact that nearly broke the place. The drastic price drop from 2018 to ’19 reflects A-Basin’s first year outside Vail’s coalition.
Vail cut Epic Pass prices 20 percent from the 2020-21 ski season to the 2021-22 campaign. That’s why Breck and Keystone are approximately the same price now as they were before the
asteroid attack, Covid.
Little-known fact: Copper Mountain sells its own season pass, separate from the Ikon Pass, even though the mountain offers unlimited access on both the Ikon Base and full Ikon passes.
On Mr. Oklahoma
I don’t want to spoil the ending here, but we do talk about this.
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