A new breed of Wolf
Wolf Creek Ski Area moves toward future

Skiers fill the deck at the Wolf Creek Lodge during a busy day last season. In addition to installing a new high-speed quad and replacing the base-area ski patrol and rental building, Wolf Creek Ski Area announced it will be powering all of its lifts with wind power starting this season./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

The family owned ski area at the top of Wolf Creek Pass, beloved by locals for its early season snow and abundant powder stashes, will be opening with a few upgrades this season, some more noticeable than others.

For starters, Wolf Creek Ski Area will be following the lead of glitzier resorts such as Vail and Aspen by running its lifts on 100 percent wind power. “Our energy sources need to be changed,” said Wolf Creek Marketing Director Roseanne Pitcher. “It’s just our way of supporting the cause. If more people start using (renewable energy), maybe the coal-generated power plants will start petering out.”

Pitcher said the ski area will be buying the wind power from the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Co-op, which gets it through Tri-State Generation. Tri-State, in turn, gets its power from wind farms in Wyoming. She said the average monthly usage for Wolf Creek’s lifts is about 145,900 kilowatts. Although the wind power will be more expensive, Pitcher said the ski area is committed to more sustainable business practices. “It’s more expensive, but we think it’s a good thing,” she said.

In addition to the wind power, the ski area also installed two new composting toilet facilities for the 2006-07season. The two, 800-square-foot heated, water-free, zero-discharge facilities will be located at the tops of the Treasure Chair and the Raven Lift.

And speaking of the Raven Lift, that, too will be new this season. A Doppelmayr-Ctec detachable quad will be replacing the 34-year-old Dickey double, which serviced mostly beginner terrain on the west side of the ski area. The Raven will have approximately the same location and initial capacity (1,200 skiers/hour) as the Dickey. However, Pitcher said the ski area has applied for approval for the maximum uphill capacity of 2,400 skiers per hour.

Pitcher said the new lift will help alleviate congestion at the base area and open up more access to beginner terrain. “We’re really excited about the Raven Lift,” said Pitcher. “Sometimes, when we don’t get snow or have a hard time keeping snow at the base, this will enable us to download beginner skiers from the top of the mountain.” With a downhill capacity of 300 to 600 skiers an hour, the beginner teaching area will move uphill to the wide open Bunny Hop trail, thus freeing up the lower slopes and base area, particularly during the holidays. “This will open up new things for beginners and the teaching program, and that’s going to be really nice.”

The ski area also is nearing completion of another upgrade, that of the Summit Building. The former base-area building housed the ski patrol as well as rentals and storage. The new facility will have three levels and storage for Wolf Creek’s fleet of rental equipment, which previously was stored in various locations throughout the ski area and as far away as Pagosa Springs. “We had some trouble over the holidays with rentals last year,” she said. “We wanted a new building so we would have a place to do group rentals and store all the skis together.”

The new building also features indoor, critter-proof stairwells, which should alleviate the problem of marmots getting in over the summer and chewing through electric lines. “Everything’s inside now, and it’s a nice facility, which is important because our medical response comes from there.”

Long range, the ski are is looking into a new restaurant at the top of the Alberta Chair as well as a 14,000-square foot lodge near the base of the Raven Chair. “Our lodges are maxed out over holidays, especially is it’s cloudy out,” said Pitcher.

Proposals for both facilities have been submitted to the Forest Service, and the ski area is awaiting a response, she said.

On the hill, backcountry adventurers will also have a few more options than in years’ past. In addition to two backcountry access gates, one on the west and one on the east side of the area, the ski area added two new gates last season near the top and bottom of the Bonanza Cliffs area, respectively.

“It’s hard to say how much use they’ve gotten,” said Wolf Creek President Davey Pitcher, also an avid backcountry skier. “We really like the idea of allowing people to go off to the west of the ski area.”

He also said the ski area is hoping to continue a shuttle program it began last year, picking up skiers from the bottom of the gladed, out-of-bounds Rock Garden area, just west of the ski area’s boundary, and bringing them back to the base. The free shuttle, which ran every half hour, was shut down last year by the Forest Service because it did not fall under Wolf Creek’s special use permit, but Davey Pitcher said indications are that it will be approved for this season. “I haven’t gotten a formal OK, but I talked to the snow ranger for the Rio Grande (National Forest) and he indicated we’d be able to put it into our winter operating plan this year,” he said.

The forester handling the issue for the Rio Grande forest did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Looking down the road several years, Davey said Wolf Creek is keeping its options open with regards to ski area expansion. Although the area currently operates on the Rio Grande National Forest, it is bordered by San Juan National Forest to the west. “It’s sort of like being in the Alps, with Italy on one side and France on the other,” he said in reference to the bureaucratic oversight.

The current San Juan forest map calls for possible winter recreation use in the 1,600 or so acres to the west of the ski area’s current permit boundary. With the Forest Service undergoing its Forest Plan revision, Davey said the ski area has put in a request to continue to keep this option open. “We’d like to keep the door open to winter recreation in that area,” he said, adding that the area already is heavily used by skiers and snowmobilers. However, any expansion is purely hypothetical, he said, adding that such a move would require a lengthy environmental review process. “Who knows if it will ever get to that stage?” he said.

In the meantime, the Pitchers are looking forward to another year of being blessed by the inexplicable Southwest Colorado doughnut hole effect – which has already left a sugary coating on Alberta Peak.

“It’s fun to see everything white on the mountain top,” said Roseanne on Monday from her slopeside office. “We’re shooting for the first weekend in November, but we’d love to open early.” •