Ophir queasy about avalanches

OPHIR – Few mountain towns in the West must entertain the prospect of avalanches as seriously as Ophir, a one-time mining town located about 10 miles from Telluride.

Perched at 9,678 feet, Ophir is hardly the highest town in the state. Colorado has seven other municipalities higher in elevation. But what other town has a ribbon of open space through its interior, the consequence of a long-ago snow slide?

This winter, with the snowpack in the Telluride region at more than 160 percent of the 30-year average, the slopes near the town have been bombed with explosives to initiate avalanches when there are no cars on the road.

For three out of four weeks during January, town administrator Rebecca Levy was unable to get to the town because of slides either on the county road leading to the town or on the state highway. She lives in Rico, across Lizard Head Pass.

However, one of the largest potential slide paths, Spring Gulch, which creates the town’s interior open space, has not been bombed. Because of the potential damage to private property, none of the governmental agencies can afford insurance, let alone find a company willing to write such a policy, says Levy.

There have been other problems as well. One woman had to be rescued from her snow-isolated home because she was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. The problem was caused by snow covering pipes that vented the exhausts from her heater.

The town’s road-maintenance man reportedly quit because of complaints from residents. Among their beefs: vehicles towed to allow snow removal, clearing that was too slow (even if there was no way to leave the town), and the noise of his clearing.

Randy Barnes, the mayor, toldThe Telluride Watch that the social fabric of the community remains fine, but conceded that the snow “is a challenge for some people.”

But if there have been problems, there has also been acceptance that life in a little mountain town will have its challenges – even if Ophir is no longer the derelict mining town of even a decade or two ago. Lot prices now surpass $200,000.

“For the most part, life went on,” says Levy of the isolating storms of January. “The town never lost power, and most folks know to keep at least a week’s worth of food on hand.”

Telluride claims first LEED house

TELLURIDE – Certification by LEED, as in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was expanded last year to include single-family homes. Before, it had been limited to offices, schools and other public buildings, but also to residential complexes, such as a base village at California’s Northstar ski area and an on-mountain restaurant at Aspen.

Only three homes have been certified in Colorado under the new program, and the first one on the Western Slope is in Telluride. The home has a silver rating, which is the second highest of four categories.

The home has a deck made of mahogany wood certified as sustainability harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council. It has blown-foam insulation, reducing heat loss, and most appliances are Energy Star-rated for efficiency.

Yet LEED is still not-quite mainstream, even in places like Telluride, where the lowest-priced single-family home sold last year fetched nearly $1.1 million.

“LEED is a great idea,” said Ben Humphrey of One Architects, “but the weakest link is the subcontractors and the contractors. It comes down to communication with the contractors and their excitement about being part of the green building movement.”

Tackling the same subject, a magazine calledSki Area Management found that experts discount the notion that “green” buildings are more expensive. A LEED-certified building designed to minimize its environmental impact need cost no more than 3 percent more than other buildings, experts said. What is undeniable is that “green” homes cost less in following years, because of improved energy efficiency.

Important in designing a green home, experts told the magazine, is for the architects, builders and developers to hold meetings at the outset, as the most important aspects of green building must be incorporated into building design.

Breckenridge ski expansion debated

BRECKENRIDGE – The Breckenridge ski area wants to expand onto Peaks 6 and 7, adding one new chairlift and 450 acres.

Statistical comparisons show Breckenridge as having among the highest density of skier per acre of any ski area in Colorado. The ski area owner, Vail Resorts, says the expansion will disperse skiers and shorten lift lines elsewhere on the ski hill.

But Ellen Hollinshead, an avid backcountry skier and a columnist for theSummit Daily News, thinks there’s something else up. “It is my contention that Vail Resorts hasn’t confessed to the Forest Service all of its motives,” she says.

The full story, she suggests, has to do with marketing real estate associated with the ski area expansion. She asserts that added skier capacity can better be provided by new trails and better lift placement within the existing ski area, not by extending the ski area boundaries. Expansion of the ski area on National Forest land, she maintains, will displace wildlife, which is already cramped for space.

Meanwhile, the Breckenridge Town Council wants the Forest Service to assess whether the town has the carrying capacity to accommodate the 1,000 new skiers that Vail Resorts estimates will result from the expansion. Parking remains difficult, even with a new parking lot-to-ski gondola. As well, the town wonders if Vail shouldn’t be required to build more affordable housing.

The town also questions whether the congestion can’t be reconciled within the ski area’s existing footprint, reports theSummit Daily News.

Military testing lands in Gunnison

GUNNISON – At 8,000 feet, the Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport is attractive to aeronautical companies wanting to test aircraft in thinner air. The valley is broad and the air is mostly calm.

Boeing has tested there in the past, and last summer QuinetiQ, a London-based defense contractor, tested a new rendition of its Sea King helicopter. The blades being tested may well be used in military operations in Afghanistan.

That recent testing resulted in $1.6 million being infused into the local economy by testers and support personnel. Still, county officials are questioning whether they want to market the county airport as a venue for high-altitude testing.

One issue, reports theCrested Butte News, is noise. While some have argued that people who move close to airports should expect noise, County Commissioner Hap Channell says it may be another thing to expect helicopter testing at 6 a.m.

Another issue, according to some local residents, is whether Gunnison wants to accommodate aircraft used in military operations. “It really turns me off that our community is part of the war machine,” said one activist, Vikki Roach Archuleta.

Others, however, see that as a positive. “If you want to put a patriotic spin on it, what we are testing here will have a direct effect in Afghanistan,” said test pilot Mark Purvis.

Vail posts another real estate record

EAGLE COUNTY – The real estate market in some mountain towns quit panting last year, but not so Eagle County. There, anchored by Vail and Beaver Creek, another record, $2.96 billion, was registered in real-estate sales last year. The old record, $2.8 billion, had been set in 2005, reports theRocky Mountain News.

Pitkin County, home to Aspen, last year had sales of $2.52 billion, down slightly from the previous year. In both cases, the push is coming in the very high end. Len Gardner, a real estate salesman in Vail, points out that condos in the Arabelle project, located at the base of Vail Mountain, that initially sold for $1,100 per square foot have been reselling at between $1,500 and $2,000 per square foot.

Meanwhile, real estate sales also continued to swell last year in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. Total sales were $1.58 billion, a 141 percent increase from the previous year. At the same time, there were fewer sales.TheSteamboat Pilot & Today reports that the largest number of sales were in the $300,000 to $500,000 range. However, the median price of townhomes jumped from $450,000 to $630,000 last year.

Aspen argues about architecture

ASPEN – Aspen continues to argue about what it means to be Aspen. Larry Rosenfield, writing a letter inThe Aspen Times, maintains that Aspen is defined fundamentally by the Victorian architecture of its silver-mining era of the 1880s and early 1890s. In his mind, the post-World War II architecture was an aberration, and the new bigger, taller structures even more hideously so.

“How wonderful it would have been if, years ago, the town leaders and residents would have mandated that all the structures in the core city maintain a Victorian motif,” he says. “Periodic motifs have worked well in historic places like Savannah, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; Nantucket, Mass; and the villages of Normandy, France.”

– Allen Best

The specific issue for his comments was redevelopment of the Wienerstube, one of Aspen’s venerated post-World War II restaurants. “If you want to construct a building that is 42 feet high, please build it in Vail, not in Aspen. Step by painful step we have been destroying the quality of our beautiful village,” he says and later adds: “We don’t live in NYC. We live in the mountains.”

Maybe not, but it’s worth adding that among Aspen’s largest and tallest buildings are Victorian relics, among them the Hotel Jerome, the Wheeler Opera House and the Elks Lodge.

LA-Mammoth air connection opens

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. –The Sheet reports that “it now seems highly probable” that the Federal Aviation Administration will clear commercial air service between Los Angeles and Mammoth for next winter.

Horizon Airlines, which also services Ketchum/Sun Valley, wants to begin twice daily flights. The FAA’s Chuck Cox, who is overseeing the environmental impact statement, said there appear to be no significant environmental issues.

Mammoth, five to six hours from Los Angles via mostly two-lane highway, has for years wanted  to boost its air link to major cities, similar to what Aspen, Vail, Steamboat and other destination resorts have done. However, environmentalists have fought expansion of the airport and its intrusions on nearby Yosemite National Park.

What has emerged is a compromise. Horizon is proposing to use the Bombardier Q-400 Dash 8 turbo-prop plane. That’s the same plane as is to be used by Frontier’s Lynx Aviation for flights from Denver. It can be configured for 70 to 78 passengers.

“Turbo props like the Q400 are much more effective at high altitudes than piston-driven planes,” Cox said. He said that a Piper Cherokee can climb 500 feet per minute. But the Q400 can fly 3,000 feet per minute. “Heck, it can climb at 1,500 per minute with one engine. It’s just an excellent aircraft for this airport.”

While direct flights from Chicago and Houston are unlikely any time soon, flights from Las Vegas or San Francisco remain possible.

Jackson Hole wows ski journalist

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Colorado-based ski writer Brian Metzler recently visited Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. While other resrots may have more lifts, greater expanses of terrain, and better base facilities, Jackson Hole is almost without rival in the lower 48 states when it comes to pure vertical exhilaration.

Because there is so much vertical, he says in a report published in a theRocky Mountain News, Jackson Hole has some very good skiers. He illustrates his point by telling about watching a skier launch off a road in the Alta Chutes, smoothly landing a 30-footer.

“It was an impressive display of skill and bravado that not only made my stomach drop, but also put my own ski thrills into perspective,” he writes. “Amazingly, no one on the string of chairs who witnessed it clapped, cheered or so much as uttered a peep.”

A local skier explained why. “This is Jackson, and people have seen some pretty wild stuff up here,” explained Jay Bruener. “That was a nice effort, but you’ve got to do something pretty extraordinary to get a round of applause from these people.”

Snow stacks up in Crested Butte

CRESTED BUTTE – Snow in Crested Butte this winter is so deep that trash trucks in the alleys are in danger of hitting power lines.

Out in the streets, the snow has compacted to about 2 feet deep in places. Crews will skim off the snow, but areas dedicated to snow storage are almost at capacity. But at homes running out of space, pitching it into the street isn’t the answer, either, said Town Marshal Peter Daniels “You just have to stack it higher; that’s where it has to go,” he explained.

Failure to keep ahead of snow shoveling was illustrated in the painful lesson of the Crested Butte Brewery. Just hours ahead of the Super Bowl, a portion of the roof buckled. Eight to nine feet of snow had been allowed to accumulate. In Gunnison, 29 miles down-valley, a roof on the library at Western State College collapsed. No one was hurt in either case.

–Allen Best


In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows