Vail expects coming season to return to normal By Felicity Long / November 02, 1999 Share 1 -- VAIL, Colo. -- An uncooperative Mother Nature and controversy over Vail Resorts' Category III expansion project at Vail Mountain combined to undercut skier visitor numbers at the resort last season, but officials are confident that there will be a return to normal this year. "Vail didn't have a great year last year," Paul Witt, communications director for Vail Resorts, acknowledged.In all, the resort had about a 16% drop in skier visits, although Witt attributed some of the decline to Colorado skiers who are used to the best conditions and "can afford to be picky.""We were about 10% off our average snowfall, and it came late in the season," he said.Destination skiers, who fly in from elsewhere, continued to be a strong market for Vail last year, Witt said, "and, for the most part, they were happy with the conditions.""There was never a day with no skiing," he said, but added that the entire mountain didn't open until early January."Our back bowls were not open during Christmas, which has rarely happened in our 37-year history," he said.Another fly in the ointment last year was unfavorable media attention about the expansion project, which Witt said is moving ahead of schedule despite the recent closing of a temporary access road to the construction site by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.The dirt road, built by the resort to remove construction materials from the area without going through the town of Vail, was discovered recently to be in a wetland area.The closure is the latest in a series of controversies that has plagued the resort since the expansion project began.Environmental groups, concerned about the effects of the expansion on the Canadian lynx, have opposed the project, and an extreme environmentalist group called the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for fires that destroyed several facilities at Vail Mountain last October. Two Elk Lodge, Buffalo's Restaurant, the ski patrol headquarters and several chairlift structures were destroyed in the fires.This summer, however, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver gave its approval to the expansion, siding with Vail and the U.S. Forest Service that the effects of the expansion on the lynx had been properly considered.The Town of Vail, Eagle County, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. District Court also approved the expansion."The original layout had the access road going through wetlands, so we moved it uphill to avoid wetlands, not realizing that was different wetlands," said Witt."Most likely, we won't have a resolution on this until next summer, and, in the meantime, the timber we have cut has been moved to the side, stacked and is waiting to be hauled."Although the 885-acre expansion area was not expected to be open for skiing this season -- the 2000-2001 season is the target completion date -- an accelerated construction schedule pushed the grand opening to Jan. 6, 2000.Three-fifths of the new area, to be called Blue Sky Basin, will be open to skiers and snowboarders, and three of the four new high-speed quad lifts will be in operation.The 29,000-square-foot Two Elk Lodge, destroyed by the fires, will reopen by Christmas and will be larger than the original facility.The ski patrol headquarters, which also is being rebuilt in time for the upcoming ski season, will be transformed into a multiuse facility featuring a 2,000-square-foot restaurant able to seat about 85 people.The restaurant will serve gourmet coffee, soups and sandwiches in an informal setting for people who want a quick snack or meal.New for snowboarders will be a "Superpipe," billed as the largest in Colorado, enabling riders to do larger jumps and "catch bigger air," officials said.Also new is a Lunch-for-Less program on the mountain, with value meals and early bird specials offered at select restaurants.Lift ticket prices will hold steady this year at $59 per adult per day.Resort to offer lodging ratingsVAIL, Colo. -- Vail Mountain is reaching out to travel agents this year by devising improved information on mountain lodging, resort officials said.The resort is working on a lodging quality initiative in conjunction with the town of Vail and other nearby communities to provide agents with a rating system and information on area lodgings."We are a 37-year-old resort, and we need to continually raise the bar on our standard of quality for the price paid," a spokeswoman for the resort said.Detailed information on properties and amenities will be available through the resort's two central reservation numbers as well as to agents via the company's sales force, she said.Agents looking for ease of booking also can take advantage of a reciprocal lift ticket program with Vail Resort's three other ski facilities: Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge.Any lift ticket purchased at Vail or Beaver Creek is good at Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge. Tickets purchased at Keystone or Breckenridge, however, have a three-day minimum.Vail Mountain Phone: (970) 476-5601 Web: www.snow.comBlue Sky Basin to offer 520 acresVAIL -- What will the vaunted Blue Sky Basin offer visitors this season? In addition to groomed trails in Pete's Bowl and Earl's Bowl, the area includes gladed and naturally open terrain.In all, there will be 520 acres of terrain, comprising 60% of the full expansion, of which 73% will be intermediate and 27% advanced.The area, which will be served by four high-speed quads, will feature a warming hut, ski patrol outpost and restroom facilities.The resort will mark the grand opening with a weekend invitational charity celebration Jan. 6 to 9, 2000.The remaining terrain in the expanded area is scheduled to open for the 2000-2001 season.