Arapahoe Basin, Keystone start making snow, with a rival not far behind

Which will open first?

Only 90 days after closing the longest ski season in Colorado on the Fourth of July, Arapahoe Basin began snowmaking operations Wednesday, and with more intrigue than in past years. For the first time in two decades, Keystone tied A-Basin in the annual race to make snow first, cranking up a new snowmaking system it hopes will change the early season dynamic on the Front Range.

For the first time since 2001, Keystone aims to get back in the running with Arapahoe Basin and Loveland to become the first Colorado ski area to open for the season. With that goal in mind, resort management significantly upgraded its snowmaking operation as part of a bid by Vail Resorts to offer the state’s longest ski season between its two Summit County holdings, Keystone and Breckenridge. This year, Breckenridge is slated to remain open through Memorial Day, as it did last season.

Loveland tested its snowguns overnight and plans to begin making snow Wednesday night, according to spokesman John Sellers.

“I think the race to open is a lot of fun,” said Alan Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin’s chief operating officer. “It’s always good to be open. The reality for us is that the very biggest race is the race within ourselves to be ready, to be poised to have our equipment in top working order and to take advantage of every single minute of good snowmaking weather.”
Arapahoe Basin turned on its snow guns on Oct. 2 at 5:15 a.m. on the High Noon intermediate run for its first official snowmaking day of the 2019-20 season. (Provided by Arapahoe Basin)
Arapahoe Basin, which was open longer than any other Colorado resort last season (Oct. 19-July 4), previously was a pass partner with Vail Resorts for more than two decades, but A-Basin management severed that relationship and left Epic Pass at the conclusion of last season. In August, it joined the rival Ikon Pass collection of resorts.

Before that happened, Vail Resorts had already announced its intention to keep Breckenridge open annually through Memorial Day and that upgrades were coming to Keystone’s snowmaking infrastructure. The strategy is clear: to compete with Arapahoe Basin for early and late-season skier days.

“This is exciting for skiers and snowboarders in Colorado that a company like ours is saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to provide the longest season possible,’ and open early — if not the first in the country — and stay open through Memorial Day at Breckenridge,” said Bill Rock, senior vice president for the mountain division of Vail Resorts holdings in Colorado and Utah. “If you’re an Epic Pass holder, this is just a way for us to continue to improve the guest experience, provide more value.”
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To that end, this summer crews added 53 automated snow guns, installing 11,000 feet of pipe and more than 15 miles of electrical cable. Keystone intends to start its season by opening two trails on the upper mountain, where the higher elevation will be more conducive to making and holding manmade snow because of colder temperatures.

Keystone hasn’t been the first Front Range ski area to open since 1997, and it hasn’t opened in October since 2001, but there was a time when it competed annually for opening day spoils. In the 1980s and ’90s, before Arapahoe Basin installed snowmaking, the battle was an annual duel between Keystone and Loveland. From 1982 through 2001, Loveland was first to open 10 times and Keystone was first 10 times, although three of Keystone’s wins were photo finishes when both areas opened on the same day and Keystone used its lights to open before sunrise, getting a jump on Loveland by two or three hours in the quest for bragging rights.

Then in 2002, Arapahoe Basin installed snowmaking equipment. From 2003 through last year, Arapahoe Basin was the first Front Range area to open nine times, Loveland was first five times and they tied twice. Wolf Creek, a small area 250 miles from Denver in southern Colorado, actually beat both of them four times since 2011, thanks to ample early natural snowfall.

“It’s not like we could outsmart one of the other areas. It’s just a matter of who can get ready the fastest,” Henceroth said. “We really want to get open as soon as we possibly can. If that means being first to open, we love it.”

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