Steamboat: A Love Story

Photo: Ingalls Photography

Steamboat, like the memory of a long-ago love, holds a spot in my heart. She was where, three decades ago, I first skied the Rocky Mountains, and in those years — both hers and my own —everything was potential perfection. I loved that mountain, and the old ranching town that gave the ski area her name.

But ensuing years were not kind to her. A Japanese resort company bought Steamboat in 1989 and made some significant investments during its nine-year reign, but never managed to make the resort into a first-tier destination. The American Ski Company ran her for the next 10 years, until it collapsed under the weight of acquisitions. Intrawest, that noted ski-resort innovator, bought the ski area in 2007 and was immediately hit broadside by the recession. But even as the economy lags, the company has been righting itself, and Steamboat — its flagship mountain — is chugging forward under a new head of, well, steam.

The most dramatic change has been in the reinvention of the weather-worn rabbit warren of a base area, once littered with dated signage, metal stairways, and museum pieces like the Ptarmigan Inn. The old trek over bridges and up and down stairs to get to the gondola in Gondola Square has been superseded by an easy, level walkway from a drop-off area and free-bus stop. The base area — formerly a conglomeration of diced-up niches separated from each other by a hotel, a creek, a parking garage, and other obstacles — has been linked by a promenade, which stays free of snow and ice thanks to subsurface heating.

The result is a handsome, 400-yard-long crescent beach of a base area, with slopes feeding directly onto the boardwalklike promenade. On a March afternoon, it feels more like the Fourth of July. Crowded with booted skiers and boarders, local moms strolling with kids and dogs, people perched on boulders or benches that line the walkway and at tables on slopeside café terraces, Steamboat has more vitality and packed humanity that day than any base area not currently hosting a free concert.

“We may not be fancy like some of our competitors, and we’re not making changes just to appeal to some higher demographic,” says Chris Diamond, president and chief operating officer of Steamboat Ski Resort and a leading voice in local affairs. “We know who we are and we like it that way. Steamboat’s many high net-worth homeowners have homes here precisely because they don’t want to be visible or perceived to be doing what other high net-worth people do. They want to fly under the radar, wear a T-shirt, go to the Tugboat for a beer or burger.”

The cornerstone of this base area revitalization is One Steamboat Place, a contemporary-cozy residence building targeted to that high net-worth homeowner. Though it’s clearly luxurious, it is “intentionally not a St. Regis kind of place,” sales representative Michael McDonnell tells me as he walks me through the clublike common areas. Though the amenities are equal to any four- or five-star slopeside, the tone is easygoing and T-shirt friendly.

Spurred by the base area’s success, a variety of multiyear building projects and renovations will soon be creeping up Steamboat’s slopes, especially in the area of on-mountain dining. In a nod to that up-market skier, a private lunch club is being launched at the top of Christie Peak. Accessible by gondola, it will open to the public for dinner. Plans also include a number of smaller, boutique-style restaurants scattered across Mount Werner, and an overall upgrade in restaurant quality and service, thanks to the hiring of a top ski-area hospitality executive from Park City’s Talisker Corporation.

But it is on the slopes, hazy in my memory, where I fall in love again. Dave Moon, a 25-year veteran instructor, spends a day reacquainting me with runs I knew and remote terrain I had no memory of — runs that had been stashed away from view in Steamboat’s sprawling 3,000 acres. He points out lift upgrades planned for the next two years, and spots where new restaurants are rising, then skis me out into sidecountry that will soon be an in-bounds adventure area.

Steamboat is famously a glory-fest for beginners and intermediates, with a blue run — if not a green —available even from most ridgeline lifts. Offering intermediates extra challenge, the company grooms some black runs and, as in Vail, designates more-challenging groomers as double blues. Gifted with plenty of terrain at all levels, Steamboat is especially popular with families who love the ease of heading out together, splitting up for runs, then reuniting at the next trail junction.

As we prepare to drop into the moguled playground of Morningside Park on the mountain’s backside, Moon points back to the top of Sunshine Express. Flotillas of half-pints, like some raiding armada, are pushing out into Wally World — 300 acres of wide blue and green runs and wide-open glades, perfect for children eager to explore the playful wonder of skiing through trees.

But Moon sees my eagerness for more-challenging terrain, and leads me up a short, easy hike to the top of Mount Werner, the area’s highest point. There’s a lineup of double black shots here, and we take three fast ones on Chute 2, Chute 3, then East Face. From there, a few turns through tight glades bring us into the all-black Pony Express area, which includes Half-Hitch and Diamond Hitch semigladed runs. We next hop over to Four Points Hut, and hit another area of all-black trails and trees, and follow it with the best run of the day — 1,900 vertical of firs and aspens in Shadows and Closet off Sunshine Peak.

There are real treasures on the hill (and do yourself the favor of hiring a guide to show them to you), but the resort’s real charm lies below that base area. “We love visitors who spend their money on the mountain, but they also need to go into town,” says Diamond. “They’ll never understand Steamboat without visiting the museum, going to the hot springs, seeing the carnival, or visiting Howelsen Hill on Wednesday evenings to watch the kids ski jumping.” Ranching and skiing grew up side by side in Steamboat Springs, he explains. “People were locked in by the snow in the winter, so skiing was all they could do. But no one commodity dominates life here as it does in many ski towns.” The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, at Howelsen Hill near the center of town, was founded 100 years ago this winter by those ranchers, which might make it the country’s oldest continuously running ski area. Steamboat, Diamond proudly points out, has trained and sent 79 skiers to the Winter Olympics, more than have come from any other place in the country. “That is a remarkable heritage.”

I leave Steamboat a little wistfully, secure in my feeling that I was right about its potential perfection, and happy to see that it’s finally on its way.

SNOW Tidbits:
*Ranging from 2,000 to 4,100 square feet, some of the residences are whole ownership, and some are fractional, with either 1/8 or 1/12 ownerships; many are available to rent. The building is managed by Timbers Resorts, which enjoys a good reputation in the ski world.
onesteamboatplacerentals.com

*None of the country’s ski museums nor the editor of the magazine Skiing Heritage seems to know what the country’s oldest continuously running ski area might be, but Howelsen Hill is certainly the oldest in Colorado. Researcher Jonathan Richards uncovered an article in the March 1937 issue of The Ski Bulletin, the nation’s oldest ski magazine, that called Steamboat Springs “a venerable centre of ski-culture” and “one of the oldest and best winter spots, with its roots in the dim legends of pioneering and its achievements well known and splendid.” The author, Robert S. Balch, went on to say: “Everybody has always skied here as long as anyone can remember.” Curiously, he references a local who “could run down mountain lions in winter