A ski season of superlatives – outside Canada, at least
Sites in Utah, Oregon, Arizona, the Alps, Quebec City and more will offer enticing developments in the coming weeks
A blizzard of big-ticket development awaits visitors to U.S. and European ski resorts this coming season, including the largest terrain expansion in North American history and the largest single lift investment of all time.
In Canada? Not so much. This country's resorts have made few substantial upgrades in the wake of Vail Resorts Inc.'s billion-dollar acquisition of B.C.'s Whistler Blackcomb, North America's largest snow-sports hub. This quiescence includes Whistler, which is following up on the April unveiling of its "Renaissance" long-term development project by opening two new covered magic carpet lifts, among other minor enhancements. No specific timetable has been set for the $345-million earmarked for new lifts, base-area renovations and year-round activities, but Vail Resorts's deep pockets and stated support for Renaissance bode well.
Leave it to Mother Nature to provide the most compelling call to action in Canadian resort skiing. When Banff's Sunshine Village opened on Nov. 3 – earlier than it has in more than 30 years – guests were treated to 70-plus centimetres of fresh powder.
Early snowstorms like this provide reason enough to get excited about the new season. For the most compelling man-made reasons, read on.
Pow Mow goes large: A pair of new quadruple chairlifts are adding 400-plus hectares of lift-serviced terrain to Utah's unheralded (and aptly named) Powder Mountain. The largest ski-area expansion in North American history also pushes Pow Mow past nearby Park City as the biggest ski resort in the United States, with about 3,200 hectares of lift-accessible slopes. That's just 100 hectares shy of Whistler or, to put it in perspective for Eastern skiers, more than 30 times the size of Blue Mountain, Ontario's largest resort.
A (much) bigger Mount Bachelor: This similarly low-key peak in southwestern Oregon has become the fifth-largest U.S. ski area, with the new Cloudchaser chair adding 257 hectares of mostly advanced trails that were previously accessible only by hiking.
Fast climbs at Big Sky: In a first for the U.S. West, the high-speed Powder Seeker chairlift features bubble canopies and six heated seats. It halves travel time to the 11,166-foot summit of the Montana resort's precipitous "Bowl" area, while a new Challenger triple chair improves access to expert and intermediate runs lower on the mountain.
Southern, central and eastern promise: Arizona Snowbowl is replacing the old triple chair on 12,360-foot Agassiz Peak with a high-speed six-pack; Wisconsin's Wilmot Mountain is adding three quad chairs; and Cascade Mountain in upstate New York has a pair of new four-seaters.
Austrian lift sets price record: How much gondola does $100-million get you? The 3S Eisgratbahn is the fastest and longest lift of its kind in the Alps, climbing a 4.7-kilometre stretch of the Stubai Glacier in just 11 minutes. It may also be the most comfortable Alpine lift, with each of the 48 cabins featuring two dozen leather seats, panoramic windows and free WiFi.
Arlberg joins the Big 10: Speaking of enormous investments, $66-million has been poured into four new 10-person gondolas connecting the Austrian resorts of St. Anton, Stuben, Zürs, Lech, Warth and Schröcken. The combined Arlberg operation now has 87 lifts and 305 kilometres of runs, making it the biggest resort in Austria and one of the 10 largest on Earth.
Christof R. Schmidt Photography/PHOTOPRESS/SAAS-FEE
Ice Pavilion gets a makeover: As well as unveiling a new 10-person gondola to its Spielboden sector, Switzerland's Saas Fee has revamped its glacier grotto – the world's largest – by adding a climatic timeline, ice sculptures and an avalanche-simulation room.
Val d'Isère revamps Solaise: The venerable French resort has vastly improved its beginner and intermediate offerings with a 10-person gondola from the village to the summit of its Solaise slopes. The new lift offers more than speed and convenience: There's free WiFi and heated seats, and two of the 91 cabins have transparent floors for a unique angle on Alpine vistas. There's also a new day lodge at the top.
Italy adds two eight-seaters: The country's first eight-person chairlifts are opening at the Ratschings and Val Gardena resorts this winter, with both offering heated seats and bubble canopies.
Firsts for Niseko: This northern resort is following Europe's lead by unveiling Asia's first "chondola," a 830-metre-long hybrid lift with six-person chairs and eight-person gondola cabins on the same cable. The Village Express is also the first chondola on the planet to feature glass-floored cabins.
Le Relais gets a six-pack: This Quebec City hill is replacing two T-bars and a fixed-grip quad with a speedy six-seater.
Back to Baldy: After lying dormant for two of the past three seasons, the South Okanagan's Baldy Mountain Resort is reopening for 2016 with new ownership, a renovated lodge and an inaugural First Chair Festival from Dec. 1 to 4. It's a new beginning for Baldy.