Slopes of freedom

Denver's Winter Park, built to ensure skiing for all, still gives access to skiers on the margins, says Stephen Wood

A municipal ski area? It's an unlikely notion. Even before local government was demonised during the Thatcher era, and the word "public" turned into something threatening, the idea was at least politically questionable.

A municipal ski area? It's an unlikely notion. Even before local government was demonised during the Thatcher era, and the word "public" turned into something threatening, the idea was at least politically questionable.

George Cranmer certainly wasn't universally applauded when he put forward such an idea in pre-war Colorado. The Manager of Parks and Improvements for the City of Denver, he proposed in 1937 that mountain slopes 70 miles away on the far side of the Berthoud Pass should be developed to provide skiing facilities for the citizens. In a country where the earliest skiers were miners, postmen and railway navvies, elitism was no great issue; still, there was a faction which took the view that Cranmer's plan for Winter Park - as Denver's ski area was to be named - was designed primarily for the benefit of his friends. Nevertheless in January 1940 Cranmer won approval for the project, plus $30,000 of public funds for the first ski-lift, a tow rope.

The city's investment paid off: Winter Park was, by one estimate, worth $100m by 1995. But what was good for Denver wasn't necessarily good for Winter Park, whose managers regarded the city's cut ($1m annual rent plus three per cent of gross revenues) as a burden which prevented proper investment in ski facilities. Ultimately the City of Denver put Winter Park's management out to tender, and in December 2002 a deal was done. Intrawest, the leading North American ski-resort developer agreed to operate Winter Park for 10 years, undertaking to invest $5m per year in mountain operations and to pay $2m a year in rent.

Intrawest's plan is to develop Winter Park as a "destination resort", building accommodation for skiers who stay for a week (like most British visitors) rather than between one and three days (like most North Americans). Evidently this heralds a sea-change for Winter Park, since currently about 55 per cent of its skiers come from the local area. But at present Winter Park remains a municipal ski area in its final stage of evolution.

Try to imagine a municipal ski area. It's difficult; but you'll probably think of a scruffy place, rather alarming at night, covered with graffiti and littered with empty Special Brew cans. Think again. Winter Park may not have a beautiful setting, and its skiing is not really exceptional; but it is hard to think of any resort more customer-oriented. Of course there is a Sniffle Station dispensing tissues at every lift base, and each member of staff demands to know "How are you today?"; but those things come standard at US resorts. Still, even by that sort of criterion Winter Park does an exceptional job, once even providing a pizza hot-line (until the outdoor phone began to play up) on which you could place your order at the top of the Cranmer piste for collection at the bottom. Where it really scores, though, is in catering for those with particular needs.

Take children's skiing, for example. Every resort crows about its facilities for children; but all of them (with the exception of child-friendly Smugglers' Notch in Vermont) should see what Winter Park offers. Surrounding the Snoasis centre is a huge, gently inclined children's playground of skiing, extending even into the woods: the winding, gladed run called Moose Wallow is a delight even for adults, provided they don't mind a bit of poling.

With another marginal winter-sports group it's the same story. Snowboarders can rely on any major resort having a "half-pipe", one of those snow trenches from which boarders pop in and out as if on a trampoline. What Winter Park has in its Rail Yard Terrain Park is a "superpipe", an epic construction with giant snow walls enclosing a sort of storm drain. From a distance it looks like an Inuit mass-burial mound.

Most remarkable - and most specialised - is the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), established 34 years ago at Winter Park when its founder, Hal O'Leary, gave a first ski class for amputees from Denver's children's hospital. Now it provides 17,000 lessons per year to people whose disabilities range from autism to blindness, serves as a model for adaptive skiing programmes elsewhere in the USA, and has trained instructors from 11 countries. Disabled skiers have a significant and very affecting presence on Winter Park's slopes.

What other group does Winter Park favour? Skiers who don't like lift queues. Weekends account for 45 per cent of Winter Park's skier-visits, so British "destination skiers" struggle to find a queue during the week. At least for the time being.

EVERY SKIER SHOULD HAVE SOME: SNOW

A report presented to the United Nations environmental conference in Turin last December seemed chilling stuff, at least figuratively. The work of the University of Zurich's economic geography department, it offered a bleak picture of the future of skiing in low-lying parts of the Alps, which in turn - and this was the report's main thrust - threatens to damage the economy of Alpine areas. You may already have made the calculation, but the report spells it out: "without enough snow...profitable ski tourism will scarcely be possible".

The report reckons that 85 per cent of Swiss resorts are currently "snow-reliable", which it defines as having 30-50cm of snow "available for ski sport" on at least 100 days between 1 December and 15 April in an average of seven seasons out of 10. But it calculates that if "the line of snow-reliability" were to rise to 1,500m (feasible some time between 2030 and 2050, apparently), the proportion of snow-reliable resorts would fall to 63 per cent.

Should any skier find the picture thus painted too depressing, the answer is to look away...to the north. The report's analysis does not apply everywhere. There is one resort which is sufficiently snow-reliable to enjoy an average of 3.5m of snowfall per season, although its ski area barely reaches 1,500m at the highest point. It is Hemsedal in Norway, whose asset is latitude rather than altitude. That is what its owners plan to exploit. Aware of the problems further south, they intend to expand the resort. So by all means mourn Switzerland's fate; but don't assume that all low-lying ski slopes have an imminent sell-by date.

Stephen Wood travelled with Ski Safari (01273 223680; www.skisafari.com), which offers a week at the Winter Park Mountain Lodge plus flights to Denver and transfers for £599 per person (based on two sharing) if booked before February 10, or £720 at the slopeside Iron Horse Resort. National Sports Center for the Disabled: 001 970 726 1540, www.nscd.org

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