Written for The Guide to Ski the Summit, March 1992
Arapahoe Basin — just utter the name and you’ll quicken the pulse of almost any skier who knows the place.
It’s called “The Legend,” but this isn’t any empty advertising slogan. Arapahoe Basin, also known as “A-Basin,” “The Basin” and even “Air Basin,” is one of the country’s original ski areas that continues, year after year, to satisfy the souls of the die-hard skiers who travel to Summit County to experience it.
On paper, and compared to other ski areas, The Basin doesn’t look like much. It’s only got five lifts, 490 skiable acres and no snowmaking. But what it lacks in quad lifts and fancy amenities it makes up for with attributes that the hard-core folk swear by: It’s the highest major ski area in North America (10,800 – 12,500 feet), has an average snowfall of about 360 inches a year, and a season that runs into April, May, June … as long as the snow lasts.
Now owned by Keystone Resort, The Basin started out in the winter of 1946-’47 with the installation of a rope tow – the result of efforts made by a group of ski enthusiasts in a time when alpine skiing was just beginning to become a recognized sport. The rope tow started near Midway on the mountain, and skiers accessed the tow via a war-surplus weapons carrier and assorted other four-wheel drive vehicles.
It wasn’t until the early ’50s that the money was raised to install two single chairlifts — at $55,000 a piece – the product of the famous Heron brothers, who gained their chairlift experience designing mining tramways. As it was, alpine skiing was still in its infancy, and contributors to the effort to raise the cash to build ski areas were scarce. As former White River National Forest Ranger Paul Hauk remembered: “Those of us in the agency who skied were considered slightly crazy by the dominant timber and grazing resource-oriented personnel at that time. It took a dedicated and deep-seated enthusiasm, courage and far-sightedness to survive the skiing scene during the ’40s and ’50s.”
In a remembrance penned in 1979, Hauk writes of how the developers of The Basin were more-or-less making it up as they went along. The idea for a ski area at Arapahoe Basin came into existence when the Winter Sports Committee of the Denver Chamber of Commerce hired Larry Jump and Sandy Schauffler to make a state-wide survey of potential ski areas. After identifying Arapahoe Basin as a good spot for a ski area, Jump, Schauffler, Max Dercum (who owned property along the Snake River), Dick Durrance and Denver ski manufacturer Thor Groswold formed Arapahoe Basin Inc. And The Legend was born.
Hauk’s memoir is peppered with descriptions of the difficulties involved with getting the area going, a ranger who didn’t ski and snowshoed down after inspecting the lifts, and the omnipresent problem of keeping money flowing towards the effort.
Arapahoe Basin may well be a quintessential example of the kind of American vision and perseverance that dominated the country in the wake of World War Two. Skiers today may not think about the huge effort that made The Basin as they pound bumps on Pallavicini, but The Basin has been hosting skiers for longer than many of us skiing today have been alive.