By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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"Everyone thought we were crazy to start," Donovan admits. "But we knew we could either struggle with it now or race against the clock next year. Plus, we were determined to open this season."
While they were still waiting for the county's final approval, they bought a lift from Heavenly Mountain and had it trucked to Colorado. The old T-bar equipment was removed, but by the time they were ready to install twelve new lift poles, rebuilding demands after Hurricane Katrina had created a major concrete shortage. The lift was finally finished -- but it still had to be approved by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which regulates any lift in the state.
"They're not casual," Donovan says. "It's a big deal." The test, conducted in January, required loading 25,000 pounds of sandbags on the lift and running it for inspectors. The lift passed, but Donovan was still having trouble with the snowmaking equipment.
His crew had already built a one-million-gallon reservoir on the middle of the mountain and buried the pipes beneath the ground, but they couldn't put the big pumps in until the pump house was finished. Once that was constructed, the snowmaking team worked for two weeks to set everything up. And then the pipes froze in early February.
That's when Donovan quit predicting an opening date. "I'm not saying anything," he told Westword after another cold night on the mountain. "Could be a month, could be more." They finally solved the freezing problem the hard way: They rented an excavator designed to cut through granite, then used heating and an industrial hot-water blaster to unfreeze the problem areas of the pipes.
"You need it all to come together," Donovan said. "It's like Thanksgiving dinner. You want it to come out all warm at the same time, but it's hard to pull off."
One night in mid-February, Donovan was in his bed in Denver when the phone rang at 1:43 a.m. He let the answering machine pick up.
"Doug, I've got news about the snowmaking system," Ham said to the machine.
"Oh, fuck," Doug muttered, still half asleep. If this was bad news, he knew that Echo Mountain would not open this season.
"It's fully functional," Ham said. Donovan jumped up and grabbed the phone.
"If you were here, I would hug you," he yelled.
The county's inspection for the lodge was slated for March 1, two days before Echo Mountain's official/unofficial unveiling party, when some eighty ski-industry people, media representatives and snowboard retailers would show up to check out Colorado's newest terrain park. But as late as February 28, there was no park for them to check out. The snow guns had been spraying all week, but only about 20 percent of the thirty acres cleared for runs had been covered with manmade powder.
On the last day of February, Ham stood in the pump room, explaining the intricacies of the snowmaking system. The amount of snow that can be produced depends on the "wet bulb," a formula that measures the balance between air temperature and humidity. A month earlier, they'd been praying for warm weather -- now they wanted it cold. During three days of subzero air, the five guns had each blown up to 110 gallons a minute. But the last few days of 60-degree weather had melted a lot of that snow away, and now the output was closer to 50 gallons per minute. "But the temperature is dropping," Ham noted. "So we're going to bring in some more guns from Utah and really get this thing cranking."
He left the shed and walked up the hill to meet Mike Langdon, a snowboard instructor from Portland, Oregon, who'd moved to Colorado to help set up Echo Mountain's version of a ski school. Langdon was staring at Knuckles, a seventeen-foot-tall obstacle -- essentially a cross between a tree trunk and a wall ride -- fabricated especially for Echo. He was worried that Knuckles's position on a large mound of dirt might be too close to nearby trees. "We need to grade this side of the pile down and shape this side so it doesn't toss people into the woods," he said.
Once the terrain was complete, Langdon could concentrate on the ski school, which will be modeled after programs at Oregon's Mount Hood snowboard camp that allow instructors to "really develop a relationship with that person, like with coaches you had in high school," Langdon explained. "The focus is a lot less on getting everyone at the same goal, instead focusing on the individual's particular needs."
The school will reflect the "progression park" aspect of Echo Mountain's design. Created by Idaho-based Planet Snow Design -- the crew that also designed the 2002 Olympics Superpipe -- the terrain park is divided into sections catering to skill levels from beginner to expert. The mountain will be fully lit at night, too, so that kids can hit the park after school. Langdon envisions creating some type of interscholastic league through the school districts, "like a one-night-a-week thing where kids would come up for training and competition," he said, looking at the barren hillside. "Like a club sport, students could letter in it just like they would for football."