By now, you may have seen the viral video of Jonathan Buckhouse riding a full day at Area 51, followed by the last run where he and his crew are stopped by Mountain Safety Patrol for ”aggressive” riding and sentenced to a safety class. The video documents an example of recurring and escalating conflicts between advanced riders and the Mountain Safety, aka yellow jackets.
These encounters often end with tensions boil over on both sides of the meetup. Several years ago, I had a similar guilty until proven innocent consultation by mountain safety at Keystone and had similar feelings I was riding “with the flow.” While I received a warning and was allowed to proceed without further action required, it didn’t leave a good perception of the resort. These days, Keystone has implemented a zero-tolerance stance and issues a mandatory safety class or a have a seasons pass revoked. Like the video and corresponding narrative documents, mountain patrol is now the witness, judge, and jury of the proceedings. The consequence is an increasingly bad reputation for mountain safety and a growing Public Relationship issue for Keystone and Vail Resorts.
The fact is Mountain Safety has an impossible job calming traffic along Schoolmarm. They have a thankless no-win job that now has to deal with the increased potential of a camera documenting every move. There is a massive design flaw with the location and evolution of the terrain park Area 51 that creates an explosive mixture of expert riders and beginners on the green trail Schoolmarm. Area 51 encourages adrenaline pumping riding techniques for nearly 100 jumps, rails, and other extreme features. Meanwhile, the expectation is these participants access Area 51 via Schoolmarm in a calm, almost sedated manner. The adrenaline junkies are unknowingly pulled over for aggressive riding and quickly get defensive with Yellow Jackets trying to take their pass.
As a quick history, Area 51 first appeared on Keystone’s trail map in 1998 as an additional terrain park from the Jackwacker terrain park. The naming of Area 51, based on the now infamous Nevada Air Force Base, was pure marketing genius as it drew intrigue from riders, and the industry soon followed. At the time, the introduction of Area 51 on far skiers left of the mountain made sense. Area 51sat at the top of Pack Saddle Lift and was naturally separated from the rest of the mountain and had good outflow down expert runs such as Go Devil and The Slot.
As popularity grew, Area 51 soon expanded across into the area adjacent to Schoolmarm. At the same time, access to Area 51 changed over time when Keystone removed the original Pack Saddle Lift and expanded Beaver Run to be the primary portal for Keystone. Within the newly developed terrain, Pack Saddle 2 lift, a slow two-person chair was officially renamed A51 Lift. While it was exciting to have one of the few lift-serviced terrain parks in the nation. It was still a hand me down and unfortunately slow in comparison to nearby Montezuma Express or Peru Express.
This redrawing of the map also relocated the ski racing NASTAR run to the Go Devil run. The primary entrance gate for Go Devil was moved to hike to terrain at the top of Area 51 and was periodically closed for races. Over time, the lower access to Go Devil via Packsaddle bowl was slowly being eliminated as the trees are now allowed to grow back in. Today it is rare to find Packsaddle bowl or Go Devil open to ride.
With these changes, the natural separation between Area 51 and the beginner traffic on Schoolmarm was eliminated. If your goal is return to primary parking at Beaver Run, the options are to aggressively traverse the terrain across Schoolmarm to Montezuma lift or painstakingly navigate along schoolmarm to the base.
During the economic downturn, Keystone sealed the lid on this poorly designed pot, and the underlying issues started to boil. Keystone first recognized the problem and experimented with addressing some of the concern with the creation of the Way to A51 run that appeared briefly on the trail map in 2014, but the results were mixed as this bypass run still required traffic to mix at a critical junction point and led to several accidents. The run was immediately taken off the map and sent back to the drawing board.
Based on the master plan of Keystone, there finally projects in work to actuation move the mark to mitigate these issues. First off, the proposal calls for an access tunnel to reinvent the Way to A51 starting along the intermediate Paymaster run and a tunnel under Schoolmarm. This will allow traffic heading from the Gondola, Mercury, and the upcoming Argentine Lift replacement to safely bypass the traffic on Schoolmarm. It is also expected to be graded more favorably to snowboards.
Within Area 51, the tired lift is proposed to be upgraded from a slow two chair to something with more uphill capacity. This will help mitigate traffic bypassing A51 Lift due to its slow ride time.
Leaving A51 will still require some time on Schoolmarm, but the replacement lift of Argentine is expected to have a mid load station that will allow users of A51 to catch a ride up to near the top of Dercums Mountain. At the top of which, the Paymaster run will enable the traverse towards Beaver Run and the Free Parking.
If these changes are not sufficient, the only next step is to either close A51 due to safety concerns or move it to another spot that resolves the conflict. While it looks like the snowcats merely make the features and the rails are just sitting in the snow, it takes a ton of forest service approval, earthwork, and rail yard foundation work to create a safe terrain park. Some strategic thinking on the part of Keystone and Vail Resorts needs to start considering moving the park to the backside of Dercums, North Peak, or Outback where the flow of traffic would be closely aligned. If nothing else, an additional terrain park will split the traffic up between A51 and the new park. It will also allow Vail to take the high road about recognizing the public safety issues versus getting in PR spats with rising stars of YouTube. If something isn’t done, conflicts like the one we saw play out will continue to escalate, and more incidents will surely be captured in video.
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