the early-morning aftermath of a storm that closed roads all the way to
Kansas, the promise of fresh snow sends ripples of anticipation down the
mountain. A first-tracks queue coils out from the gondola like a serpent,
growing plumper by the minute.
A building sense of urgency vibrates through the lineup waiting to purchase
tickets at Keystone's River Run hub. Surveying the situation, a latecomer
slyly slithers forward, looking for just the right opening to move closer
to the window. "Pardon me mate, kin ah 'elp you find the right spot in
line?" says a bright-faced young man wearing a resort-issued
Taken aback, the miscreant mumbles something about a missing friend, then
sheepishly retreats to the end of the line. Murmurs of approval echo among
the throng. Order has been restored, and the sort of experience that gnaws
away the pleasures of many a ski day has been averted without so much as a
Gold Parka's timely intervention is no accident. Neither
is the accent, straight from the South Island snowfields of New Zealand.
The Kiwi is among many friendly Southern Hemisphere recruits, part of a
program begun six years ago when the resort began soliciting international
conscripts. They help fill Keystone's courtesy patrol, an institution that
speaks volumes about the way the nation's third most popular ski resort relates
to its customers. Some resorts dazzle visitors with gnarly steeps that
punish the knees and gnaw at the psyche. Others soothe them with gourmet
lunches fit for Henry VIII. Keystone offers those, but kills 'em with
kindness. The resort has quietly tallied more than a million annual skier
visits for a decade, yet it's rarely mentioned during après tales of valor
and epic ski days.
those who never have visited this resort tucked into southeastern corner of
Colorado's ski-happy Summit County, misconceptions about this quiet giant
abound. Because it lacks a central feature, either of terrain or town, it
comes off as some amorphous mass that's difficult to define. While Keystone
does have slopes worthy of glowing praise, the greater truth is that the resort's
essence is not something you can send home on a picture postcard. Rather it
is a nebulous collection of pleasures revolving around a central theme of
service, and it creates a loyalty unmatched by even the traditional
pilgrimages of steep freaks to Jackson Hole or powder hounds to Alta.
When the owners of Vail and Beaver Creek completed a merger to acquire
Keystone and Breckenridge from food giant Ralston Purina in January 1997,
they tried to shoehorn the Summit duo into the successful Vail mold. Then a
funny thing happened. "It took almost a year, but they realized we
were very different entities with equally different customers," says
John Rutter, chief operations officer and a 28-year Keystone veteran.
"The conclusion was that we could market a much more attractive and
successful package by allowing each to be different."
Keystone, that difference had been carved from nearly three decades of
stability during which Ralston proved it knew more than just how to make
puppy chow. Purely from an organizational perspective, that continuity can
be traced today to a sort of seven-headed managerial Mt. Rushmore, which,
in the ephemeral world of ski-resort executives, is as rare as lace-up ski
isn't even the senior member of an administration that includes 30-year
veteran Hank Thiess, vice-president of resort operations, and 28-year
anchor Barb Brandt, who directs human resources. Steve Corneillier, once
the marketing VP and now supervisor of golf operations, arrived 27 years
ago. Marketing Director Margie Bootenhoff and food and beverage chief Doug
Pierce rank as newcomers at 25 years. A visitor soaking up Keystone's
kindness might find particular significance in the fact that Tim Patterson,
vice president of hospitality, also has been helping shape this feel-good
resort for a quarter-century.
I came here, I kept referring to our visitors as skiers. I was informed
they were guests," Rutter explains. "We've developed a special
culture with a lot of chemistry and energy. In reality, it doesn't have as
much to do with how long you've been here as it does the atmosphere. It's
contagious, and it permeates every part of the operation."
In a contest of adjectives, comfortable wins hands-down over extravagant at
a condo near the hub of River Run Village. Yet there is one attraction here
that few resort rentals ever provide. From a miniature balcony, a skier
weary from a day on the slopes observes the first twinkle of lights as the
mountain prepares for Keystone's second helping. Grooming machines have
completed a second tour of duty, and night-skiing is about to break out.
The skier flexes his tired legs, looks up again at the lights and then at
the gondola humming a few yards away. The temptation proves too much.
else can you ski top-to-bottom 11 hours a day on one lift ticket? This
careful arrangement at bustling River Run Village notwithstanding,
Keystone's larger silhouette reflects a sense of nature rarely found at a
resort. While Keystone features more base villages than mountains, a total
of four-five if you count nearby Dillon-much of the infrastructure is
tucked away in a dense pine forest. You won't need a search party to find
your condo, but a map comes in handy the first few days.
west to east, you'll find the original 25-year-old Keystone Village, with
its landmark lodge, condos, restaurants and shops ringing a dramatic
ice-covered lake that sparkles a nightly welcome to skaters and strollers.
A shuttle ride away, the Mountain House Base Area harbors the original lift
network, along with the Inn at Keystone and more shops.
Farther east, River Run Village more recently sprouted a thicket of lodges
and shops in a development carefully orchestrated to lend architectural and
commercial balance to the busy gondola portal. Size and location make River
Run Village the epicenter of base activities. Yet it lacks the necessary
anchor of a grand lodge or hotel that might lend a sense of warmth and
community. And its nightlife certainly won't be confused with that of Vail
like pine cones through a lodgepole forest, condo clusters form a
consortium of more than 1,600 units under spit-polish corporate command.
Not many qualify as the dazzling showcases that adorn brochure covers, but,
on the other hand, there's not a bad room in the bunch. A total of 5,346
pillows under a central rental program ranks among the largest in the
by, but distinctly separate, a confederation of lodges and shops along
Highway 6, called the Mountain View Plaza, spins tantalizingly beyond
Keystone's central command. Snuggled into this mélange is the Snake River
Saloon, a raucous roadhouse that, despite the millions spent elsewhere on
fancy bistros, holds fiercely to the pulse of adult amusement.
a late Saturday in January, a bartender sucks in a mouthful of 90-proof,
gargles forcefully, strikes a match and, to a wild chorus of approval,
belches flame up to the ceiling. The performance will not be repeated
elsewhere in the valley, any place, any time.
Standing at the crest of The Outback, a skier's legs suddenly feel more
like rubber than steel. The path before him plunges steeply through a dense
blanket of snow, a sweet invitation to romp and play. Quite literally, he
can see none of this for the trees: thick-set, ready to rip any missed turn
limb from limb. The routes through this minefield have names no one has
ever read before on a Keystone trail map, ominous titles like The Trap,
an elevation of more than 12,000 feet, rimmed by the sweep of the
Continental Divide, a sense of wildness seeps into the bones, a feeling
much farther from the main village than mere miles indicated on a chart.
When Keystone opened the 300-acre Outback in 1990, it added a layer of
muscle that any resort might envy. That much of the ski world still
remembers Keystone for the warm-and-fuzzy softness of earlier decades only
adds to the list of confusions that hang on the place.
later, many skiers and boarders with advanced abilities and egos to match
haven't granted themselves the discovery of The Outback or its even older
adjunct, North Peak, which opened in the mid-'80s. They've missed an
amalgam of steeps, bumps and trees with enough scope and variety to keep
the knees pumping for days-or at least until the time comes for a cycle of
diversity that might include nearby Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge (visible
from a few miles away) or even Vail, a 40-minute drive.
a powder day, adventurous skiers hike along a vaulting ridge beyond the
Outback Express quad to a place above the trees where unbroken snowfields
spill down into North and South bowls. They plunge through Wombat Chutes,
Wasteland or Southern Cross and find themselves not in Keystone, or Kansas,
anymore. The Outback has been called Colorado's best-kept secret, and it
still is today.
The new emotional and retail hub of the resort, River Run
added the missing ingredient to Keystone's village life: action.
Photo by Brooks
From the elevation of a gondola car, a sunset's fireworks bursting over the
crest of the Tenmile Range alone prove worth the ride. Wind-sculpted into
centrifugal whorls, banks of clouds capture the final rays in a fiery
display that shifts from red to pink to purple to gray. As the sunset
fades, valley lights twinkle a greeting to dusk, melting into a single,
warm glow as the car rises into the night.
light show forms a proper prelude to a culinary achievement at a resort
that flourishes with food. For someone with a romantic bent-or maybe just a
simple craving for exquisite cuisine-a visit to the Alpenglow Stube stands
tall on any list of gastronomical events.
11,500 feet and at the end of two gondola rides, the restaurant qualifies
as the ultimate in secluded hideaways-far in space and spirit from the
resort bluster. Open winter and summer, the Stube features a prix-fixe menu
of European cuisine with a New World twist.
as it is, Alpenglow Stube may not represent Keystone's finest dining
experience. That distinction belongs to Keystone Ranch, which, in the
opinion of some reviewers, ranks as the best restaurant in Colorado for its
international menu of game dishes and celebrated service. Equally elegant,
the Garden Room offers a varied menu highlighted by steaks and salads.
searching for the soul of Keystone invariably come to Ski Tip Lodge, a
historic marker whose central log building served as an 1880s stage stop.
Maintained as a rustic inn and a splendidly intimate restaurant with only
nine tables, the lodge provides a unique escape from the electronic assault
of telephones and TV. Nightcaps and cherry brûlée are served beside a
rustic fireplace where skiing pioneer Max Dercum, who first made the lodge
his home 60 years ago, spent evenings planning the resort that would become
The most optimistic premise of any marriage holds that the union joins the
best resources of each partner. Keystone didn't wait long to learn the
benefit of the 1997 merger. "Vail immediately gave us a lot of
money," Rutter says.
$70 million in capital improvements purchased three high-speed quads and a
second golf course, and it doubled the size of the conference center,
making it tops among ski resorts. Slow to develop, the long-awaited River
Run Village showed only two buildings at the time of the merger. With a new
impetus from Vail Resorts, and in partnership with Intrawest, the village
quickly sprouted to maturity and the resort's overall bed base effectively
doubled. "We also improved our snowmaking and grooming, which we thought
was already pretty good," Rutter says.
connection worked to a visitor's benefit in yet another important manner.
For a quarter century, Keystone managers lay awake nights puzzling how to
keep vacationers from being drawn to the powerful Vail magnet 35 miles to
the west. In a twinkling, this link to the mega-resort became a selling
point. Keystone's standard ticket package not only permits interchangeable
visits to Summit partners Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin, it also includes
a one-day pass to either Vail or Beaver Creek-easily accessed via a $10
shuttle service. Skiers who purchase the popular five-resort Colorado Pass
or the three-resort Buddy Pass also get bonus days at Vail and Beaver
Creek, with certain holiday restrictions.
"Because we own everything, we can give it away," Rutter explains
of Keystone's guest incentive program, which may be unprecedented in all of
snowsport. Conceived as a business plan to leverage the resort's
advantages, the Mountain Passport provides a rainbow of free activities for
visitors who stay at Keystone's lodges. The list of complimentary options
includes cross-country rentals and trail fees, figure skating clinics,
guided mountain tours, hockey clinics, horse-drawn sleigh rides, ice
skating, Nastar races, mini ski lessons, ski-tuning clinics, snowshoe
rentals, a boot diagnosis, wine tastings, yoga and night-skiing on the
evening of arrival.
the families who comprise much of Keystone's business, the highlight of the
package is a parental godsend called Kids Night Out. When adults dine at a
Keystone restaurant, kids enjoy free supervised entertainment and snacks at
a children's center.
Keystone's constant vigilance to its customers that keeps 'em coming back.
Part of that vigilance is the realization that families don't like
surprises. So a major component of Keystone's appeal is consistency. The
traditional Keystone is always there for the many who love it: That
ego-friendly cruise in the park with the guarantee of endless snowmaking,
the heart-pounding steeps and trees of The Outback, the night-skiing, all
the pampering and more diversions than anyone can sample in a month.
those resorts with a drop-dead, oh-my-god attraction, none of this plays
well on a brochure cover. But it sure keeps the regulars returning for
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