Echo Mountain -- a 226-acre ski area 35 miles from Denver near Evergreen, Colo. that had catered specifically to freestyle skiers and snowboarders over the last six years -- was sold at auction last week. The new owners will be scrapping the terrain park concept in favor of developing the Front Range Ski Club at Echo, a private training facility for alpine ski racers set to open on November 1.
"Losing it to a private organization that's going to make it an exclusive operation for-ski-racing-only is a little hard to stomach," says Marc Moline, a former employee who ran Echo's terrain park for most of the six-year run that the area was operated by the family of former owner Jerry Pettit. "We'd always prided ourselves on running a terrain park and family ski and snowboard area that was not exclusive. We welcomed beginners, families, old, young, all types, so to see that small little family operation fold and become a completely private operation is definitely a bummer for the snowsports industry, in my opinion."
Echo is situated entirely on private land, making it unique among Colorado's 25 other ski areas, all of which operate at least partially on U.S. Forest land. That advantage allowed Moline and his crew complete freedom to develop features like the Asylum Tree Park log jibs and co-branded terrain park obstacles like its Burton Snowboards-branded 25-stair wooden handrail set and its Never Summer Industries-branded rainbow rail, erected atop a vintage Tucker Sno-Cat left over from Echo's past life as Squaw Pass Ski Area in the 1960s and 70s. But Moline says the ski area also had some distinct disadvantages.
"They were marketing it as a world-class terrain park from the start, but the infrastructure to create it just wasn't really there," Moline explains. "They had limited water rights, limited snow-making, and two old and not-so-capable sno-cats, so the odds were kind of stacked against them. But we did the best we could with what we had and we really learned to be creative."
Moline has taken some of what he's learned to his new gig, running the freestyle program at the similarly small Cannonsburg Ski & Snowboard Area in Belmont, Michigan, where there's less competition from major resorts.
"Echo was slowly but surely picking up steam over the years," he says. "It was close to Denver, lift tickets and season passes were cheap, you didn't have to deal with the traffic on I-70, we kept the lights on for night riding, and it really did have some advantages -- but they were carrying a lot of overhead for a small ski area trying to compete against the big dogs in Colorado."
Pro snowboarder Pat Milbery lives in nearby Golden, Colo. and -- in addition to being an Echo local -- worked with Echo's management to host annual snowboard camps and contests there as part of his So-Gnar Mighty Midwest Camp Tour series. He says the former owners always went out of their way to accommodate photo shoots and film crews, and that the place got a surprising amount of attention from major snowboard magazines and film crews as a result.
"I remember one night we built a super cool jib next to one of the snow-making machines and they let me blast through the spray doing a method," Milbery recalls. "It was one of the most magical photos I've ever been involved in creating. On certain nights riding at Echo felt like snowboarding in another galaxy."
Milbery, originally from Minnesota, says Echo Mountain always reminded of home, in a good way.
"To me Echo had that home-slope, backyard-shred kind of feel," Milbery says. "Because it was so close to Denver and they offered night riding, it almost became like this after-school/after-work club kind of place for a lot of kids. Then again, there were a lot of times I'd be there and feel like it was my own private resort, so I can't really say I'm surprised to see it close. Still, it's sad: Marc and his crew put a lot of time and effort and tons of creativity and resources into building that place into what it was and building a scene up there."