The Last Resort

How an ambitious but troubled plan to create an exclusive skiers’ paradise may revive—or cripple—one of Colorado’s last authentic mountain towns.

June 2011

 This article was a finalist for the 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the spread design category. 

On a crisp, sunny day in February, Mike Jackson rockets up the slope of Battle Mountain on a snowmobile, sliding around lodgepole pine trees, leaving clouds of exhaust in his wake. He stops often, pointing out areas he’d like to take a chainsaw to, so he can unveil the ski resort that he—and so many others—see hidden in the virgin terrain. He shows off a powder-filled drainage that will become a wide-open bowl and an aspen stand that will be an expert tree run. And high atop the mountain is the meadow that will be the core of Battle Mountain Resort, where chairlifts will converge among multimillion-dollar homes.

A modest, 40-year-old man who looks like the younger, more rugged brother of Mad Men’s John Slattery, Jackson has spent nearly half his life dreaming about Battle Mountain, which is three miles south of Minturn in the Vail Valley. While working at Vail Resorts as a trail planner in the mid-1990s—he helped design Vail’s Blue Sky Basin—he kept hearing about the legendary land. At that time, Vail Resorts had an option on the Battle Mountain property, so one sparkling autumn day in 1995, he wandered up through golden aspen trees and hiked to the peak. “It was unlike any other property or place I’ve been to in Colorado, if not the United States,” he says. “There was not a sound. I couldn’t hear the traffic or see the road. The only thing I could hear was the wind blowing through the trees. I fell in love with it on day one. It wasn’t because I was seeing how the property would be developed, but just because of the beautiful views—both on the interior and exterior.”

The stunning views and terrain had enticed many over the years. Battle Mountain—named for a bloody clash over elk-hunting ground between Ute and Arapaho tribes in the mid-1800s—is one of the most coveted, disputed, and complex pieces of land in the Rocky Mountains. At more than 5,400 acres, its collection of bowls and open meadows mixed with drainages and glades is perfect for hiking, hunting, and, yes, skiing. (Minturnites long used the area as their shared backyard.) It’s one of the few large patches of private mountain real estate suitable for a ski resort left in Colorado, where the federal and state governments own more than two-thirds of the land west of the Continental Divide. It’s only a few miles—as the bird flies, or the gondola runs—from Vail and Beaver Creek, two of the swankiest ski resorts in the world. And it’s conveniently located less than two hours from Denver and about 30 minutes from the Eagle County Airport. Little surprise, then, that a federal judge once called it “some of the most valuable real estate in the state, if not the world.”

Many have tried to develop the land, and many have failed. But 16 years after Jackson first hiked the property, Battle Mountain might soon become the most expensive and glamorous ski resort in Colorado. It will potentially have 1,700 housing units—condos will likely cost north of $500,000; single family homes will probably start at $1 million—and a 674-acre, Jackson-designed ski area. It will be the largest new ski resort in Colorado in 30 years. And given the state’s dearth of private land, the Forest Service’s recent reluctance to lease more federal tracts, and the fact that the ski business is a mature industry, it could possibly be the last ski resort built in Colorado.

If developed as currently intended, the Battle Mountain resort will compare favorably with many of Colorado’s finest ski resorts. The peak reaches 10,960 feet, which is higher than Steamboat and has an Arapahoe Basin–like vertical drop of 2,570 feet. There will be three or four chairlifts on the mountain and a gondola running up from the base village. Twenty percent of the terrain will be for beginners, and the rest will be split between intermediate and expert. All in all, there will be about as much skiable terrain as there is at Colorado’s beloved Aspen Mountain. Still, Battle Mountain will be tiny compared to nearby Eagle County behemoths like Vail and Beaver Creek. “We’re not trying to re-create [Vail or Beaver Creek] or compete with them,” says Dave Kleinkopf, the project’s general partner and Jackson’s boss. “We’re trying to complement what’s already there with a private ski experience.”

That’s right, private. If all goes according to this pricey plan, Battle Mountain will be an exclusive, country-club-style ski resort—just the second in the United States—hosting a maximum of 2,300 skiers per day. (That’s about a tenth of the skiers Breckenridge can accommodate.) Lift tickets for the select few who want to rip the resort’s fresh groomers or get face shots in powder-choked bowls will run into the mid-six figures, and often more. (A house—or at least a condo—will come included.) Finally, the truly wealthy won’t need to rent a helicopter to find fresh tracks and avoid all those upper-middle-class skiers and riders clogging lift lines everywhere else in the state.