Un­veil­ing “Un-Vail” pow­der par­adise

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

ci­mar­ron» Imag­ine we are head­ing to an is­land, says Jim Aron­stein.

“And this,” he says, step­ping into a plush snow­cat, “is our boat.”

Min­utes later, he is rel­ish­ing his is­land oa­sis, fat Rossignol skis send­ing pow­der bil­low­ing on a gladed slope he helped clear with his chain saw.

The mat­ter-of-fact, re­tired nat­u­ral-re­sources lawyer turns into a buoy­ant pow­der hound up in his 2,000-acre par­adise on the north­ern­most tip of south­ern Colorado’s toothy San Juans. His grin widens with each ef­fort­less turn down north-fac­ing slopes that spill from an 11,400-foot ridge that spans 2½ miles.

Aron­stein loves undis­turbed snow so much that it’s the foun­da­tion of his one-ofa-kind busi­ness plan. And preserving pow­der is po­si­tioned above profit as he plots to par­ti­tion par­adise.

“The con­sti­tu­tional vi­sion here is to re­tain the wilder­ness char­ac­ter of the place and to make sure there is pretty much al­ways good pow­der to ski on the moun­tain,” said Aron­stein, 61, who this win­ter un­veils his Ci­mar­ron Moun­tain Club — with a pri­vate ski area big­ger than Aspen Moun­tain — as a home for only 12 deep-pock­eted buy­ers.

“Sure, we want to re­cover our in­vest­ment, but at the end of the day, the most im­por­tant thing for us is to have a re­ally great place — some­thing my fam­ily will con­tinue to par­tic­i­pate in for gen­er­a­tions and that will be a very spe­cial place for oth­ers as well,” said Aron­stein, who has no debt on the ranch. “That’s re­ally more of the re­ward here than a fi­nan­cial re­turn.”

Aron­stein bought the for­mer log­ging com­pany land above the Ci­mar­ron River, in the shadow of the tur­reted Ci­mar­ron Range, in 2005, the day af­ter he and a part­ner sold nearly 6,000 acres of law­suit-ad­dled min­ing claims on the back­side of Vail ski area to Florida de­vel­oper Bobby Ginn for $32.75 mil­lion.

The ranch was a get­away for him, his wife and their three sons. They spent sev­eral years bounc­ing up rugged roads, fish­ing the prop­erty’s many ponds and mar­veling at the ge­ol­ogy — in­clud­ing a basalt-fluted volcanic mono­lith not un­like Devil’s Tower.

And they skied. The tim­ber com­pany had carved open swaths on a couloir-draped ridge, and Aron­stein and his boys would snow­mo­bile up and down, ski­ing the deep snow. They thought about a chair­lift. Then they thought about carv­ing the prop­erty into home­sites and shar­ing their pow­dery Eden.

“At the end of the day, we thought it

would be nice to have some other peo­ple around,” Aron­stein says.

But be­fore he made a plan, Aron­stein called a friend. John Nor­ton, the for­mer se­cond-in­com­mand at Aspen Ski­ing Co. and one-time boss of Crested Butte Moun­tain Re­sort, had gone to school at Dart­mouth Col­lege with Aron­stein. Four years ago, Nor­ton vis­ited the ranch with a plan to dis­suade his pal from in­vest­ing too heav­ily in a pri­vate ski area. He was blown away. Nor­ton called a friend. John­nie Stevens, the long­time Tel­luride ski area boss, came over with equal ret­i­cence. Stevens called Andy Daly, the for­mer Vail Re­sorts ex­ec­u­tive who now owns Pow­der­horn near Grand Junc­tion. And Bill Kane, the for­mer plan­ner for Aspen Ski­ing Co. and long­time prin­ci­pal of plan­ning out­fit De­sign Work­shop who now serves on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Com­mis­sion, came by for a visit.

“Ev­ery­one had the same re­ac­tion I did,” Nor­ton says. “There’s noth­ing out there like this place.”

Four of the Colorado ski in­dus­try’s heav­i­est hit­ters, long­time com­peti­tors in the cut­throat game of lur­ing ski va­ca­tion­ers, joined Aron­stein in a unique plan to open, but not quite de­velop, the sprawl­ing moun­tain wilder­ness to like-minded buy­ers.

The board that di­rects the club now in­cludes Eric Calderon, the Au­berge Re­sorts chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer who launched Aspen’s Lit­tle Nell Ho­tel, and Bob­bie Burkley, the for­mer vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing for Aspen Ski­ing Co. When that board gath­ers, it’s a Colorado ski­ing name-drop­ping bo­nanza.

“We put a lot of thought into this. It’s been a very dy­namic process,” said Stevens, a 70-year-old skier who hung up his Har­ley leathers to come out of re­sort-chief re­tire­ment and join Aron­stein as gen­eral man­ager of the club. Stevens, who cap­tained Tel­luride for 33 years, calls the pro­ject “my swan song.”

Aron­stein and his equity part­ner, Kim Koehn, lis­tened to the board as they shaped a way to pre­serve the wilder­ness while shar­ing the land.

Aron­stein, who won a breach-of-con­tract law­suit against Vail Re­sorts in 2003 af­ter the re­sort com­pany balked at a prene­go­ti­ated plan for de­vel­op­ing the Bat­tle Moun­tain land he sold to Ginn, wanted a sim­ple plan an­chored in pow­der and wilder­ness.

“Some­thing where we would re­ally be able to have con­trol over the vi­sion and ex­e­cut­ing the vi­sion,” he says. “It’s not about max­i­miz­ing profit. It’s about max­i­miz­ing the beauty of the area.”

The fi­nal con­cept — honed af­ter more than three years of dis­cus­sion with the heavy­weight board and just now reach­ing the mar­ket — is un­like any­thing in the world.

The Ci­mar­ron Moun­tain Club di­vides the 2,000-acre ranch into a mere 12 parcels, from 35 acres to 204 acres.

Kane, one of the most re­spected plan­ners in the re­sort in­dus­try, whit­tled the po­ten­tial num­ber of sites from a pos­si­ble 50 35acre lots to a dozen. No home­site is vis­i­ble from an­other, giv­ing each owner their own piece of re­mote wild­lands. Site prices range from $2.7 mil­lion to $3.85 mil­lion. Elec­tri­cal lines are plugged into each site and wa­ter is piped from the prop­erty’s bounty of springs.

All own­ers — as part of their an­nual dues of $50,000, or up to $90,000 for home­sites split be­tween as many as four fam­i­lies — get un­lim­ited snow­cat and guided ski­ing. All but one of the parcels is ski-in, ski-out, with a cou­ple of the sites ac­ces­si­ble only by tal­ented skiers.

A groomed cross coun­try ski­ing trail will roll across the prop­erty. Gun­ni­son moun­tain bik­ing leg­end Dave Wiens de­signed sin­gle­track trails for sum­mer that ac­cess each home­site. The club will of­fer some buy­ers com­mu­nal trail horses and sta­bles.

Most ev­ery site has its own pond. A planned club­house will an­chor the prop­erty, with a restau­rant, bar, spa, pool and gym. The club­house, a three-bed­room guest house, fish­ing cabin and park­ing sheds will be added once six home­sites are sold.

And in a twist for po­ten­tial buy­ers who share Aron­stein’s pas­sion for win­ter, ac­cess in the snowy months is by snow ma­chine only. That means win­ter vis­i­tors will need the Pis­ten-Bully snow­cat, the trailer-tow­ing, dual-tracked Alpina Sherpa snow­mo­biles or the side-by-side Po­laris Tracker, or a Chevy Sub­ur­ban out­fit­ted with snow tracks to reach their homes.

Ev­ery time a new is­sue popped up dur­ing plan­ning, Aron­stein and his board turned to the orig­i­nal con­cept: Pre­serve pow­der and pro­tect the wild­ness of the prop­erty. Paved roads? Won’t work with wilder­ness. More home­sites? That wouldn’t de­liver the lonely-cabin-in-the-woods vibe. How about a chair­lift? That could de­stroy pow­der.

“There are a lot of things as you go that try to pull you in other di­rec­tions,” Aron­stein says. “You have to think through them, and it’s nice to be able to judge all th­ese smaller de­ci­sions through the lens of the con­sti­tu­tional ideas.”

For five years, Aron­stein, his sons, his ski guides and Stevens have care­fully gladed the runs that spill from the ridge. Mike Lar­son, the founder of In­ter­na­tional Alpine de­sign who helped sculpt 200 runs at Vail and its 500-acre Blue Sky Basin, guided their ef­forts. Aron­stein orig­i­nally named the runs af­ter Jimi Hen­drix songs. But his wife, Patsy, suc­cess­fully lob­bied for more con­ven­tional, his­tor­i­cal names. Only “Watch­tower” re­mains.

“I’d like to see ‘Voodoo Chile’ come back,” says Aron­stein, who still calls some of the runs by the names he con­jured while chain­saw­ing trees.

The area has about 60 named runs and an­other 20 planned.

On the south end of the ridge, begin­ner runs are groomed. Above those groomed runs, 13 steep, hike-to couloirs wind through near-ver­ti­cal cliffs. On the north end, the runs get steeper, plum­met­ing 1,600 ver­ti­cal feet through glades of spruce, Dou­glas fir, lodge­pole pine and aspen. A dozen more pre­cip­i­tous couloirs tum­ble off the prop­erty’s 11,453foot Cas­tle Rock peak.

Last sum­mer, the crew loaded 45 trac­tor-trail­ers with tim­ber headed to the Mon­trose sawmill.

“It’s as ex­treme as you pos­si­bly want to go,” said Will Aron­stein, the 27-year-old el­dest son, who has skied the area for nearly a decade, en­list­ing friends in sum­mer­long chain-saw ses­sions in his younger years. “All th­ese years ski­ing here and I’m still dis­cov­er­ing new stuff.”

Aron­stein’s team — which in­cludes vet­eran ski guides and pa­trollers — has ap­plied for an ex­plo­sives per­mit for avalanche con­trol. The moun­tain hosts — a hus­band-wife team of fish­ing guide Shawna Stephens and fish bi­ol­o­gist Scott Slater — live on the prop­erty in an off-the-grid cabin, where they cure the elk and deer they har­vest off the prop­erty.

A typ­i­cal meal made by Stephens and Slater in­cludes elk, veni­son and sushi made from trout caught that morn­ing in a nearby pond.

Slater, a fish bi­ol­o­gist, says the flesh on some of the trout he has found on the prop­erty is bet­ter than fresh salmon he has caught in Alaska.

Ski guide Kris Noel strokes his beard atop a run and tells a group of skiers this is “kind of an emo­tional mo­ment.” Ev­ery­one turns to him. “I cut this run this sum­mer. This will be the first time any­one has skied it,” he says. “I hope you like it.”

This isn’t a sales gim­mick, Aron­stein says later. The hosts, guides and club em­ploy­ees are be­liev­ers in the wild na­ture of the prop­erty. They re­flect the moun­tain cul­ture he’s hop­ing to amplify at Ci­mar­ron Moun­tain Club.

“Ev­ery­thing you ex­pe­ri­ence here is mak­ing you feel that moun­tain cul­ture. Like ‘Yes, I am Jeremiah John­son,’ ” Aron­stein says.

That cul­ture will play a role in “self-se­lect­ing” the clien­tele drawn to the club, says Aron­stein, de­scrib­ing how he de­clined a Tel­luride bil­lion­aire’s of­fer to buy the whole place af­ter the un­named mag­nate vis­ited with his se­cu­rity team, his own chef, and his own sil­ver­ware and plates.

Aron­stein likes to call his re­sort “the Un-Vail.”

That’s not knock­ing Vail. He has had a place there for many years.

“It’s just a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence here,” he says. “The big re­sorts have a dif­fer­ent cul­ture than this. Peo­ple want that wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s what we are pro­vid­ing. We are of­fer­ing that lonely-cabin fan­tasy, with all the sup­port and the in­fra­struc­ture and the recre­ation.” Ja­son Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@den­ver­post.com or @ja­son­blevins

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