This is the year of the Mountain Coaster in Colorado

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — By the tracks of North America’s longest alpine coaster, all faces are smiling. But above, skiers rise on Steamboat Resort’s Christie Peak Express lift, and some look down to shake their heads and frown.

Like it or not, 2018 is the year of the coaster in Colorado ski country. The trade association with that name represents four resorts that have either opened a ride or plan to this year, along with Steamboat’s Outlaw Mountain Coaster. Copper Mountain Resort unveiled a coaster a weekend before the bobsled-like carts started running on Aspen Snowmass’s coaster, and Durango’s Purgatory Resort expects to open one this summer.

Compare the four coasters with the one new chairlift that came to Colorado Ski Country’s member resorts this season.

The attractions arrive as the industry continues its push for no offseason. Nothing more boldly proclaims the attempt for year-round business: a twisting, turning, tumbling track of tubular steel on which people zoom 25-plus mph.

Michael Greene, once a “liftie” and now a “coastie” tending the Outlaw Mountain Coaster, shrugs at the criticism from above. “People think it’s a machine on the mountain,” he says.

In view from the single base area at Steamboat, the coaster looms, propped on the iron stilts and concrete walls that jut from the mountain’s snowy foot. Oak brush has been cleared around the 6,280-foot-long track, which ascends at first, giving riders about six minutes of mountain vistas before winding down for nearly two scream-worthy minutes.

Beside “the barn” that stores the carts and various gizmos and gadgets for the coaster’s operation, Steamboat also has built a mini golf course. Intrawest, which owns the resort along with five others around the country, previously announced a $43 million plan that went toward these summer-friendly offerings. At Steamboat, they also include a rope course and climbing wall.

Resorts seem to be following Vail Mountain’s lead. In 2016, as part of the corporation’s $25 million development campaign, the Epic Discovery center opened, complete with a bungee trampoline, a tube slide, a climbing tower, a mini golf course and, yes, a coaster.

By then, coaster craze was sweeping the country. Jackson Hole’s Snow King Mountain Resort built a track not long after Killington Ski Resort in Vermont opened a coaster, which reportedly cost $2 million. Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort already had one. So did Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is set to get one, despite pushback from environmentalists.

For purists and nostalgic regulars who cringe at the sight of more condos and restaurants and the like on their favorite mountains, coasters are new realities. They follow in the wake of the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which cut red tape for the U.S. Forest Service to approve more amenities.

“It’s more like an education with our local community,” says Taylor Prather, speaking for Copper Mountain, where the coaster is reached from the same base area that hosts a ninja obstacle course. “The misperception we’ve had to correct is that we’re taking terrain away, when in fact that (coaster area) was never skiable.”

Jeff Daniels, Steamboat’s guest services director, says skiers and riders lost 20 feet of terrain to the Outlaw Mountain Coaster. But the appearance is enough to rile critics.

“This is horrifying and ugly,” reads one Facebook comment, from someone who says her Australian family comes to the resort every other year. “Shame on this commercial decision.”

Reads another: “More junk and clutter on the mountain.”

And another: “This is a national forest and a ski area … not a theme park.”

But executives are confident in what they’ll gain. At Purgatory Resort, General Manager Colin McBeath would be pleased to double summer visitors upon the coaster’s opening. (The Forest Service predicted nearly that for Snowmass’s coaster, the fourth to be approved in the White River National Forest, joining Copper Mountain, Vail and Breckenridge.)

It’s not only customers that McBeath is excited about attracting.

“We can attract long-term employment,” he says. “It’s just good business to be able to maintain your workforce throughout the year, so you can train and get better rather than starting from zero again every season.”

With the Outlaw Mountain Coaster, Steamboat started a whole new department, made up of workers who’ve gotten a sense of the type of people they’ll see on the attraction this winter. They’ve been young and old, in clothes that aren’t ski clothes — people seeking a thrill but shy of the slopes.

“It’s just a new way to enjoy the outdoors and have a mountain experience,” Daniels says. “A lot of people look at these as roller-coasters that you’d see in a theme park, but they really do offer something different.”

The views are one thing. And unlike roller coasters, alpine coasters are user-controlled. Riders push down the levers at their sides to go fast or pull back to brake.

Before they depart at Steamboat, an attendant gives advice for added joy and no chance of collision, advice that brings to mind the industry and the times.

“Don’t stop.”