Remember, They Scoffed at Aspen, Too

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997

Remember, They Scoffed at Aspen, Too

A Mexican developer's enterprising plan to bring skiing south of the border
By Chris Humphrey

Allan Bard, 1952-1997

Of Allan Bard's many trailblazing expeditions, the Redline Traverse will be most remembered. Having already notched such impressive ski-mountaineering feats as a circumnavigation of Mount McKinley and a traverse of Ellesmere Island, in 1980 he and partners Tom Carter and Chris Cox skied some 200 miles along the crest of the Sierra Nevada and notched first descents on the north faces of Mounts Whitney, Humphreys, and Sill. "What they did, from a technical standpoint, wasn't anywhere near what the leading extreme skiers are doing today," says Gordon Wiltsie, a longtime friend and himself an accomplished ski mountaineer. "But Allan's the guy who led the way. He inspired all those who followed and helped shape the future of telemark and backcountry skiing." One of the most respected guides in the Sierra and, in later years, the Tetons, the 44-year-old Bard died July 5 when he slipped on an icy pitch while leading a client up the Grand Teton. Bard's home in Bishop, California, was a regular gathering spot for legions of climbing vagabonds en route to the nearby Palisades and points beyond. And though his guiding reputation was built as much on his easygoing, jocular manner as it was on his exemplary skills — "If you've got a short memory," Bard liked to tell his new charges, "I've got the sport for you" — Bard's gift for keeping folks laughing could never overshadow what he is said to have been most proud of: his remarkable safety record with novice clients and his efforts to convince his fellow guides to adopt more rigorous standards. "He was more complex than the way most people portray him," says Wiltsie. "He could be serious and he could be moody — just never for too long."

The Best Paddler You
Never Heard Of

"He'd like you to think he drinks beer and never trains, but I wasn't born yesterday," says veteran boater John Weld. "He's gotta be doing something." The he in question is Roger Zbel, a kayaker of near mythic status among contestants in western Maryland's Upper Youghiogheny River race, one of the oldest and most remote extreme-whitewater events in the country, which routinely draws an elite group of paddlers including world champion kayaker Jon Lugbill and whitewater rodeo ace Eric Jackson. Last August, the 41-year-old Zbel negotiated five and a half miles of boulder-strewn, Class V+ rapids to clinch his (ho-hum) 16th victory in 17 years. Of course, Zbel is bound to be knocked off sooner or later, but if the king is worried, he's not letting on. "The field gets better every year," he shrugs, "and so does my victory party."
          — Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta

Like most of us at this time of year, chances are your thoughts are now turning to untracked powder beneath the trees. To well-groomed cruising runs and well-formed bumps. To...Mexico?

Well, it appears that's at least what Mariano Carrera, general comptroller of a local developer called Grupo Arfra, would like us to believe. Carrera is the man spearheading a grandiose plan to turn Nevado de Toluca, a 15,387-foot extinct volcano an hour and a half west of Mexico City, into his nation's first opulent alpine playground (think Gstaad with fajitas subbing for fondue). If he gets his way, the fleece-clad masses will be schussing down Nevado by the winter of 1999.

Surprisingly, the current roadblock impeding the plan is not the latitude at which the mountain sits. Above the proposed resort's 12,470-foot base, in fact, the mountain is both cold enough to keep snow on the ground for three or four months each winter and gently sloping enough to accommodate suitable ski runs. "It would just be a small resort," says Ted Farwell, a Boulder, Colorado, ski-area consultant hired by Grupo Arfra, "but it really is beautiful ski land." Rather, the problem is the folks who live just down the mountain from the proposed resort. Part of the property that would be used sits on communally owned land, over which local farmers, or campesinos, wield veto power. Juan Popoca Ramírez, a town councilman in Raices, the village closest to the proposed development, says the campesinos mostly fear the man-made snow would blow down onto their land and freeze their crops. "We held a meeting just to talk the idea over, and people came from all the local villages, about 2,000 in all," Popoca says. "They were ready to lynch us because they thought we'd already cut a deal with the company. But we are definitely opposed to this project."

Mexican environmentalists are also concerned that the resort will divert precious water from local supplies in order to support snowmaking operations. Carrera claims the ski area will use only a minuscule portion of the water coming off the mountain, but the conservationists are concerned nonetheless. "If Arfra does what it says it will, the project could be OK," says Homero Aridjis, president of Grupo de los Cien, a Mexico City- based environmental
group. "But in Mexico we're used to companies promising they will respect environmental concerns and then not following through."

Despite the opposition, Carrera remains optimistic and will work throughout the winter to try to bring the campesinos on board, in hopes of gaining government approval by spring. But should he be able to win local support, will he have equal success in wooing
an even more important constituency, namely skiers themselves? After all, though one of the world's most populous cities is less than 70 miles away, most Mexico City residents can't afford monocoque Rossignols and Bogner jumpsuits — and those who can are just as likely as their American counterparts to pick Vail or Aspen over Nevado. Carrera admits that the capital's elite are still more likely to head north of the border, but says his resort will be able to tap Mexico City's burgeoning middle class. "Our studies have shown that the market is growing so big, what we're planning here won't even be enough to handle it."

Illustration by Marcos Sorensen

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