ASPEN - Aspen breathed a collective sigh of relief Sunday after snowstorms dropped 15 inches of fresh powder on Aspen Mountain, enabling top-to-bottom skiing for the first time this season.
Townspeople who depend on winter tourism and visitors here on limited stays admitted Sunday afternoon that they have been nervous about the recent lack of snow. Since opening day on Thanksgiving, it had seemed as though the dry weather conditions that marred last season were still in full force.
If nothing else, the storms that came Saturday afternoon and hung around early Sunday were a ray of hope. It was hard to find anyone in the downtown area who wasn't upbeat.
Dorothy Frommer, director of guest services for the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, said it was mostly local residents who stopped by her kiosk in the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall to express their joy about the favorable turn in ski conditions.
"The spirit has so changed," Frommer said. "I'm hearing fabulous comments, mainly from locals who are smiling ear to ear and thrilled because we got so much snow. We were really ready. The timing was perfect."
While Ajax got an amount that enabled Aspen Skiing Co. to put the Silver Queen Gondola into operation for the first time this season, other local mountains also received what they desperately needed from the first significant powder day of the year.
Snowmass Ski Area garnered 15 inches, Aspen Highlands recorded 15, and Buttermilk collected 12, according to the official report at www.aspensnowmass.com at 5 p.m. Sunday, about 24 hours after flurries started to fall in the city.
The slopes at Ajax and Snowmass have been open since Thanksgiving. Buttermilk is set to open Dec. 15. Aspen Highlands was supposed to start its lifts on Dec. 8, but Skico postponed the opening, saying it needed 8 more inches of natural snow.
A Skico representative could not be reached for comment Sunday. An employee at Highlands Pizza said he "gets the feeling" that the ski area will open later this week.
Frommer said many of the visitors she was helping Sunday were from the Vail area. On Sunday morning, Vail reported 9 new inches in the past 24 hours and 11 over the past 48 hours.
"Quite a bit of (Aspen) mountain is still closed," said Alice Goldfarb, who has lived in Aspen since 1971. "People are skiing a lot of the same runs. But the snow was soft. They probably groomed some of it during the night."
Goldfarb said she didn't rush to get in the line at the Gondola Plaza early Sunday.
"I've lived here over 40 years, so I know," she said. "That's why I didn't jump out first thing."
The snowmaking equipment was operating during the day, she said, providing an extra challenge.
"It added to the fog and not being able to see well," she said. "You've really got to watch it."
Good snowfall can provide the nudge that brings in the undecided travelers - which means extra sales for the restaurants, bars and retailers who are more than ready to do business after a moderately slow start to the season.
Bob Borcherts, a visitor from Ann Arbor, Mich., said he enjoyed a few runs during the day although it was cold - 2 degrees in the afternoon near the Sundeck.
"I think this is the snow that will save Christmas week here in Aspen," he said.
Borcherts said he'll be here a few more days and that he was glad it finally snowed during his vacation.
"I think enough people didn't like the crowds early today and they came off the mountain," he said. "At noon the sun came out between 12 and 1, and it was wonderful. It was a great day to be able to be up there."
At the point on Sunday when Skico opened the trails Lazy Boy and Silver Dip, "It was like the Oklahoma land rush," he said. "Crowded but enjoyable."
"We had a good weekend; the hotel was busier than it's been," said Chuck Butler, a ski concierge at The Little Nell's adventure shop near the gondola. "We're also getting a lot of calls from people who are coming in at Christmas."
Pick a cliche, Butler said. People around town were exuberant Sunday, as though a huge weight had been lifted.
"It's the monkey off our back," he said. "I think this puts us to where we should be. Now we're caught up, and we just have to wait for more."