New terrain, lifts and snowmaking on horizon for Aspen Mountain
January 2, 2016
The timing of projects such as the replacement of Lift 1A, the expansion into Pandora and extension of snowmaking on Aspen Mountain could become clearer in 2016.
Aspen Skiing Co. has the three ski-area improvements on its wish list for Aspen Mountain, according to Skico Vice President of Mountain Operations Rich Burkley.
Skico wants to replace the slow, two-seat Lift 1A out of the base on the west side of the mountain.
On the upper east side of the ski area, Skico has been methodically looking at the expansion of terrain to skier's right of the Walsh's trail and the construction of a new chairlift to serve the terrain.
Skico also wants to extend snowmaking from the top of the Deer Park trail to the summit.
All of the projects are "off on the horizon," Burkley said. How far on the horizon is yet to be determined.
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White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams granted approval for the Lift 1A replacement earlier this month. Skico, in theory, could install the lift in 2016 if it also acquires approvals from Pitkin County and the city of Aspen.
Skico executives have insisted they won't invest the millions of dollars necessary until it is clear what's happening with plans for base-area hotels.
The International Ski Federation is holding Skico's feet to the fire. The governing body for World Cup ski racing wants a new lift installed before Aspen hosts the World Cup Finals in March 2017.
Meanwhile, Skico likely will submit letters to the Forest Service in 2016 to request review of the Pandora expansion and extended snowmaking on Aspen Mountain, Burkley said.
Skico officials have talked about the Pandora expansion for years and finally resolved some land-ownership issues this year. The idea is to add 135 to 185 acres of mostly low-angle, gladed and rolling terrain. It would add intermediate and expert terrain on skier's right of Walsh's. It also would allow extension of the existing expert trails of Walsh's, Kristi and Hyrup's.
A new lift would be installed that would run from the southeast of Walsh's to the top of Richmond Ridge, south of the upper terminal for the Silver Queen Gondola, Skico officials said in previous interviews. The terrain is in Skico's ski-area-permit area, but it isn't actively managed. Skiers and snowboarders currently access the terrain via a backcountry gate during powder conditions.
Another important part of Aspen Mountain's future is snowmaking farther up the mountain. The snowmaking system currently stops at the top of the Deer Park trail. Skico envisions adding infrastructure on upper Copper that also would allow water and air hoses to be run to trails such as 1 & 2 Leaf and Silver Bell.
Enhanced snowmaking would help get more terrain open sooner in some seasons, Burkley said.
"It certainly helps us with guaranteed openings on Thanksgiving," he said.
Such a system would make Aspen Mountain the first Skico ski area with bottom-to-top snowmaking coverage. The snowmaking system at Snowmass goes to the top of Sam's Knob.
Skico's contemplation of total coverage on Aspen Mountain comes 40 years after lack of snow wiped out the start of the 1976-77 winter. Few western resorts had snowmaking installed at the time. The Aspen Times ran a picture of former Skico President D.R.C. Brown standing on the brown slopes of Little Nell early in the season. Lifts finally opened Jan. 11, 1977, but ski conditions were "poor," according to Aspen Times Weekly articles at the time.
"For western U.S. resorts, '76 was the wake-up call," Burkley said.
He noted that eastern resorts already had snowmaking systems because of the fickleness of early-season snow.
But adding a Pandora chairlift and terrain as well as snowmaking isn't as simple as Skico shelling out the bucks. All the steps are contemplated in the Aspen Mountain Master Plan approved by the Forest Service in 1997. However, that document is simply a "wish list," Burkley said. Skico also must get Forest Service approval for individual projects.
To further complicate matters, the Forest Service may require Skico to submit an updated master plan before it reviews snowmaking or Pandora under the National Environmental Policy Act.
There's a chance the processes — an updated master plan and environmental reviews of the projects — could proceed simultaneously, he said.
Either way, Pandora and snowmaking won't be ready for the 2016-17 ski season, and Lift 1A's timing remains a question.