The Drop-In: Winter fly fishing on the Roaring Fork River
Believe it or not, winter is one of the best times to fly fish the Roaring Fork River just outside Aspen. Join guest Drop-In host Jarrod Hollinger from Aspen Outfitting Company as he shows us how to catch fish after fish on the Roaring Fork River for an afternoon of winter fly fishing.
To learn more about fly fishing in the Aspen-area or to contact or book a trip with Aspen Outfitting Company, visit https://aspenoutfitting.com/
The Drop-In: 12th annual Audi Ajax Cup
It’s all about ski racing and raising money for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club on this episode of The Drop-In as we check out the scene at the 12th annual Audi Ajax Cup.
The Ajax Cup is a dual giant slalom format with skiers racing side-by-side to the bottom of the course at Aspen Highlands. There is a handicap system in place that allows skiers of all ability levels to compete against each other and each team is led by a current or former professional ski racer.
The event is AVSC’s largest fundraiser of the year and helps the organization provide scholarships to get more kids on the valley on the slopes. There are currently more than 600 kids receiving over $600,000 in scholarships.
Video: Big buck crosses Little Nell run on Aspen Mountain opening day
During filming of our Drop-In series Saturday morning from opening day at Aspen Mountain, we made a quick first run to the Bell Mountain lift and had a visitor.
Our editor, David Krause, caught this big buck running across the top of the Little Nell run just before the Bell Mountain chairlift.
Evidently, he didn’t get the memo about the mountain opening five days ahead of schedule.
Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer tackles Aspen’s Highland Bowl
A visiting skier from Golden hoofed it up Highland Bowl in about 40 minutes on a partly cloudy April afternoon, took a breather at the 12,393-foot summit, clicked into his skis and then carefully picked his way down the steep slope.
Nothing about the hike or descent was remarkable — until you factor in that the skier is blind.
Erik Weihenmayer is world-renowned for his adventures. Tackling the Bowl is far from his most audacious feat. He captured international attention in May 2001 when he became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He has an impressive climbing resume including the Seven Summits. He has solo kayaked the Grand Canyon, an accomplishment depicted in the documentary “The Weight of Water,” screening at 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale on April 28.
“People think that because I do things and I’m blind, I’m a daredevil and I’m really not,” Weihenmayer said. “I’m not a daredevil at all.”
For many people he is an inspiration, whether they have sight or not. There weren’t a lot of people hiking the Bowl when Weihenmayer tackled it April 9. But when they realized they were passing a blind dude, nearly all of them spoke words of encouragement or praise, took a photo with their smartphones or both.
Weihenmayer, who lost his vision to retinoschisis as a teenager, is an avid skier at Colorado resorts. He first hiked and skied the Bowl about five years ago at the suggestion — insistence really — of his friend and guide Rob Leavitt of Basalt. Leavitt has been an instructor for Aspen Skiing Co. for 30 years and guides regularly for Challenge Aspen, which works to get handicapped people on the slopes and into the outdoors. The two men were paired 20-some years ago at Snowmass through a Challenge Aspen program and have skied together ever since.
Leavitt said he used to be wiped out by their skiing sessions because guiding a blind person can be extremely stressful.
“But now we work fairly well together so it’s really more of a normal ski day for me rather than a grueling work day with the blind guy,” Leavitt said. “We’ve gotten into a really nice rhythm.”
As Weihenmayer tells it, Leavitt suddenly and surprisingly decided five seasons ago it was time they tackled the Bowl. “He said, ‘I think you’re ready.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready, let’s talk about this more.’ And (Rob) was like, ‘No, you’re ready.’”
The hike features a 782-foot vertical rise with nearly constant exposure on steep ski slopes to the hiker’s left and a couple of sheer drop-offs to out-of-bounds terrain to the right. Skiers and snowboarders take off their boards, attach them to packs or slings and trudge their way up the slope. Footholds are typically kicked into the ridge’s snow for all but the trailblazers to utilize.
Imagine finding those footholds and not straying off course with your eyes closed. It’s a frightening prospect. Then consider reaching the summit in a very respectable 40 minutes while doing so.
“I was cautious because it’s so narrow there,” Weihenmayer said, referring to nearly all of the ascent terrain. “It’s good to know the consequences. On the left, I kept tapping my pole to know where the edge is.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous but a fall would be a bad consequence there, I keep hearing.”
A reporter along for the trip was recruited into service as “Tinkerbell” — strapping a bear bell around a hand and constantly shaking it so Weihenmayer knew which direction he was headed. Weihenmayer was second in line. Leavitt was behind, providing guidance such as, “You really want to avoid the left side right now.”
Skyler Williams, the business manager for Touch the Top, Weihenmayer’s business venture, shot video of the journey along with Aspen Times photographer Anna Stonehouse.
Weihenmayer shaved about 5 minutes off his Bowl hike time compared with the previous day.
“Yesterday I was huffing a little bit — a lot, actually,” he said. Acclimating for a day and night worked wonders.
Once at the summit, Weihenmayer soaked in the experience almost like a sighted person — feeling the wind in his hair, feeling the sunlight hit his face, shooting the breeze with others at the summit. After a quick breather, it was time to ski down.
“He’s climbed Everest so I knew hiking up wasn’t going to be a problem, so my job is to get him down,” Leavitt said.
They have skied enough together that Leavitt doesn’t have to worry so much about Erik spilling and sliding down the wickedly steep slope. They can focus on making his style look “pretty and efficient,” Leavitt said.
They have developed a unique system. Most visually impaired skiers are guided from behind. That way, the guide can keep an eye on the student and the terrain ahead. Leavitt, however, stays ahead of Weihenmayer.
“By guiding from the front, the skier is skiing toward the voice,” Leavitt explained. “It just puts them in a more forward, athletic position better for skiing.”
It’s also more challenging for the guide because they must swivel their head, constantly looking at the terrain in front, the skier behind and approaching skiers. The nice thing about the Bowl, Leavitt said, is there are no trees and relatively few other skiers.
Leavitt has a microphone with a speaker in a pack around his waist. He constantly provides commands so Weihenmayer knows where he is and knows what to do. Erik links several turns at a time until they take a breather.
Weihenmayer said he listens to the sound Leavitt’s skis make to get a feel for the terrain.
“I can hear him kind of drop off into space and go, oh, he’s in a steep spot,” Weihenmayer said.
Speaking of space, skiing the steep slopes of the Bowl gives Weihenmayer a celestial sensation.
“On groomers, you don’t get that feeling of dropping into space on every turn,” he said. “So for me, I’d say it’s a pretty unique experience. That’s kind of a hard thing as a blind guy, that when you let go into space, you’re going to come around, ya know?”
Weihenmayer tackled the steep part of the Bowl like the true athlete he is. Leavitt guided him down the ridge to the North Woods then curled into the terrain at the G4 and G5 paths in Highland Bowl. The steepest pitch in that terrain is 40 degrees. The average pitches are 36 to 37 degrees. The snow texture was delightfully chalky on the steep slopes, more slushy down below.
The mogul fields on the run-out to the Deep Temerity chairlift provided more of a challenge because of their unpredictable peaks and troughs. Weihenmayer had a couple of minor spills. The only time he had any physical contact with a guide on the hike or descent was when he was locating his skis at the summit.
It was an awe-inspiring accomplishment to witness.
Weihenmayer has an interesting perspective on his quests for adventure.
“Look, life’s about what you choose to pursue,” he said. “This is what I choose to pursue. I have friends that are blind and they’re head of procurement for Sam’s Club. I look at that and say, ‘How in the world do you do that? How do you look at a spreadsheet when you’re blind?’
“It’s just sort of what you commit to and what you spend a lot of your time pursuing.”
Weihenmayer isn’t solely an adrenaline junkie. He is an author, co-producer of films, and a highly sought motivational speaker. He also is a husband and a father to two children. His income from his speaking engagements and other business ventures goes to No Barriers, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2005. No Barriers works with people with physical and emotional challenges — everyone from U.S. military veterans to kids in the foster care system.
“Sometimes traumatic things can either put a crust around you or kind of remove you in a way from life where you’re looking at your life through a window; you’re experiencing it and it’s once removed,” Weihenmayer said. “Fear kind of holds you back, too — kind of gets you in that window where you’re looking at your life and say, ‘How do I break through all the stuff and sort of make an attempt to live in some way?’”
Avalanche expert says Conundrum slide likely a 300-year event
A massive slide that swept down from Highlands Ridge into Conundrum Creek Valley last weekend was probably a 300-year event, a leading avalanche consultant said Tuesday while touring the site.
Mears is an engineer from Gunnison who consults with governments and individuals to locate infrastructure and buildings where they will avoid avalanches. When structures are built in avalanche-prone areas, he helps create designs to mitigate the risk. He has worked on 1,100 projects in nine states and eight countries. He has designed several avalanche mitigation systems for homes in Pitkin County, including a “splitting wedge” concrete wall that probably saved a house at 1053 Conundrum Creek Road from getting flattened by last weekend’s slide.
The wall suffered no visible damage and it deflected most of the high-density lower layer of snow and debris in the avalanche. Some damage was sustained on the west end of the house. Reinforced glass held but an entire window frame was dislodged. Part of an upper-story wall was punched in but the house apparently didn’t suffer any structural damage.
The splitting wedge was designed to protect the house from a 100-year avalanche, per Pitkin County’s requirements. That means there is a 1 percent risk of an avalanche that size happening every year. With a 300-year event, there is a three-tenths of a percent annual probability of an avalanche that size occurring.
The concrete wedge is 21 feet at the top and tapered down to 17 feet on the lower ends. The south leg is 110 feet long and the west leg is 90 feet.
Tons of snow, trees and rock fell from the Five Fingers and K-Chutes on the west side of the valley. The avalanche fell with such force that debris shot more than 200 feet up the east side, wiping out additional trees. Then the debris spilled downvalley or to the north, where it buried the Conundrum Creek Trailhead and U.S. Forest Service facilities there. Much of the debris wrapped around the house to the east.
However, it was clear from broken aspen and conifer trees surrounding the house that debris also ran into the wedge. Mears said there was likely enough material flowing that it bent the trees and caused some of them to break. Smaller aspen trees were smashed flat.
Mears said the house would have been in a red or high hazard area if it didn’t have the splitting wedge. The special wall dropped it to a blue or moderate hazard area. Without the wall, the house probably would have been heavily damaged by last weekend’s slide, he said. The house was unoccupied at the time of the slide.
The house was built in 1987, according to records in the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office. An avalanche damaged it in 1996.
The current owner, listed as MW III Aspen LLC, bought the house and 25.8 acres in December 1998. The new owner applied to Pitkin County in 2001 to build the splitting wedge to protect the 5-bedroom, 5½-bath structure of nearly 5,000 square feet.
In a report prepared for that application, Mears described the potential destructive force of a 100-year avalanche in that area.
“The Five Fingers path produces a major avalanche which can involve more than 100 acres of snow during (a 100-year event) and falls about 3,500 feet to the Conundrum Creek Valley floor,” his 2001 report said. “Maximum velocities on the steep slope will exceed 110 mph.”
He accurately predicted that the blast from the avalanche would ascend roughly 300 feet up the east wall of the valley.
Mears said Tuesday that despite its size, the avalanche probably only lasted about one minute. The powder cloud kicked into the air probably settled within another 30 seconds or so, he said.
There are additional avalanche chutes downvalley or north from the house. A slide in what’s known as the Teepee Chute killed a man living in a teepee on adjacent property in February 1995.
Mears said Pitkin County has a lot of areas of high avalanche hazard because of its numerous valleys with steep slopes. The risk of damage to property is high because of the amount of development in the prone areas.
While Pitkin County has a design standard for a 100-year avalanche event, Gunnison County has a 300-year standard, he noted.
“I believe, in my opinion, Pitkin County should (do) that,” he said.
Pitkin County is a leader in land-issues in a lot of ways, Mears said, and avalanche mitigation should be another.
“Highlands Ridge released naturally. Not a path or two off the ridge but everything from the Five Fingers to the K-Chutes,” CAIC’s report said.
Multiple feeder paths share a common run-out, making the avalanche particularly destructive.
CAIC rated the slide a 4.5 out of 5 on the avalanche destruction scale. Mears said the destructive potential is difficult to assess. One way would be to return when the snow melts and date the age of the large conifers the avalanche took out, he said.
While many avalanche experts don’t feel it’s possible to have a D5 avalanche in the Continental U.S., Mears said the Conundrum slide could well qualify.
VIDEO: Winter X Games preview with event host, snowboarder Jack Mitrani
Get to know Jack Mitrani, a former pro snowboarder, current X Games host and an all around great guy. We caught up with Mitrani at the base of the Buttermilk superpipe prior to the start of Winter X Games and chatted about why he loves Aspen, what he listens to when he rides and what to expect from the 2019 X Games.
Mountain bike association pays the price to clear trails from Aspen to New Castle
A mountain biker group is taking big steps this summer to clear deadfall and brush from trails early in the season and keep routes clear as Mother Nature does her stuff.
The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association launched two programs this spring. One involved hiring a three-person, paid seasonal trail crew. The second initiative provides basic trail maintenance training to volunteers who will log hours when they can while riding this summer.
“Trail fairies have been part of our culture for a long time but they weren’t necessarily trained” to do the job right, said Mike Pritchard, executive director of RFMBA.
The fairies are well-intentioned trail riders who carry tools with them to saw small logs, remove branches and enhance water drainages. Their work typically isn’t part of a coordinated effort.
RFMBA is upping its game. It invested funds from membership fees and special grants to hire and train the seasonal trail crew and provide basic training for the volunteer trail agents, whose ranks have swelled to 60 riders so far. They are asked to log four to 10 hours of work over the riding season. The volunteers log their work via a smartphone app so that Pritchard can track what trails have been maintained and the general conditions.
The work of the paid trail crew is carefully coordinated with local entities — the U.S. Forest Service, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, town of Snowmass Village and Aspen Skiing Co.
“It helps us tremendously to have extra arms and eyes out there” clearing the trails and observing conditions, said Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The Forest Service and RFMBA regularly are in contact to set priorities and coordinate work, she said.
Less than three hours after sunrise Thursday, the three young men on the RFMBA seasonal crew trudged up Anaerobic Nightmare and Government Trail lugging chainsaws, gas, loppers and other tools. The trails had just opened for the season so they were out to clear the deadfall before riders and hikers streamed into the area. They coordinated their work with a Snowmass Village team that cleared Tom Blake Trail and a short section of Government.
Dylan Gressett, Rafaelo Infante and Nick Penzel, three guys on summer break from college who are on the RFMBA paid crew this summer, have already cleared trails on Basalt Mountain, the Prince Creek Road network and Hay Park. As the season wears on, they’ve focused on Skyline Park and other upper valley routes.
All three men are avid riders who jumped at the opportunity to get paid to work outside.
“Some of my friends are jealous but others are like, ‘Ooohhh, you’re working outside,’” Gressett said.
There’s also a certain payback type of satisfaction from working on the trails.
“I just wanted to be outside and work on the trails that I ride all the time,” Penzel said.
The trail crew is recognizable in neon green shirts that say RFMBA. They are working some of the most well-traveled routes so they frequently encounter mountain bikers and hikers.
“They’re so stoked,” Infante said of the encounters. “They’re happy we’re working on things.”
There’s also the benefit of staying in shape. They lug enough tools that it’s practical to hike the trails rather than ride. They are sawing through large trees and clearing limbs of all sizes.
On Anaerobic Nightmare alone they had to saw eight downfall tree trunks and a precariously perched snag.
A lot of what they do is using a lopper to snip small branches and brush out of the trail corridor. In a recent member newsletter, Pritchard told riders to think of the trails crew next time they were on a route that would normally be overgrown and “shredding your arms and legs” but is now pruned back.
The three seasonal crewmembers went through an intensive three-day training program with the U.S. Forest Service to learn how to saw downed trees and snags safely. They took a wilderness first aid class and were trained as crew leaders by Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the nonprofit that specializes in trail construction, reroutes and the like.
Pritchard calls Gressett, Penzel and Infante RFMBA’s “rock stars.” With luck, they will return, he said.
“We would like to grow the crew next summer,” he said.
There’s no lack of work. Pritchard said there is 350 miles of singletrack trail that’s open to mountain bikers between Aspen and New Castle. That is separate from trails in designated wilderness areas, which are closed to motorized and mechanized uses.
In the not so distant past, the Forest Service provided the only crew to clear all the trails. They obviously couldn’t be everywhere at once, so some trails would have deadfall far into the summer. Grail said the Forest Service crew will work on wilderness areas and non-wilderness, but it helps knowing that RFMBA has got some of the popular cycling routes covered early in the season.
She said she hopes the day never comes when the Forest Service hands off all trail maintenance to outside organizations.
“Our seasonal crew really is the backbone of the agency,” she said.
Pritchard said RFMBA will still organize special trail work projects this summer. The volunteer trail agent program goes above and beyond those spot projects. It is designed to enlist people to help even if they have full-time jobs and family obligations that prevent them from helping on organized projects.
“The goal is to change the ethic of mountain bikers,” he said.
Walk with Aspen’s Past … Area’s ghost towns have ‘certain presence’
There are stories of Aspen’s past that you can physically feel as you stroll through the ghost towns of Independence and Ashcroft They are stories of hardworking miners, Victorian ladies who set out to be pioneers, children growing up in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. The artifacts of their stories are everywhere here — shards of glass and other shiny objects, stained wallpaper inside dilapidated wood cabins, signs that mark what was once a bustling saloon, hotel, post office and more.
Now those who steward these two towns — Independence, located 16 miles up Independence Pass from Aspen, and Aschroft, situated 11 miles up Castle Creek Road from Aspen — will tell you they are not haunted; rather, they are ghost towns of a different type.
“Well, I can’t say we know of any paranormal events up there, but … some people do say they feel something — a certain presence at the Hotel View at Ashcroft,” said Nina Gabianelli, whose tours of these towns and other Aspen Historical Society sites are a rare glimpse into turn-of-the-century life in the Roaring Fork Valley. “But really our role is to be stewards of these towns and share the real stories of the past.”
(If you’re wanting more ghost stories, check out the Nov. 9 episode of the “Colorado Experience” on PBS, where “the spirits of Colorado’s mining past” are featured, including an interview with Gabianelli at Ashcroft.)
By way of history, Ashcroft once was founded in the spring of 1880 on the prospect of silver mining. At its height, the town was bigger than Aspen, with a population of 2,000, two newspapers, a school, sawmills, a small smelter and 20 saloons. But as quickly as Ashcroft boomed, it busted. Today, it is home to three restored buildings and six buildings in their original condition.
“The things you find at Ashcroft tell the tale of the people who established it and called the town home,” Gabianelli said. “It’s a true gift of history.”
On the other side of Aspen is the town of Independence. Legend has it that prospectors discovered gold in the area on Independence Day — July 4, 1879. Soon after, a tent city popped up. And, before long, the town had grown to 1,500 residents and boasted nearly 50 businesses.
But as luck would have it, gold did not pan out for the miners at Independence. By 1888, only 100 hearty souls remained. The others decided Aspen — with its abundant work, good pay and milder climate (Independence sits at 10,920 feet) — would be a better place to call home. Then in February 1899, a series of winter storms blocked supply routes to town and those few remaining residents were forced to flee.
“They actually cut down their homes — cut down and dismantled their homes for wood — and made skis,” Gabianelli said. “And they all skied into Aspen as one big posse.”
Of course Ashcroft and Independence aren’t the only “ghost towns” around Aspen. The area was home to many miner’s shacks and small enclaves. You can still find cabins at Ruby, far up Lincoln Creek Road past the reservoir, and other remnants of the past can be discovered on trails and in the backcountry.
“The mining history of this area is very rich,” Gabianelli said. “We are stewards of Ashcroft and Independence to preserve them, but there you can find traces of history everywhere.”
In summer, the Aspen Historical Society offers guided tours of Independence and Ashcroft (both towns are on the National Register of Historic Sites).
In winter, Ashcroft can be accessed by foot and the surrounding area can be explored on Nordic skis (it becomes the Ashcroft Touring Center). The historical society also offers on-mountain ski tours, where you can learn the history of Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands — before they were ski areas and in their infancy as ski mountains.
Still other ways to learn about Aspen’s history is by visiting the Aspen Historical Society’s two museums — the Wheeler-Stallard Museum and the Holden-Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum.
“There is so much history here to explore,” Gabianelli said. “You just need to listen and embrace the sites and stories.”
Walking through Ashcroft on a blustery autumn evening and it’s very easy to do just this. And with a bit of knowledge about Aspen’s “ghost towns,” it’s easy to create a narrative of who the people that lived here were and how they spent their days.
‘Eyesore’ wires being pulled down from old poles along Independence Pass
For the past several decades, telephone lines to nowhere have been a curious part of the view for attentive travelers along a 10-mile stretch of Independence Pass.
Hundreds of poles and tens of thousands of feet of tension wire were left behind when the line was decommissioned years ago. Passengers in vehicles can occasionally spot the wires paralleling Highway 82 from roughly the winter gate east of Aspen to just short of the Independence ghost town. From there, the communications infrastructure’s path makes a 90-degree bend and climbs a saddle on the east flank of Green Mountain before plunging down to the water diversion works near Grizzly Reservoir.
“When it was last used, I don’t know,” said Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, an Aspen-based nonprofit organization dedicated to all issues on the pass. “There was never telegraph service into Independence.”
The telephone lines were apparently added in the 1930s or ’40s to serve the Twin Lakes Canal Co.’s water diversion facilities. The company hasn’t relied on telephone service for decades. An unknown party removed the telephone lines, typically made of copper, at an unknown time, she said.
Teague and officials with the U.S. Forest Service have discussed the removal of the rest of the infrastructure and decided for now just the strands of tension wire will be removed. The Forest Service is still assessing if the telephone poles should be felled, removed or left alone.
“These very visible wires are an eyesore,” Teague said.
They often encroach on the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and mar the view.
“It’s one of the most scenic and pristine corridors in the country,” she said.
One of the primary eyesores is where the poles and wires climb the saddle by Green Mountain. The lines cover about 1 mile on both sides of the divide. There are roughly 110 poles and 10,000 feet of wire accessible from the ground and 20,000 feet of wire up the poles, according to a Forest Service assessment.
Teague and Forest Service officials are concerned about the potential for wildlife to get tangled in the low wires. Teague said the wires aren’t always visible. She “nearly got decapitated” on one adventure in the woods, she said.
In some places, collecting the wire would be easy because the poles are close to Highway 82. In other areas, the job would be difficult because the poles are situated in rougher terrain and the wire needs to be cut from high up on the poles.
Independence Pass Foundation will harness volunteer groups to help with the job. A crew from Jaywalker Lodge, an addiction treatment center for men in Carbondale, helped tackle some of the job Thursday, spending the day on the pass with Teague and her team.
They were able to remove all the wire from the Grottos day-use area upriver through Lincoln Campgrounds, past the Lincoln Creek turnoff and another mile further up the road.
“One 200-yard stretch of wire was literally embedded in the river and river bank,” Teague said. “I can’t tell you how good it felt to get that out of there.”
Teague is determined to remove a “significant chunk” of the wire this fall and aspires to complete the job.
The foundation also regularly chips away at a more daunting job of removing metal from an old snow fence in Mountain Boy Gulch, high up the pass. Three volunteer groups brought out scrap this summer. It’s hard work, Teague said, because the site is in designated wilderness, so vehicles and mechanized equipment cannot be used. The scrap was hauled on the backs of volunteers.
The snow fence and telephone pole tension wires are the two biggest examples of human impact on the pass that doesn’t have historical significance, so the foundation is working to eliminate them from the spectacular landscape.
“Our mission is to restore and protect the ecological, historical and aesthetic integrity of the Independence Pass corridor,” Teague said.
Some people, she noted, attach historic importance to the poles. She supports public debate to decide their fate.
Shelly Grail Braudis, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said removal of the downed wires is a top priority for the Forest Service because of the risk to wildlife. There is also aesthetic value to removing the wires, she said.
She said the poles are abandoned property of CenturyLink, so the Forest Service needs to talk to the communications company about the plans.
Aspen’s popular Ute Trail to remain closed indefinitely for safety reasons
One of the most popular hiking trails in Aspen will remain closed for the foreseeable future while officials figure out how to deal with loose rock at the top of the trail.
The Ute Trail, which snakes steeply up Ute Mountain on Aspen Mountain’s east side, has been closed for about two-and-a-half weeks after a half-dozen large boulders came tumbling down to the bottom during a thunderstorm, said Austin Weiss, the city of Aspen’s parks and open space director.
The rocks broke loose from Ute Rock, the large rock formation at the top of the trail that offers stunning views of Aspen and the surrounding area, he said.
“(The boulders) brought down trees when they came down, and one left a decent-sized hole in Ute Avenue,” Weiss said. “They crossed the Ute Trail in a couple of places.
“From a city standpoint, having it closed is the safest thing to do until any (possible future) rockfall can be mitigated.”
People were using the trail at the time, though no one was hurt, he said.
While Ute Trailhead is on city property, Ute Rock at the top is part of a mining claim owned by Pitkin County, said G.R. Fielding, county engineer. In between the two is mostly U.S. Forest Service land, he said.
Fielding said approximately one to two dumptruck loads of rock came tumbling down the side of the mountain. Loose rock remains at the top, and the county has hired a consulting geologist to take a look at what could come loose in the near future and how to safely deal with it, he said.
That geologist is scheduled to hike the closed trail Thursday and take a closer look at whether the loose rock can be “scaled” or intentionally knocked loose and pushed down the mountain, Fielding said. If the geologist determines that can be done, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to do it and reopen the trail, he said.
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Brian Pettet, Pitkin County’s public works director, said that is the preferred course of action officials would like to take. Other options include simply posting signs warning of rockfall or securing the loose rock somehow, he said.
The latter option wasn’t very palatable to either Pettet or Weiss, both of whom said they’d like to avoid adding any infrastructure to the mountain. Weiss also said he wasn’t sure simply signing the area would work either because of the possible danger to hikers.
“Rocks have fallen down the side of that hillside forever,” Weiss said. “But nothing the size of that particular incident has come down since I’ve been here (for the past 16 years).
“I think it needs to be dealt with.”
Pettet and Fielding said the county is estimating it will cost about $25,000 to deal with the problem. Pettet said he’s working on trying to find the money in the county budget.
“We’re looking to get it done as quickly as possible,” he said.
However, until the geologist can determine whether the loose rocks can be safely pushed down the mountain, there’s no timeline to open the trail.
“I have no idea,” Fielding said when asked when the trail might open.
Pettet said the Ute Trail is probably one of the top three hikes in Aspen, along with Smuggler Mountain and the Hunter Creek Trail. Pettet and Fielding said some people are continuing to use the trail despite the closure.