Ted Mahon: Score one for the ski town

How a storm cycle rekindled our passion

Ted Mahon
Stuck in the Rockies
Getting deep in the Northwoods.
Ted Mahon

After getting hammered by nine consecutive days of storms and snowfall, Aspen, the ski town, felt like it got its groove back.

It happened abruptly. The snow spigot was fully opened, and powder piled up daily from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. As locals, we watched in awe as the forecasted daily storms delivered on cue, sometimes exceeding estimates, with hardly a break for the entire holiday period. We saw daily snowfall, including a few considerable dumps.

Better late than never. This year started like other disappointing seasons we’ve experienced — the kind that has become all too familiar. Snowfall was light, and temperatures were warm through the start of December. The available skiable acreage was limited. The ski town stoke meter was low.

In mid-December, the tone began to change. It started with some whispers of a favorable weather pattern shift at the end of the month. The experts were calling for a parade of storms that seemed too good to be true. As we neared the start of the holidays, confidence in the forecast increased along with the predicted snowfall amounts.

Not only did it snow, but it actually over-delivered. We entered the holiday stretch with limited terrain, and we were fast approaching 100% in a matter of days.

The change in the town’s vibe was palpable, and the reason was apparent. The storm cycle brought back a feeling that has been absent for a while, the reason most of us decided to call this place home. It felt like we were living in a ski town again.

I’ve always felt it essential that Aspen get adequate early-season snow. If the holidays arrive and we are still skiing on a thin base, it takes a toll on the collective psyche here.

The locals aren’t happy with the hard snow and limited terrain options. The visitors to town aren’t too thrilled to pay up for super-crowded cruisers. The army of employees who keep the Aspen Snowmass machine running— both on-mountain and off— don’t have the skiing and riding outlet they need to keep from getting burned out. And we can all agree that town looks and feels better when there’s snow all around.

When you have disappointing snow, it feels like the ski town isn’t living up to its end of the deal. Everyone is dissatisfied.

Other factors were compounding the negative sentiment in the early season, too. COVID has severely dampened ski town fun for nearly two years. Another significant contributor to the eroded enthusiasm is the ongoing debate about Aspen losing its way. The undeniable lifestyle and affordability challenges facing locals forces all of us to ask the question,”Are we still living in a town that values skiing as it once did?”

The recent storm cycle shows that it does. It was as if someone had just applied an AED to an unconscious ski community, and we were all shocked back to life.

The numbers were impressive. According to my friend Sam at OpenSnow, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, Aspen Highlands received 83 inches. That’s one inch shy of seven feet! Snowmass gained 66 inches, Aspen Mountain received 59 inches, and Buttermilk was an inch away from hitting four feet. The snow depth on all four ski areas as of New Years Day (compared to the 30 year average at local SNOTEL sites) was north of 150%.

Wintry storm cycle skies.
Ted Mahon

The stoke meter was back at high. There were rope drops and new terrain openings daily. There were super-deep runs to be had if you were in the right spots at the right time. Highland Bowl was all-time if you put in the work to get up there. Storm cycle lingo like reverse powder days and free refills were back in the lexicon— terms that haven’t been in use for a few years!

The evidence was all around town too. People were Nordic skiing on the streets. Plowed in, snowbound cars were everywhere you looked. Explosives could be heard at home on any given morning or evening. One friend skinned up Smuggler rather than Tiehack because it was buried, and it seemed like a novel thing to do. I even saw cross-country tracks on the surface of the snow-covered Rio Grande River by No Problem Bridge.

It wasn’t just a blur of powder days, though. Behind the scenes, there was a lot of work to be done, and the ski community rallied to that cause as well. An explosion in omicron cases forced countless people into quarantine. Staffing was affected everywhere. A recent Skico email reported 300 employees out sick at one point. Employees picked up extra hours and shifts. Everyone was stretched thin. Some lifts couldn’t open, and on-mountain restaurants had to pare back services.

There was an all-hands-on-deck feel. One afternoon, we ran into Mike Spayd, the Highland Bowl director, up at the top of the peak. We thanked him – as many people did all week long – for getting everything open from the B-Zones to the Northwoods,. Imagine for a moment the daily effort required to tame the beast that is Highland Bowl in these conditions. When asked how he was doing, he replied in his usual humorous style,”I’m great. I’m not sure if I’m still married. But I guess I’ll find out the next time I get home.”

Over on Aspen Mountain, it was hard to stay on top of all the new terrain openings. First, it was the Walsh’s area and the Dumps. And then Silver Queen. By the middle of the storm cycle, the gated terrain that Aspen locals live for began to drop. Cone Dumps, Bingo, and even Bonnie Bell. When you see patrol flip the signs at those gates to “Open,” conditions are outstanding. When it happens in December, you could be on the way to having a truly memorable season.

It was all green lights on Aspen Mountain during the storm that dropped some 59 inches on the hill from Christmas to New Year’s.
Ted Mahon

At Snowmass, they started with a dismal opening of Elk Camp Meadows and a single run off Coney Glade. As of the New Year, all of the standard cut trails are now open in addition to the Hanging Valley Wall, Possible, Baby Ruth, Ptarmigan, KT Gully, and Rock Island. The Cirque can’t be too far away.

Regarding Buttermilk, I hope I don’t ruffle feathers by mentioning this local’s semi-secret, but I bet some fast laps on Tiehack were outstanding when the crowds were big elsewhere. According to the Aspen Snowmass app, the mountain is now 100% open.

At one point during the week, I encountered local ski-bum celeb Mikey Wechsler after another full day of incredible skiing. We exchanged smiles, and he said,” This is what we train for.”

He’s right. And I might add that it’s also why we live here. It was a special time. Great conditions are always something to appreciate, but more significant to me is the restored feeling that skiing will always be what’s most important here.

So this round goes to the ski town, both here in Aspen and ski communities across the west. It’s been a while since we’ve put any points on the board, let alone gotten a win. I think we can all agree that it feels good. And all it took was a little snow. Let’s hope it continues.

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