A season of ‘feast or famine’ wraps up at Aspen Mountain
Record-setting storms, lengthy dry spells shaped 75th anniversary season
Aspen Mountain’s 75th anniversary season seemed like one of “feast or famine,” mountain manager JT Welden said Sunday on closing day.
What surprised Welden about this season was “the magnitude of the feast and famine — more so the feast,” he said while keeping an eye on skier traffic through Spar Gulch on Sunday afternoon.
“Those were some pretty impressive storm cycles — a lot of water,” Welden said. “And (with) the dry spells, the timing was good (for the storms) too.”
The season kicked off Nov. 25 with about 100 of the 675 acres of skiable terrain open on Ajax and required downloading on the gondola. It was still double the 50 acres Aspen Skiing Co. had planned to open; a Thanksgiving miracle of sorts brought 7 inches to the mountain less than 24 hours before opening day.
Within a month and a week, there were 670 skiable acres open at Ajax, all of them covered in feet upon feet of snow. A powder boom between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve brought a bounty of 64.5 inches of the fluffy white stuff to the slopes of Ajax and helped push Aspen Highlands and Snowmass Ski Area to triple-digit snow totals for the month of December.
Skico called it “the biggest storm in 43 years” in a social media recap; it helped close out the second-snowiest December on record across all four mountains.
As Snowmass mountain manager Susan Cross put it in a phone call last week: “The snow gods took care of us.” At Snowmass, too, it was a season of feast and famine between its opening on Nov. 25 and closing on April 17: The ski area started the season with just 7 skiable acres at the Elk Camp Meadows learning area and by the New Year had logged its snowiest December on record.
“I’m always hopeful and have faith that Mother Nature’s going to respond and we’re going to get the snow we need,” Cross said. “We got more than we needed at certain times. If it had been spread out a little bit more, it would have been a little easier, because we went from nothing to everything.”
A dry spell left powderhounds hungry in the first month and a half of 2022 before precipitation returned in earnest in late February, followed by a series of refreshes to the slopes through March and April. Skico extended the season at Ajax by a week, with closing day set for April 24; the latest storm of the season rolled just in time for closing weekend at Aspen, with a five-inch dusting over 48 hours before the final first chair Sunday morning.
Mountain teams also had to navigate another season of COVID-19 curveballs this year, with a surge of local virus cases that impacted events in December and January; Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate was still in effect for the first half of the season. Case counts had tapered off by February, and the county dropped the mask mandate after Presidents Day Weekend.
Photos: Aspen Mountain closing day
Staffing shortages were part of this year’s roller coaster, too; Welden and Cross both gave kudos to the crews who kept the mountain open and lifts running when the rosters were slimmed down.
“We were really pleased that once we got lifts open, we pretty much kept them open till the very end,” Cross said. “Some days, I don’t know how we did it, but overall, I have to give everybody a big pat on the back because I know it was a challenge, and we made it happen, and I’m really pleased with the way things went.”
It’s a team effort, Welden noted — from those on the Skico staff as well as the skiers and snowboarders they greet every day.
“I think people were understanding with us when we were running around trying to get open and stay open,” Welden said. “Obviously the crews here, being short handed over Christmas and New Years — we (were) asking a lot of people to work a lot extra, and people really looked after one another, and we got the job done.”
Did it feel like a momentous year for the 75th anniversary season? Welden thinks so — and a fun one, too.
“It was fun, right — it was not as straightforward with the COVID chaos, but, again, I think the company and the community rallied, and we had some fun with it,” Welden said.
This “bonus week” in an extended season has been a testament to that, with hugs and high fives all over the mountain, Welden said.
“It was fun to see people having fun, and this last week was kind of a community, fun locals event,” he said.
Aspen Mountain summer operations are set to kick off Memorial Day weekend with sightseeing and on-mountain services on weekends only through mid-June. Daily operations at Ajax begin June 17. Snowmass reopens for the summer on June 21 with daily operations at the Elk Camp Gondola, bike park and Lost Forest activity hub.
Buttermilk closed for the winter season on April 3, and Highlands closed April 10. Both are open for hiking but don’t have on-mountain services in the summer. With construction at the base of Buttermilk Main, summer recreationists should access trails from Tiehack in the coming months.
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