Aspen Skiing Co. flips the switch to a new era on Ajax

In the early morning hours Sunday, Aspen Mountain entered a new era with a flip of the switch.

For the first time ever, snowmaking guns were fired up on the upper third of the ski area. Prior to that, the existing system stopped at 10,600 feet.

“We did it — top-to-bottom snowmaking,” said Katie Ertl, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president, mountain operations.

Skico added snowmaking on about 20 acres of the Silver Bell Trail, between the summit and where the old snowmaking system ended on the Deer Park Trail. The addition is a big deal, Ertl said, because skiing is now assured on man-made snow at the start of the season, providing temperatures are cold enough.

Skico traditionally fires up its snowmaking system on Aspen Mountain on Halloween night, after midnight. So far this season, that was the only night the temperature dropped low enough for snowmaking operations. More opportunities are expected as cold fronts roll Aspen’s way this weekend.

The snowmaking system has been in the works since the drought season of 1976-77. Conditions were so severe that season that it triggered the entire Colorado ski industry to invest in snowmaking.

Aspen Mountain’s system was installed in 1981. It covered 172 acres on the lower two-thirds of the ski area.

Skico officials previously said that prospects for a drier climate warranted the expansion of the system to the upper mountain. The U.S. Forest Service concurred in its review of the proposal.

“During seasons with minimal early season snowfall, top-to-bottom skiing can be delayed from the planned opening day, which reduces the available terrain offerings and places a financial burden on resort operations,” the White River National Forest said in an environmental analysis of Skico’s snowmaking proposal.

Skico received approval to expand snowmaking to cover about 53 acres on six trails on the upper mountain. Less than half of that was installed this summer. Ertl said water hoses can be run from the new infrastructure on Silver Bell to mobile “fan guns” on Upper Copper Trail.

She credited the planning department and other Skico workers for getting the system installed this summer. Victor Gerdin, a longtime planner with Skico, sent out a congratulatory email to some of his colleagues after the system was turned on Sunday.

“A lot of people worked very hard, and we’ve all waited a long, long time, for this day,” Gerdin wrote.

The next phase of expansion will cover the Dipsy Doodle Trail, but the company hasn’t determined when that expansion will occur.

Last summer’s work went beyond adding water pipes underground along the Silver Bell run. Skico also added a 3 million gallon water storage pond near the base of the Gent’s Ridge Chair, aka The Couch.

“Storing water up high makes the process of pumping to the top much more effective and contributes greatly to energy efficiency,” Skico said in an Oct. 6 news release.