Aspen Skiing Co. outlines uphilling policy changes for online audience
Aspen Skiing Co. officials left no doubt Tuesday night that skinning and other uphill travel will remain welcomed at the four ski areas this season, but patience and flexibility will be required.
Skico has scheduled “blackout dates” for uphilling Dec. 26 through Jan. 2 and during President’s Day Weekend, Feb. 13 and 14. Uphillers won’t be allowed on the slopes during operating hours on those dates, said Katie Ertl, Skico senior vice president of mountain operations. There will likely be additional times “on powder days and crowded days” when uphilling is prohibited during operating hours, she said. Sandwich boards will be placed at the bottom of designated uphill trails informing people when closures are in place. The information also will be shared on the Aspen-Snowmass app, on Facebook and Skico’s website.
Skico officials held a virtual town hall Tuesday night that attracted more than 300 people interested in uphill policies.
“We’ve made a few changes, nothing too drastic,” Ertl told the audience. “We want to keep this going on the slopes.”
The biggest change is designating four trails for uphilling at Snowmass. All trails used to be open for uphill traffic. The change was made for safety, Ertl said. The four trails are spread across the vast ski area, providing access up Two Creeks, Elk Camp, to High Alpine Restaurant and Sam’s Knob. Detailed descriptions are available at http://www.aspensnowmass.com/our-mountains/buttermilk/uphill-policy. Go to the specific mountain for the designated routes.
Buttermilk will have three designated routes; Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain will have one each. Rules remain the same this season at Aspen Mountain: Uphillers must reach their destination and turn around by 9 a.m. There is no skinning or other uphill travel allowed on Ajax during the ski area’s operating hours. At Highlands, climbers are welcome on the designated route to the Merry Go Round restaurant throughout the day. They must be past the restaurant by 9 a.m. if they plan to continue to the peak.
The designated routes on all four ski areas will be marked with orange disks with an uphill symbol.
Ertl tactfully informed the crowd that closures would be enforced. Hitting the routes during the blackout dates and other closures could result in prosecution.
“It’s akin to skiing a closed run that’s lift-served,” she said.
However, Skico’s policy is to allow uphilling on blackout dates before and after operating hours. Uphilling is still allowed as long as a person reaches a destination by 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. The caveat is that uphillers must be aware of mountain operations such as snowmaking, grooming by snowcats and travel by resort workers on snowmobiles.
Cory Ross of the Buttermilk trails crew said uphillers using the slopes before and after operations must make themselves visible to cat drivers. While snowcats have large windows, it is difficult for drivers to see because of the snow they are kicking up, he said. It’s also hard to see behind their machines.
“The big thing with the cats is, remember, our visibility is very, very limited,” Ross said. “Give us a bunch of room and respect what we’re trying to do for you guys.”
There are times when slopes are closed for safety regardless of the time of day or night. Slopes are closed when avalanche control is underway higher up on the mountain. Slopes also are closed when winches are used in special grooming maneuvers. A thick cable is run from an anchor to a snowcat. That cable is invisible at night and is prone to sudden tension that could kill a person located in the wrong place. Ross said the cable can go from 1 foot under the snow to 30 feet in the air in seconds. Trails are marked when winching operations are undertaken and the cats use blue lights as a warning.
Cat drivers also fear interactions with dogs. The machines produce a lot of noise with their tracks and tillers, Ross noted. Some dogs love the commotion and charge the machines. He asked that uphillers who encounter snowcats put their dogs on a leash or secure them.
As always, the Skico officials pleaded with the audience to pick up after their pets and not leave “big, steaming messes.” Dogs must be off the slopes between 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m.
Multiple Skico officials said the interaction between Skico workers and uphillers is overwhelmingly positive. Ross said the cat drivers “like to see you out there.”
Buttermilk Mountain Manager Travis Benson said the ski area embraces its role as Aspen’s backyard.
“At the end of the day, it is a sport that is definitely accepted by our company,” he said.
As plans stand, there will be Friday morning breakfasts geared toward uphillers at the Cliffhouse at Tiehack. However, the full-moon dinners that drew swarms in recent seasons are on hold until further notice.
And if the pandemic worsens and ski areas are ordered to close as they were by the state of Colorado last March, Skico hopes to continue limited grooming to allow uphillers to keep climbing.
“I’ll still groom as long as you guys give me the fuel,” Ross joked with his Skico colleagues.
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Highway 82 east of Aspen over Independence Pass is closed for safety reasons Tuesday as the latest snowstorm rolls into the Colorado mountains, according to CDOT.