Aspen Skiing Co. progresses with Big Burn Lift replacement, new snowmaking on Ajax


Aspen Skiing Co. is undertaking major capital improvement projects at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and in Basalt. Here are the projects at a glance:

•An additional 21 acres of terrain at the top of Aspen Mountain will be covered with snowmaking, virtually assuring that the Aspen Express Lift can open even when there is low natural snow levels at the start of the season. Skico is also replacing the roof of the Sundeck.

•The Big Burn Chairlift at Snowmass will be replaced. The old quad chair will be replaced with a six-pack. Snowmaking will also be added to ensure skiing from the top of bottom of the Alpine Springs Chairlift.

•Skico is building a 43-unit affordable housing project at Willits Town Center in Basalt.

There are a lot of questions about what the 2020-21 ski season will look like because of the coronavirus, but a couple things are certain — there will be a new Big Burn Chairlift at Snowmass and an expanded snowmaking system at Aspen Mountain.

Aspen Skiing Co. crews have dismantled the Big Burn lift and are in the process of flying out the towers, according to Katie Ertl, senior vice president of mountain operations. Preparations are underway to relocate the lower terminal about 200 feet uphill, which will provide a direct shot from the Ullrhof restaurant to the lift maze.

Skico will install a high-speed detachable lift with chairs for six passengers. The project will cost about $10.8 million, according to Skico.

Six-passenger chairs will come in handy for social distancing, Ertl said. Skico will consult Pitkin County health authorities about the idea of loading the extra wide chairs with three passengers to comply with social distancing requirements, she said.

Skico remains uncertain about installing “bubbles” that can be brought down to cover passengers for the ride. The bubbles are a nice addition because they help shield riders from wind and snow. On the other hand, who wants a bubble during a pandemic?

Ertl said the big factor Skico is considering is the need for storage space. The bubbles weather the elements better if they are stored inside when the lift isn’t in use. Skico is investigating options for that storage.

For now, the lifts will be engineered for bubbles but they might not be added until sometime in the future, if at all.

The upper terminal where passengers unload will be at the same place as the old lift. The alignment will follow the old route.

“It is going up the same line as the quad,” Ertl said.

The old chairlift was one of the first high-speed detachable quad models that Skico installed at its ski areas. That was 33 years ago.

“We had to consider replacement of the Big Burn because of the age of the old lift,” Ertl said.

The U.S. Forest Service acknowledged in its project review documents that the old chair had served its useful life. Ertl said the Big Burn lift was closed during slow times in recent seasons to reduce wear and tear. Skiers and snowboarders were directed to the Sheer Bliss Chairlift, which also serves the Big Burn terrain.

The Big Burn pod is a vital piece of Snowmass Ski Area. The pod alone is 611 acres, just a little shy of all of Aspen Mountain at 675 acres, Ertl noted.

Increasing the chair capacity to six from four passengers won’t pump more people onto the Burn, at least not right away. The chairs on the six-pack will be spaced out enough to maintain the old lift’s uphill capacity of 2,200 passengers per hour.

“We have the option to get to 2,600 passengers per hour in the future with approvals,” Ertl said. “The six-pack was chosen to take into consideration volume growth in our future.”

Leitner Poma is manufacturing the new chairlift. It will feature a new direct drive technology that will require a gearless drive system to be installed in the top terminal. Ertl said the direct drive system is more efficient and easier to maintain. Leitner’s website also said direct drive systems are “more comfortable for passengers thanks to its lower noise emissions.”

The Big Burn chair isn’t the only change at Snowmass. Snowmaking will be added on the Lodgepole trail in the Alpine Springs pod. That will allow repeat skiing and snowboarding from the top to bottom of the Alpine Springs chairlift.

“That’s exciting because that’s new — we’re not just replacing pipe,” Ertl said.

Even more significant is the addition of 28 snowmaking guns and associated infrastructure on the Silver Bell trail at the top of Aspen Mountain. That will add coverage on about 21 acres on the upper third of the ski area.

Temperatures are almost always favorable for snowmaking at the top of the mountain during the early season. The expanded snowmaking will allow the Ajax Express Chairlift to serve skiers and snowboarders even if the lower mountain isn’t ready for prime time. Customers would download the Silver Queen Gondola when only the upper mountain was skiable.

“It’s almost a full guarantee for early seasons,” Ertl said.

Skico also will add a 3 million gallon water storage pond near an existing pond by the lower terminal of the Gent’s Ridge Chairlift. That high altitude storage will reduce the need to pump water up to the snowmaking system.

The expanded snowmaking is a significant development for Aspen Mountain.

“We’re going to see snowmaking at the top of Aspen Mountain,” Ertl said. “We’ve been talking about it forever.”

Skico also is building a 43-unit affordable housing project at Willits. The construction and land acquisition is estimated at $19 million. The company also is replacing the roof on the Sundeck Restaurant on top of Aspen Mountain. That is a $1.8 million undertaking.

The projects are being pursued even though Skico lost out on significant revenue from the shortened 2019-20 season. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered all ski areas to close March 15 due to the coronavirus crisis.