Aspen Skiing Co.’s Pandora’s expansion proposal roars back to life

County planning commission votes to hear Skico’s pitch

Aspen Skiing Co. gets to go to bat again for its proposed expansion into the Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain.

The Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday night to allow Skico officials to immediately pursue an amendment to the East of Aspen/Independence Pass Master Plan that would potentially clear the way for the expansion. The planning commissioners overrode what the county planning staff labeled a “strong recommendation” to make Skico wait until a full master plan rewrite was completed for the East of Aspen area.

Skico officials argued that time is of the essence to get their proposal considered. David Corbin, senior vice president of planning and development, said waiting for a rewrite of the master plan for the East of Aspen area could be indefinite. In addition, Skico would not be allowed to participate in the process.

“That’s somewhat frustrating for us,” Corbin said. “We’re shut out of those caucus plans.”

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said the Pandora’s expansion is important to keep Aspen Snowmass competitive in the ski industry.

“Aspen Mountain has to change and evolve to remain relevant,” he said.

The Pandora’s terrain is on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain, just south of the Walsh’s run in the ski area. Pandora’s already gets considerable use from skiers and riders who access the sidecountry terrain from behind the Silver Queen Gondola upper terminal. Users curl back into the ski area boundary and use Lud’s Lane to access the chairlifts.

Skico wants to add traditional ski trails and gladed terrain on 153 acres in the Pandora’s area. It would provide 1,220 vertical feet of riding and allow the extension of trails such as Walsh’s and Hyrup’s. Skico would install a high-speed quad chairlift that is 4,191-feet long and take about five minutes to ride.

Skico officials have contended that Pandora’s would be alluring because it provides so much skiing in the trees, something that’s in short supply on Aspen Mountain. An estimated 25 percent of the new territory would be intermediate terrain and glades while 75 percent would be expert.

Corbin said Pandora’s would create another pod to accommodate repeat skiing on the upper portion of Aspen Mountain. Nearly all the terrain has a northeast aspect and is above 10,000 feet in elevation so it would have “reliable snow,” according to Skico’s presentation.

Kaplan said Pandora’s represents the first proposed expansion to Aspen Mountain in 40 years. If the expansion is approved by Pitkin County, Pandora’s will stand the test of time and be viewed similar to the addition of Walsh’s on Aspen Mountain, the opening of Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands and the opening of Hanging Valley Wall at Snowmass, he contended.

“I truly believe in 10 years, we’ll look back and view Pandora’s in the same way,” Kaplan said.

The planning commission did not debate the merits of Skico’s proposal. It already approved Pandora’s on March 19, 2019. However, the expansion ran into a hurdle when reviewed by the Pitkin County commissioners later that year. The county commissioners — who appeared in a 2-2 deadlock at the time, with one abstention — were prepared to vote Aug. 28, 2019, on a motion to deny a rezoning needed for the expansion. Skico exercised its right as an applicant in a land use matter and asked the county to table the proposal instead.

Skico officials and consultants have been working since then to build a more persuasive argument for their plan. A big part of the debate is whether or not Skico should be able to rezone Rural and Remote lands. Pitkin County’s landmark Rural and Remote Zone was created in 1994 to prevent rampant development in the backcountry, which plagues so many Colorado mountain counties.

Skico argues the zoning was intended to prevent residential development rather than ski area expansion. Critics contend otherwise.

The planning commission’s vote means Skico will be allowed to come back at a meeting at a time to be determined to seek approval of an amendment to the East of Aspen/Independence Pass Master Plan. If it passes, the proposal would advance to the county commissioners. Both processes will require hearings where the public can speak.