Better late than never — storm takes its time hitting ski slopes of Aspen |

Better late than never — storm takes its time hitting ski slopes of Aspen

Scott Condon ❄ The Aspen Times
Mark Welgos skis through fresh powder on Walsh's on Aspen Mountain Thursday. Aspen Mountain only received an inch of snow by 5 a.m., then Mother Nature turned on the spigot.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

A winter storm showed up later than forecast for Aspen and the upper Roaring Fork Valley but made up for lost time after daybreak Thursday.

Aspen Skiing Co. reported just a couple of inches of snow as of 5 a.m., but then the skies opened up. Skico said it was difficult to measure the snowfall during the day because of wind, but 8 to 10 additional inches fell by mid-afternoon, making it a total of about a foot by the time the lifts stopped spinning.

Some skiers reported soft, knee-high powder in sections of Aspen Mountain. Winds drifted snow into deep pockets.

One skier who was at the Silver Queen Gondola first thing in the morning Thursday reported the line wasn’t even out of the corral when loading started at 8:50 a.m. Word spread about conditions and more people hit the slopes as the snow piled up.

The setting of explosive charges by the Aspen Mountain ski patrol during avalanche-mitigation work was music to the ears of many skiers after the ski area closed Thursday.

Avalanche danger soars

Meanwhile, the snow sent the avalanche danger soaring, stranded air travelers, tormented some Highway 82 commuters and left schoolchildren dreaming of things that might have been.

For an optimistic person who looks at things as half full, the storm was a success after depositing more than a foot of powder. The Aspen area was expected to receive another 3 to 5 inches of snow Thursday night.

But deep-powder hounds and students who wanted a snow day might have looked at it as opportunity lost. Just over the Continental Divide, Crested Butte was pounded by 22 inches in 24 hours as of 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Monarch ski area to the east of Crested Butte received 19 inches. Way to the north, Steamboat was hit with 15.5 inches. They all received additional snow throughout Thursday.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an avalanche advisory Thursday, warning that conditions in some places were rated “high.” Some areas, such as the backcountry near Marble, received more than 2 feet of snow since Sunday, the center reported.

The danger was expected to remain “considerable” on all backcountry slopes today. The forecast for the Aspen zone laid out the danger in stark terms.

“In areas that have received 2 or more feet of new and drifted snow, large avalanches are likely. These can run full path, so avoid traveling below steep, leeward start zones,” said the forecast by Aspen zone forecaster Blase Reardon. “Large slides also have the potential to step down to old, deeply buried weak layers, producing avalanches you have little chance to survive.”

Skiers in the patrolled ski areas also noticed the new, light powder that fell overnight Wednesday and through Thursday was separate from the icy layers of snowpack below.

Low visibility cancels flights

Travelers booked to leave Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Thursday could look outside and see prospects were bleak. Only one commercial flight and four private flights were able to depart Thursday, according to Fil Meraz, director of operations. Others were sidelined because of poor visibility.

Crews worked feverishly since 4:30 a.m. to keep the runway plowed, but the visibility was generally reduced to 1,000 feet. The airport website showed more than a dozen canceled arrivals and departures of commercial flights. The airlines did a good job of notifying passengers that flights were canceled, Meraz said.

Crews will keep the runway clear today in case operations can resume.

“It just depends on visibility. Safety is our No. 1 priority,” Meraz said.

During the morning commute Thursday, two accidents didn’t result in any injuries but there were traffic delays. Simultaneous crashes at Emma Curve and Lazy Glen on Highway 82 restricted travel to one lane at about 7:15 a.m. After traffic backed up on Highway 82, commuters trying to get around the mess mixed with motorists traveling into Basalt via Two Rivers Road. As a result, traffic was bumper to bumper from the Basalt four-way stop downtown all the way back to Two Rivers Road and Highway 82, according to Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott.

One parent said the drive from Willits to Basalt Middle School took her at least 20 minutes on Highway 82. She said another parent said it took her 30 minutes.

Commuter woes

Basalt traffic also was hampered because of lack of traction for vehicles trying to turn onto the highway from side roads or the traffic signals not getting properly triggered. In the afternoon, motorists complained that it took 30 minutes to get from Basalt High School to Highway 82. The traffic signal at the intersection with Basalt Avenue was only letting a few vehicles out at a time before turning red again, according to reports to the police department.

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses were affected by the weather and road conditions, but because the bus rapid transit service is so frequent — with buses scheduled every 10 minutes during the morning commute — riders typically didn’t have to wait long, said Kent Blackmer, co-director of operations.

On days like Thursday, the buses also will pick up passengers at non-bus rapid transit stops when local buses are running behind, he said. The bus rapid transit vehicles typically make few stops. The “local” buses cover more stops.

Blackmer said RFTA buses declined to stop Thursday at uphill stops at Snowmass Village. The buses have trouble regaining traction, so they can affect all traffic. Passengers are advised to stay on the bus and it will let them off at their desired stop while headed downhill.

“That kind of changed the entire dynamic,” Blackmer said.

Nevertheless, Snowmass Village police had their hands full Thursday. They responded to multiple calls throughout the day of vehicles sliding off the streets.