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Cirque lift may not open

There’s a good chance the Cirque lift at Snowmass ski area won’topen at all in this second season of its existence. The platter-pull lift, perched on the high, barren terrain abovethe Big Burn, looks more like the remnants of a ghost ski areathan part of a thriving, modern-day operation. The platter poles remain stacked down at the loading station.The bottom hut remains abandoned. “We made a commitment that we wouldn’t open it without adequatesnow cover,” explained Snowmass Mountain Manager Steve Sewell.The problem hasn’t been with the amount of snow that has fallen,but with the winds that have accompanied it. Sewell said Snowmasshas received more wind-scouring than he can remember in his 22years as a patroller and manager there. That has scraped the terrain served by the lift almost bear inspots. The lift goes from about 11,700 to 12,500 feet in elevation.It provides easier access to expert terrain in the Cirque andan intermediate trail that offers stunning views. While the snow cover is getting close, Sewell said, more of thewet, heavy snow that March is noted for is necessary. He won’tplace odds on whether the lift will open before Snowmass’ scheduledclosing on April 11. “You know, only a fool would bet on the weather,” he said. “Evenif it came down to the last week of the season, we’d open it ifpossible.” But so far, the Aspen Skiing Co. has avoided what’s known as the”Jaws Syndrome.” That refers to the temptation in areas with atourist economy make decisions based on keeping customers happyrather than common sense. It comes from the original “Jaws” movie, in which the mayor ofan East Coast town insisted on opening a beach even though heknew the giant, man-eating shark was lurking offshore. The outcomewas disastrous. At Snowmass, skiers and riders have been asking why the Cirquelift isn’t open, Sewell said. A sign explaining the situationwas mounted at the lift’s loading station last month. It says: “Why is the Cirque lift closed? The Cirque area consistsof fragile ecosystem with a short growing season. Damaged tundramay take years to recover. We will open this lift only when thereis sufficient snow cover to protect the sensitive environment.”The Skico knew the $500,000 lift was a questionable propositionwhen it was installed in summer of 1997. Officials said the liftwould only be open between 35 and 70 days, even in an averageseason. Last season, its first, the lift opened in mid-February.That was traditionally when there was enough snow cover for theSkico to operate Snocat tours into that terrain, before the liftwas built. Skico Environmental Affairs Director Chris Lane said the tundraecosystem in the Cirque lift area consists primarily of willows,small varieties of firs and spruces, various tundra grasses andlichens. “It takes a long time for vegetation to recover from the damageinflicted by heavy equipment or even skiers or livestock,” heexplained. “I can show you a place where sheep grazed 30 yearsago on the Cirque. The bare spot is still there today.” When the wind doesn’t blow the snow away, it settles between theplant layers and compacts in a uniform way that protects plantspecies from the weight of skiers and from the weather. Without the “thermal” benefits of that snow layer, which keepsthe temperature at ground level at about 32 degrees, plants canbecome “freezer burned,” Lane said.


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