Commissioners approve Aspen Mountain expansion by 3-1 vote

Terrain expansion, new lift approved in Pandora’s terrain

A wide meadow will be part of the glades included in the Aspen Mountain Pandora expansion, which was approved Wednesday by Pitkin County commissioners. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times file photo)

After spending the better part of an hour Wednesday pointing out flaws in Aspen Skiing Co.’s plan to expand Aspen Mountain Ski Area into the Pandora’s terrain, Pitkin County commissioner Francie Jacober cast the deciding vote in favor of the project.

The commissioners voted 3-1 to approve a rezoning necessary for the expansion and for an amendment to the Aspen Mountain Master Plan. (Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself from participation in Pandora’s because her son-in-law works for Skico.)

“I knew I was going to be the deciding vote. I’ve known it for three months,” Jacober said right before the vote. “For me, (voting yes) was in the light of compromise.”

Earlier in the meeting, she hinted that she might oppose the project on environmental grounds.

“I don’t think we need 150 acres of expert skiing to convince the world that Aspen is the ultimate ski town,” Jacober said. “They pretty much know that. But now, I think that we can be leaders not just in ski terrain and nightlife and fantastic restaurants, we could be leaders as far as drawing a line in the sand when it comes to the environment.”

Jacober decided against drawing that line a few minutes later when it came time to vote.

Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child joined Jacober in clearing the way for Skico to add 153 acres of terrain and a chairlift on the Pandora’s section on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. Kelly McNicholas-Kury cast the dissenting vote. Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself from the Pandora’s proposal because she has a family member who works for Skico.

McNicholas-Kury said she didn’t feel the project warranted changing the zoning designated as Rural and Remote, a special classification designed to preserve the backcountry.

“I continue to think this application doesn’t clear that bar,” she said.

Child was against the Pandora’s proposal in 2019 but flipped in a new review this year.

“I am supporting Pandora’s because there are some good reasons,” he said, listing adaptation to climate change as a big plus.

A wildflower-covered steep grade looks out over Highway 82 and will be a part of the Pandora expansion on Aspen Mountain. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Pandora’s terrain is above 10,000 feet in elevation and mostly east facing so it holds the snow well. Child said he envisions a day in a couple of decades when Lift 1A is in mothballs because of dry conditions on the lower mountain. Skiers and snowboarders will have to ride up and down the Silver Queen Gondola to access the only skiable terrain on the upper mountain, he said.

“That could totally be our reality 20 years from now,” Child said.

He also supported Pandora’s because it is already in the Aspen Mountain permit boundary, though not yet in the active ski area.

“All of us have gotten lots and lots of pressure in the last few days,” Child said. “No matter how we vote today, there will be people criticizing us for voting yes or voting no. My conscience is clear. I have no problem whatsoever supporting Pandora’s now.”

This image shows the Pandora’s terrain proposed to be added to Aspen Mountain Ski Area on the upper left. Skico got the OK to add 153 acres of high-elevation terrain.

Poschman has consistently supported the expansion. He was for it in 2019, when the board was deadlocked 2-2.

“I’m definitely supporting this, as I have,” Poschman said Wednesday.

He noted that some skiers have lost their lives in avalanches when they have pursued powder in the area that is currently not controlled or swept by the ski patrol.

“This is a closed area, so I’ve never gone in there,” he said. “I do not ski in there. I will not poach that area. I certainly would like to (ski it) and I’d like it to be safer.”

He said there were “a lot of great skiers” in the town who support the expansion.

A group called Friends of Pandora’s collected more than 1,600 signatures on a petition in support of the expansion.

Poschman said the upper valley is facing a lot of stress, mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout. Approving Pandora’s would a “nice” gesture at a tough time. In addition, he said, the proposal wouldn’t die if the current board voted it down.

“I’m sure if we vote no it won’t go away,” Poschman said. “It will simmer some more and come back in a couple of years.”

Jacober kept the outcome in suspense throughout the 90-minute hearing. She has been critical of the proposal, but indicated in a straw poll during a commissioners’ meeting Oct. 27 that she supported the proposal. But early in Wednesday’s meeting, Jacober indicated she had changed her mind.

“I hate to tell you guys, I’ve been awash in doubts since I was last with you all,” she told Skico’s team. She asked the Skico representatives why they were so dogged in their pursuit of the terrain.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said adding Pandora’s would spread out people by increasing the skiable terrain on Aspen Mountain by 22%. It will relieve the pressure on the existing Aspen Express terrain and lift, he said. Skiers and riders will be able to make laps off the Pandora’s chair without leaving that pod on the mountain.

Debris and trees will be removed with the Pandora expansion on Aspen Mountain. This is a section of the expansion as seen on Aug. 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

About one-half of the new terrain will be on traditional, cleared ski trails and the other half will be tree skiing through glades — a big attraction for skiers and riders. Adding that type of terrain will “make sure we can remain competitive over the long term,” Kaplan said. “We feel strongly that this is the right thing to do now.”

The last time terrain was added on Aspen Mountain was 1985 when Walsh’s and adjacent trails were added.

Skico has also hammered the point that adding the high-elevation terrain makes good sense for Aspen as a way of adapting to climate change and climbing temperatures.

The commissioners indicated they were facing intense pressure over the issue. Poschman said he received a “veiled threat” about action that would be taken if he voted for it.

Jacober indicated she’s been under intense pressure from people on both sides of the debate.

“When I was looking like a ‘no’ vote for a few weeks there, I got lots of communication from people who wanted me to be a ‘yes’ vote,” she said. “And then as soon as I indicated that maybe I was flipping, suddenly I was besieged by people that want me to be a ‘no’ vote. It’s definitely skewed my perspective on how many people are in favor compared to how many are opposed.”

Kaplan countered by saying, “This one has got a ton, ton of support.”

Kaplan thanked the board for their vote. In prior presentations, Skico officials said they will start logging and glading trees in summer 2022, add the chairlift in summer 2023 and open the terrain for skiing in winter 2023-24.

(Editor’s note: This article was corrected to show commissioner Greg Poschman raised a point about avalanche deaths in an area not currently patrolled.)