Even with expanded system, snowmaking faces challenges on Aspen Mountain this season

Skico added snowmaking on trails on the upper mountain prior to last season to try to ensure early top-to-bottom skiing

Snowmaking on Buttermilk Ski Area took off on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 within a week of opening day of Aspen Mountain and Snowmass. Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands are planning to open on December 11. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen Skiing Co.’s expansion of the snowmaking system on Aspen Mountain to ensure early-season openings will be put to the test this year.

Skico expanded the snowmaking system onto parts of the upper third of Aspen Mountain prior to the 2020-21 season. The expansion paid instant dividends by helping establish top-to-bottom skiing on opening day 2020. Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said at that time, “If it wasn’t for that new snowmaking, we’d be doing laps off Nell.”

This year, temperatures haven’t been cold enough to undertake nearly as much snowmaking as last season, a point emphasized Wednesday at a Pitkin County commissioners meeting by Skico senior vice president of sustainability and community engagement, Auden Schendler.

According to figures updated by Schendler on Friday, Skico has used 13.77 million gallons of water so far this season for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and Buttermilk as of Friday morning. At this time in 2020, it had used 61.26 million gallons. This year’s snowmaking is only 22% of what it was last season because of dry, warm conditions so far in November.

Snowmaking on Aspen Mountain has consumed about 8.12 million gallons of water so far this season compared with 30.78 million gallons at this point last year. Colder temperatures on Wednesday night into Thursday morning helped with a surge of snowmaking. About one-quarter of all snow made on Aspen Mountain came during that recent 24-hour period.

Snowmass is even further off the back. So far, about 4.11 million gallons of water have been used for snowmaking. Last year at the same point, it was at 23.82 million gallons.

Buttermilk had used 1.53 million gallons of water as of Friday compared with 6.66 million gallons at the same point last year. Skico hasn’t made snow at Aspen Highlands so far this season, though the Aspen Valley Ski Club has blown snow on lower slopes that it uses for training.

Last season, Skico used a total of 229.25 million gallons of water for its snowmaking operations.

Colder nighttime temperatures are settling in at the upper Roaring Fork Valley, so Skico will likely be able to make up ground. Lows in Aspen are supposed to be range between 16 and 26 degrees every night from now to the scheduled Thanksgiving Day opening, according to the National Weather Service.

Aspen Mountain and Snowmass are scheduled to open Thursday; Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk are set to open Dec. 11.

At Aspen Mountain, Skico received approval from the U.S. Forest Service and Pitkin County in 2019 to add 53 acres of snowmaking on six of the upper trails. Skico added infrastructure on about 20 acres of the Silver Bell trail, between where the old system ended on the Deer Park trail and the summit. No plans have been announced about the timetable of expanding the system further.

The Forest Service analysis said the expanded system would provide clear benefits.

“During seasons with minimal early season snowfall, top-to-bottom skiing can be delayed from the planned opening day, which reduces the available terrain offerings and places a financial burden on resort operations,” the agency said.

Schendler told the county commissioners Wednesday that Skico officials are making more decisions based on the need for climate adaptation.

“It is now 3 degrees warmer Fahrenheit than in 1950,” Schendler said, citing data for Aspen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He also referred to a study by the Aspen Global Change Institute that determined the Aspen area now has about 30 days fewer with freezing temperatures per winter than in the early 1980s.

In addition to the grander snowmaking system, the expansion onto the Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain’s upper east side is designed to adjust to a warming planet, Schendler said. The Pandora’s terrain expansion, approved by the commissioners, will add 153 acres of terrain that is generally east facing and above 10,000 feet in elevation.

“This is a climate adaptation move” to add the terrain at Pandora’s, Schendler told the commissioners. “At some point, communities such as Aspen and Pitkin County are going to start making decisions based on climate adaptation.”