Great skiing, free-for-all mark opening weekend on Ajax | AspenTimes.com

Great skiing, free-for-all mark opening weekend on Ajax

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen Mountain opened this weekend with a delightful powder day on Friday, a rebellious top-to-bottom circus on Saturday, and a quiet Sunday that felt like the last day of a very short season.

After three days of excellent early season skiing, Aspen Mountain is now closed until Saturday, Nov. 23, when the Aspen Skiing Co. plans to reopen the hill for the season.

Friday was the traditional Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club benefit day on Ajax and the day brought 2 to 4 inches of fresh snow, swirling low clouds and a modest turnout of skiers and riders.

Before the gondola opened, Mark Cole, the director of the Ski Club, stood on the steps and asked the assembled skiers to pause for a moment of silence in honor of longtime Aspenite Miggs Durrance, who died last week.

Cole said that Durrance embodied the values of the local community as she was an athletic skier, a gifted photographer, and strong supporter of youth skiing.

After the silence, which was interrupted by someone on a cell phone saying it wasn’t a good time to talk, a few whoops of joy were let out as the gondola opened and the 2002-03 ski season on Ajax was under way.

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At the top of the mountain, skiers and snowboarders found plenty of light, uncut snow on black-diamond runs such as North Star, Seibert’s, Blondie’s and Summit. And for the first time in about five years, the trees between runs were easily skiable on opening day.

“The conditions were fabulous,” said Alan Cole, the marketing and development manager for the Ski Club. “It couldn’t have been any better.”

At one point late on Friday afternoon, the Gent’s Ridge lift sputtered to a halt and a lift mechanic came down and worked on it, getting it up and running in just a few minutes. There were about four people in line, and they were almost happy to take a break.

But it was a radically different picture on Saturday when the lift, also known as Lift 7 or “the Couch,” had to be shut down again so lift mechanics could figure out why a ghost in the electrical system kept sending out warnings about a malfunction.

Saturday had brought out the crowds. About 3,500 people, mostly locals, showed up to claim some of this season’s early powder.

The lead skiers in the line that morning headed straight for Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi, which were open for the first time this season. After two circuits through the double-black-diamond area, the powder was almost completely cut up and a throng of skiers filled the maze at Lift 7.

Then, at 9:50 a.m., Lift 7 stopped.

After about 10 minutes of waiting, people started getting restless. Some started walking uphill.

Pat O’Donnell, the CEO of the Aspen Skiing Co., took off his snowboard, got out of line and talked quietly with a mountain employee about the situation.

“Pat, make an executive decision,” a skier called out. “Set us free!”

The patrol then told the crowd that after everyone currently stuck on the lift was unloaded at the top, a patroller was going to have to ride up to make sure everything was OK. It would take at least 20 minutes and probably longer.

The powder-hungry crowd groaned and muttered.

A few moments later, the patrol announced they would take groups of people out of the lift maze and down through the untracked, unbumped snow on Jackpot, even though the mountain was not yet open for top-to-bottom skiing.

Hoots and hollers went up.

The patrol called for group leaders to try and keep some modicum of control among the bands of skiers.

Boots Ferguson, an attorney for Holland and Hart who frequently advises the Skico on legal issues, was pushed forward to lead one group.

Ferguson then led a pack of about 30 people down Gent’s Ridge to Jackpot, where the steep smooth run lived up to its name.

At the bottom of the mountain, one lucky skier cried out “That was epic!” and climbed back into the gondola.

By about noon, another spectacle was in the making.

Lift 7 was down and the 3,500 skiers on the mountain had only one choice ? the Ajax Express lift. The crowd overwhelmed the lift maze. The singles line extended well up Deer Park. A group of kids started hucking tricks off a knob between the bottom of Red’s Run and FIS to entertain the crowd.

As skiers got to the top of Lift 3 after a 20-minute lift line, the Couch was up and running again. Many skiers headed down toward the fixed-grip quad lift.

Other skiers heard the news that the patrol was now working to open Spar Gulch and Little Nell, in order to give skiers other options than just the two upper lifts, which were now both swamped with long lines. That meant the Face of Bell would soon open.

Then Lift 7 slowed again and stopped. Then it slowly crept forward again. The Creeping Couch of Pain was living up to its nickname. The mob in the lift line grew restless.

Five, 10, maybe 15 minutes went by.

A solitary skier got out of the maze and slid past the closed signs toward Copper Bowl. He looked unafraid, skiing off like the lone figure who challenged the tanks in Tiananmen Square.

A roar went up from the crowd. It was as if the first box of tea had been dumped in the harbor.

The lift line was buzzing. Then the chair, which had at least been moving a little, ground to a halt yet again.

And suddenly the Couch Rebellion was on.

About 50 to 75 people clambered out of the maze and started sliding down toward Copper or Jackpot. Some bolted off. Some crept past the closed signs. Others, perhaps those with a Skico employee pass, nervously shuffled their feet in the maze, weighing the risk/benefit ratio.

A solitary patroller, on his day off, appeared and started waving the crowd back. He regained some semblance of crowd control and barely stopped a total exodus down a closed trail.

Was there a loss of control by the ski patrol?

“Yes, I think there was,” said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.

After the Couch Rebellion, many skiers and snowboarders, like looters swept up in freedom and chaos, began ignoring closed signs around the mountain.

Just after the incident at Lift 7, Spar Gulch and the Face of Bell were legally opened, much to the delight of many skiers, as the Face was mostly untracked.

But access to the Face was only available on the Sunnyside traverse or from Spar. Skiers who came in on the Dark Side traverse found themselves standing in front of closed signs, even though the Face was open.

Many skied right past the signs and around to the Face. Others, once beyond the closed signs, headed for the closed and uncut trails on the Back of Bell.

And for the next couple of hours, while the patrol dealt with the crowds on Little Nell and Spar Gulch, poachers were everywhere.

“It’s like a free-for-all,” said one skier. “It’s turned law-abiding skiers into criminals.”

Groups of skiers were casually making turns down the closed Ridge of Bell in clear view of the gondola. One skier in a red jacket, black ski pants and gray ski boots treated several closed signs at the top of trails as if they said “Welcome.”

Some poachers were caught.

“I have heard that yes, there were passes pulled,” Hanle said on Sunday afternoon. “I don’t have a number, but yes, there were some passes pulled.”

Once on Little Nell, skiers found only a narrow line down the middle of the trail, which was littered with rocks. It was clear that Nell was not ready for prime time on Saturday afternoon.

By the end of day, skiers knew that it had been a crazy day. Part community social, part riot, and part powder day.

“Everyone in town who was up there owes a patroller a beer,” laughed Hanle. “They worked their tails off and they got slaughtered.”

On Sunday, order was restored on the mountain.

And the ski patrol, not one to hold a grudge against powder hounds, turned the closed signs around and officially opened the Back of Bell, the Ridge of Bell, the Glades and FIS.

Snowmaking had improved conditions on Nell and it was another day of excellent midwinter conditions on Ajax, even though it was only Nov. 17.

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]

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