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Great snow welcomes holiday rush

What a difference a year makes.

One year ago, Aspen Skiing Co. officials were putting the best face on a lousy snow year and trying to convince tourists there was still plenty of good skiing and riding to be found.

This year they don’t have to pretend.

Snowmass Ski Area will have roughly 2,500 of 3,010 acres and 69 trails open this weekend. Last year it limped into the holiday season with 12 top-to-bottom trails.

The Hanging Valley Wall, among the steepest and deepest at Snowmass, opened Thursday – a full month before it opened in sketchy conditions last season.

“It’s bottomless,” reported Skico vice president of operations Mike Kaplan from his cell phone, minutes after taking the inaugural season run down the Wall Thursday. This was only the second season in the last seven years that the Wall was open before Christmas, he said.

Kaplan said he skied the Campground section of the mountain Wednesday and found plenty of untouched snow.

“I was skiing fresh tracks and I was drooling while I was on the lift over the fresh stuff I missed,” he said.

At Aspen Highlands, the Y-Zones are open permanently for at least short periods of the day. There’s a good chance that the B-Zones of Highland Bowl could be open before January, almost a month ahead of last season’s schedule.

Last year at this time, Highlands offered skiing only at the mountaintop. Customers had to download the Exhibition lift back to the base.

Aspen Mountain has 64 trails as of Thursday compared to 21 last year.

Cows could still graze at Buttermilk last year at Christmas. In fact, cow patties were still visible on the terrain. This year, even its gentle slopes have great snow coverage.

“We’re in good shape for the holidays,” said Kaplan. “Even if it stops snowing right now, we’re in great shape.”

The forecast is for continued pulses of snow through the holiday weekend.

Kaplan said the Skico will be geared up with roughly 3,000 employees by the weekend, including mountain operations at the four ski areas plus its hotels and restaurants. Miraculously the company has only 12 positions currently unfilled. “But it’s always a moving target,” he said.

The Skico is expecting its busiest days on Wednesday through Friday, Dec. 27-29, according to Kaplan. Strong numbers are expected to continue after Jan. 1.

The Skico is banking on the snow to boost business over the first 10 weeks of the season. Skier and rider visits were down 7.5 percent last season, but most of that loss came in December and January, according to company officials.

The Skico is shooting for a 10-percent gain in customer visitors this season. Some ground could be made up over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Poor snow and Y2K fears convinced many potential customers to stay home last year, producing a paltry occupancy rate in Aspen of only 86 percent for the week between the two big holidays.

The latest report from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association showed current reservations would produce an 80-percent occupancy rate for the week starting Dec. 24 and 56 percent for the week starting Dec. 31. Both figures are expected to rise as late bookings trickle in.


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