Has Highlands reached its peak? | AspenTimes.com

Has Highlands reached its peak?

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado
Skiers and boarders flocked to Aspen Highlands in increasing numbers for four straight years. Now this year's numbers are down, leading many to re-evaluate the expectations of Highland Bowl. (Mark Vonderhaar/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN Aspen Skiing Co. officials thought this might be the season that Aspen Highlands finally cracked 200,000 skier and rider visits since joining the company’s fold in 1993.They had good reason for optimism. Customer visits climbed each of the past four seasons. A 15.5 percent increase in visits – the second best rate among Colorado’s 26 ski resorts – punctuated the rising fortunes last winter.Skier and snowboarder visits at Highlands jumped from 167,390 in 2004-05 to 193,242 last winter.Highlands benefited mightily from a honeymoon effect. The new Deep Temerity chairlift allowed the addition of expert terrain from Steeplechase to Highland Bowl and stashes in between. Local pass-holders and visiting tourists flocked to the ski area to check out the new toys.

Highlands was also a media darling. Ski industry magazines gushed about the sick terrain.But breaking the 200,000 barrier wasn’t meant to be. At the beginning of this week, skier and riders visits were down about 4 percent compared to the same point last season, according to Skico President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Kaplan.The downturn caught him off guard. He said he felt Highlands was poised for its highest numbers as a Skico ski area. Developer Gerald Hines acquired the ski area from founder Whip Jones at the start of the 1993-94 season. Hines immediately arranged a merger with the Skico.Highlands’ downturn is in line with the Skico’s overall experience this season. All four mountains are down. The company’s skier and rider visits were off 2.5 percent at the end of February compared to last season, said spokesman Jeff Hanle.

Aspen Mountain and Snowmass aren’t down as much as Highlands and Buttermilk. It’s possible that some skiers and riders are spending more time at Snowmass to check out the Elk Camp Gondola, the biggest “toy” the Skico added for this season, Hanle said.Some observers felt Highlands siphoned skiers away from Aspen Mountain last year, particularly locals. Hanle said Highlands’ mix of local pass-holders and ticket buyers is about the same this season as last season. There is no evidence to support a theory that locals that left Aspen Mountain for Highlands last season have now gone back.”It’s not a big swing in locals that came over and tried Temerity and then left,” Hanle said.Many locals who favor Highlands could probably care less about the sagging numbers. They prefer to have the mountain to themselves. And “bowling” remains as popular as ever. Numerous skiers have said this season that they always run into their old friends when they trudge to the top of Highland Bowl.

Skico statistics show that skiers and riders made about 50,000 trips to the top of the Bowl last season, according to a game counter placed along the traverse. The game counter isn’t in place this season, but Highlands mountain manager Ron Chauner estimated that trips into the bowl are down about the same percent as the overall visits to the ski area, Hanle said.Even though business is down this season, it isn’t bleak, Hanle noted. This winter’s numbers will still top those from 2003-04 and be one of the best during the Skico’s reign at Highlands, he said.Highlands’ best season was 1975-76, when it logged 320,000 visits.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


See more