Highlands closure prompts pleas for more bowl time
Here’s a recipe for discontent: give the kids a great new toy on Christmas morning. Then, after lunch, tell them they can’t play with it for the rest of the day.
For some local skiers and riders, that’s how it feels this week.
They have finally gotten to enjoy the heights of Highland Bowl this winter only to realize that the Aspen Highlands Ski Area is closing on Sunday, April 1, three weeks earlier than Aspen Mountain or the Snowmass Ski Area.
“The snow is fabulous, and with the bowl open, the Highlands has some of the most spectacular and exciting skiing in the state, if not the country,” said Polly Ross, in a recent letter to the editor urging the Aspen Skiing Co. to keep Highlands open past April 1.
Ross, who has skied Highlands since the 1970s, said she had several friends who were coming to Aspen to ski Highland Bowl in April. But upon learning that their “favorite mountain” would be closed, they are heading for Snowbird, Alta, Tahoe or Taos instead.
“Please keep the `locals’ mountain’ open longer!” Ross urged the Skico.
But the Skico has no intention of extending the closing date this season of either Highlands or Buttermilk Mountain, which is also closing on April 1.
“It would be fun to have them open,” said John Norton, chief operating officer for the Skico, “but it would be an irresponsible business decision. We don’t need all four areas open for the limited number of skiers that we have at that time.”
And that rationale extends to the first month of the ski season as well, when Highlands and Buttermilk are closed until mid-December.
“The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the absolute lowest travel time in the country,” said Norton, “and not just for skiing.”
But what’s troubling to Ross and some other local skiers is the memory of how former Highlands owner Whip Jones faithfully opened the ski area on Thanksgiving and closed it in mid-April.
And now, in a touch of irony, the manager of the new village at Aspen Highlands wouldn’t mind seeing a return to the old ways.
“We are absolutely supportive of a longer ski season,” said David Norden of Hines Resorts. “We feel with the momentum we are seeing at Highlands there will be natural pressure to open earlier and stay open later.”
The late opening and early closure of Highlands and Buttermilk raises a chicken and egg question: Are the two mountains closed because no one is town, or is no one in town because the two mountains are closed?
One thing’s certain: The closing dates can’t be pinned on the U.S. Forest Service. The agency doesn’t restrict the Skico’s dates.
Norton said he does not feel that closing two of the four mountains in the slow seasons is bad for business. And he’s got a point, given that early December and April have never been known as crowded periods in town.
But Molly Campbell, the general manager of the large Gant condo complex in Aspen, has seen a strong increase in April business over the last several years, especially from ski clubs.
“From now through the 14th of April, the Gant is running 90 percent full,” Campbell said. “To lose Highlands for those last two weeks is tough. From what I’m hearing, Highlands is where the energy is, and if you’re going after this younger crowd, we better have our exciting mountain open.”
The April 1 closing date for Highlands and Buttermilk is among the earliest in Colorado. The other areas that are scheduled to shut down at the end of this week are Powderhorn, Sol Vista (formerly Silver Creek) and Ski Cooper in Leadville.
Crested Butte closes April 8, while Beaver Creek, Durango, Steamboat and Telluride close April 15. Aspen and Snowmass close April 22, along with Vail, Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge.
Next season, Highlands and Buttermilk will open Dec. 15, while Aspen Mountain and Snowmass are to open on Nov. 17.
At the end of next season, however, there will be less of a gap between the closing dates of the mountains. Highlands and Buttermilk are set to close on April 7, while Ajax and Snowmass are scheduled to close on April 14.
The shift in closing dates is because of when Easter falls, said Rose Abello, the Skico’s director of communications. This year, Easter is on April 15. Next year, it’s on March 31.
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