Aspen Skiing Co. hopes it can expand Pandora terrain for 2020-21 season
Aspen Skiing Co. officials are hopeful that the proposed expansion into the Pandora area of upper Aspen Mountain will earn approvals soon enough to allow construction in two years.
“Ski season 2020-21 you’d hope to be skiing (Pandora) with lift service. That’s our goal,” David Corbin, Skico’s senior vice president of planning and development said Wednesday night.
About 50 people attended a public outreach meeting hosted by Skico officials at the Limelight Hotel to discuss the proposed expansion into Pandora, additional snowmaking to cover trails on the upper third of the ski area and other aspects of a long-range development plan for the mountain.
Skico hopes to acquire approvals from the U.S. Forest Service and Pitkin County soon enough to add the snowmaking for the 2019-20 season. The low amount of natural snowfall early this season exposed the ski area’s vulnerability to conditions, Corbin said.
The existing snowmaking system covers the lower two-thirds of the mountain. The proposal would add 50 acres of snowmaking at the top.
“It’s particularly important and acute in a year like this,” Corbin said.
Aspen is experiencing a trend of fewer frost-free days and warmer temperatures further into fall, he said. That shrinks the window for snowmaking. The proposal would boost Skico’s ability to make snow in a shorter time.
“If you don’t have many opportunities to make it, you have to make it fast,” Corbin said.
A woman in the audience who didn’t identify herself responded, “You’re preaching to the choir as far as snowmaking.”
It was tougher to gauge public opinion on the Pandora expansion. Skico has applied to the Forest Service to add 153 acres of terrain on the upper east side of the mountain. The expansion would add 15 trails and about 71 acres of tree skiing to skier’s right of the existing Walsh’s trail. The expansion also would allow the extension of the Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi trails.
Victor Gerdin, Skico’s director of mountain planning, said the new terrain would be a combination of intermediate trails and steeper terrain for experts. Selective thinning of the forest would link natural breaks in the tree cover.
“If we connect the dots between the clearings there, we’ve got some pretty good skiing,” he said.
The vertical drop would be about 1,260 feet.
Skico’s plan also calls for a new lift to be installed to serve the new terrain. The upper terminal would be on Richmond Ridge, south of the upper terminal for the Silver Queen Gondola.
Skico is uncertain if they would build a high-speed detachable lift, with a ride time of about 41/2 minutes, or a fixed-grip chair with about double the riding time.
If the lift and terrain expansion is approved by the federal and local agencies, Skico wants to install the lift and see how it affects skier circulation before considering changes to other lifts. For example, if ridership declines on the slow Gent’s Ridge chairlift, it could be removed, Corbin said.
Skico also is pondering moves with the iconic Bell Mountain chairlift, which is seldom fired up. One option is to slightly change the alignment and shorten it so the lower terminal would be closer to Grand Junction, where Copper and Spar Gulch converge. That would allow skiers and snowboarders to make quicker laps on coveted Bell Mountain terrain.
Other options include shifting the alignment to the east along the Back of Bell trails or leaving it alone.
Bill Swanson was among audience members who applauded the idea of shortening the lift and running it regularly to better utilize the top-quality Bell Mountain terrain.
“You get all sorts of runs that you can’t access the way it exists,” Swanson said after the meeting.
If it doesn’t work to place the lower terminal near Grand Junction, he urged Skico to look at placing it at the top of Bingo Slot.
“You can get it done,” Swanson said.
Audience member Gary Davis said after the meeting that he was particularly interested in what Skico officials had to say about skier access to Lift 1A. He wants any future alterations to preserve the access to the lift.
“It really is some of the best skiing on the mountain,” he said of the lower west side.
Skico officials weren’t able to shed much light on the future of Lift 1A. The city of Aspen has hired a consultant to examine how to move the bottom terminal lower down the slope. Numerous stakeholders are participating in the process. The lift is tied to the review of the Gorsuch Haus hotel proposal, which is ongoing.
Another audience member noted after the meeting that very few young skiers and riders who use the sidecountry on the fringe of the lift-served terrain attended the meeting. The Pandora terrain is heavily used by people who hike outside the ski area, then curl back into the ski area via Lud’s Lane. If there is opposition to the Pandora plan, it will likely come from people already utilizing the sidecountry, the observer said.
Most of the terrain proposed for the Pandora expansion is within the ski-area boundary but not utilized for current operations.
The observer wondered why Skico doesn’t move the Pandora chairlift closer to Walsh’s and place the upper terminal closer to the existing top terminal of the Gent’s Ridge chair. That would preserve more of the Pandora area as hike-to terrain much like it’s done on Burnt Mountain at Snowmass Ski Area.
Swanson said he understands Skico’s interest in adding the Pandora terrain. It would add diversity and additional space.
“They haven’t added anything to Aspen Mountain in, what, 50 years,” he said.
The Forest Service is just cranking up its review of the snowmaking addition and Pandora terrain expansion. It will open the process to public comment this spring.
Once the federal process is completed, Skico will seek Pitkin County approval.
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Aspen Skiing Co. didn’t let the shortened ski season in 2019-20 slow it down this summer. The company is replacing the Big Burn Chairlift at Snowmass and adding snowmaking at Snowmass and Aspen Mountain.