Big snows for Aspen will mean more ski area terrain, higher backcountry avalanche risk

Skiers take runs on Aspen Highlands on Thursday. Forecasters are expecting snow throughout the weekend in Aspen.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The big storm systems barreling toward Aspen could help the ski areas to open significantly more terrain but also send the backcountry avalanche danger soaring and hamper travel this weekend.

Micro-forecaster expected 5 to 8 inches of snow by dawn Friday morning with another 11 to 20 inches Friday through Saturday night. Another big dump is possible Sunday but it was too difficult to call with certainty as of Thursday, the website said.

“If we get a significant snow on Sunday, these snow totals will be out of control ‘high’,” wrote meteorologist Cory Gates.

The National Weather Service forecast also has the ski slopes counting feet rather than inches of snow.

If the snow materializes in the amounts foreseen, it could allow Aspen Skiing Co. to open some of the steep, rocky terrain that wasn’t covered as of Thursday.

Skico had 3,452 acres of skiable terrain open at the start of the day Thursday, including 88% of the terrain at Aspen Mountain, 87% at Aspen Highlands, 93% at Buttermilk but only 45% of Snowmass.

Even before the storm, Skico planned to open the Sheer Bliss, Two Creeks and Assay Hill terrain on Saturday, according to Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications. Campground and several double black diamond trails need more natural snow, he said Thursday.

The ski areas have a slightly higher base this season compared with Dec. 11 last year, but more terrain was open last season at this time, Hanle said. It all comes down to timing of snowstorms and snowmaking.

“We’re definitely not where we were last season with snowmaking. It’s not as cold,” Hanle said.

While the snow is a blessing for the resort slopes, it is a curse of sorts for the vast backcountry. Early, ample snow in October followed by dry stretches has created a poor foundation for the snowpack.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a special avalanche advisory Thursday for most of the Colorado mountains, including the Aspen zone.

“Danger will increase through Friday and into the weekend as a potent storm will drop 1 to 2 feet of snow and 1 to 2 inches of water (in the snow) on a weak snowpack,” the advisory said. “Avalanche activity will increase and natural avalanches are likely as the storm progresses. We could see high (level 4) avalanche danger as we move into the weekend.”

The avalanche center recommended avoiding traveling through or below avalanche terrain as the weekend progresses.

CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar said Thursday the weak layers are close to the surface and won’t require much loading to trigger a slide. It’s early in the winter, so the slides will be relatively small.

“We don’t have the same volume of snow on the ground that we did last March, for example,” Lazar said.

The number and size of avalanches set records during nonstop snowstorms the first two weeks of March. Even though the avalanches likely to be triggered by this storm won’t be as large, they will still be big enough to bury and kill people, according to Lazar.

“We have now crossed that line,” he said.

Avalanche forecasts can be found at

The snowy forecast also likely means delayed or canceled flights at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

“We’re basically a blue sky airport,” airport director John Kinney said. If the base of the clouds is less than 1,200 feet above the surface, commercial flights cannot operate, he said.

“(The airlines) will cancel flights sooner here than elsewhere, and wisely so,” Kinney said.

The airlines have improved communication with customers in recent years when wintry weather is expected and will typically offer a chance to rebook earlier flights without a fee, Kinney said. Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that some passengers get stranded. The airport has up to 50 cots to offer people who don’t have an alternative, he said.

Maintaining the runways and other asphalt critical for airport operations is the biggest challenge of snowstorms. Kinney said the airport maintenance staff met Thursday to devise a plan. They will be working in shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off during the duration of the storm to have it covered around the clock. Workers will be housed at the airport if there is a danger of them not being able to get back if they leave, Kinney said.

While the heart of ski season won’t start until Christmas, the Aspen area is slowly getting busier. United Express recently ramped up from four to 14 flights daily, Kinney said.