Kaplan: Pandora’s terrain expansion needed to keep Aspen Mountain relevant
Several Aspen Skiing Co. executives — including President and CEO Mike Kaplan — made impassioned pitches to the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday for approval of the first terrain expansion on Aspen Mountain since 1985.
Kaplan said Skico’s goal is to “stay in business forever” by being both a great steward of the environment and keeping pace with trends in the ski industry.
“It’s really critical for us to stay relevant,” he said.
Aspen Mountain is a great ski area, Kaplan said, but customers’ expectations change, so Skico has to evolve with them. The company has applied to expand into the Pandora’s area, which has been in the ski area permit boundary for decades but not in the operational boundary.
Skico wants to add roughly 180 acres of skiable terrain in glades and traditional ski runs on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. The new terrain would be to skier’s right of the existing Walsh’s trail. A new chairlift would be added essentially straight down the fall line from Walsh’s. That would allow the downhill extension of Walsh’s, Kristi and Hyrup’s terrain.
Skico also wants to expand the snowmaking system by 53 acres at the mountaintop so that an annual opening could be guaranteed at Thanksgiving with skiing centered on the Ajax Express lift. The current snowmaking system ends about three-quarters of the way up the mountain.
“I encourage you to take the long view. That’s what we’re doing here,” Kaplan said. “I encourage you to know we’re serious about doing this right.”
Skico also has proposed various other conceptual projects in a proposed update to the Aspen Mountain Master Plan.
The Forest Service approved the Aspen Mountain projects in March. Pitkin County is now engaged in a thorough review, with a vote possible as soon as Aug. 28. The Pandora’s expansion has been contemplated for about 25 years. Skico formally applied for the project 2½ years ago.
“This particular version has been studied and studied and studied, first at the federal level and now at the county level,” Kaplan said.
The last time terrain was added on Aspen Mountain was 1985 when Walsh’s and adjacent trails were added.
“I’d ask you to think about Aspen Mountain without the Walsh’s area,” Kaplan said.
Commissioner Greg Poschman asked Kaplan if Skico considered adding the terrain and having the ski patrol monitor it but not adding a chairlift.
“I can save you $10 million on a lift if you didn’t put a lift in,” Poschman said.
Kaplan said the use wouldn’t be high enough without a chairlift to justify the expense of adding and maintaining the additional terrain.
Commissioner Steve Child proposed a similar concept. He suggested adding the terrain but aligning the lift so that it unloaded passengers on the existing Northstar Trail. Chair 7, affectionately known as “The Flying Couch,” could be upgraded to get passengers uphill faster, he said.
A public hearing was held on the proposal and audience members who spoke were overwhelmingly in favor of the expansion and snowmaking. Several speakers from families with a prominent role in Aspen skiing history urged approval of the project.
“I think what they’re doing is over the top and much needed, especially the snowmaking,” David Stapleton said.
Endorsements also came from Dave Durrance, whose father Dick was instrumental in getting the ski area started, and Olympic snowboarder and Aspen native Chris Klug.
Another speaker, Maria Morrow, said the debate boils down to evolve or die. Aspen shouldn’t be incapacitated by the idea of expansion, she said.
“This is not a drastic change,” Morrow said.
The additional terrain will freshen the experience on the famed mountain, she continued.
“The thought of glade skiing on Aspen Mountain is heaven,” Morrow said.
When the White River National Forest conducted its analysis, it determined Aspen Mountain has one of the lowest percentages of gladed skiing of the numerous ski areas in the forest.
A handful of speaker urged the commissioners to deny the project.
John Doyle questioned if more terrain is necessary when there are already four ski areas in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Skico’s proposal to rezone land to allow for the Pandora’s expansion was approved in the first of two required hearings by the commissioners June 26 by a 2-1 vote. It was approved by Poschman and Commissioner George Newman and opposed by Child. Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself from voting on Aspen Mountain issues because her son-in-law works for Skico. Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury missed the earlier meeting due to the birth of her child. She was at Tuesday’s meeting but didn’t give any definitive clues on her direction.
The hearing was continued to Aug. 28.
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A more than $2 million expansion of the Pitkin County Landfill slated to add between six and eight years of life to the facility, which is rapidly running out of room, is nearly complete.