Skico: Adding snowmaking to the top of Aspen Mountain is a priority | AspenTimes.com

Skico: Adding snowmaking to the top of Aspen Mountain is a priority

Snowmaking saved Aspen's bacon for the second season in a row this year, and now Aspen Skiing Co. is looking to expand coverage for the future.

Skico has submitted an updated master plan for Aspen Mountain to the U.S. Forest Service that includes expanding the capacity for snowmaking by another 50 acres. The master plan review process is underway by the Forest Service. It must also be submitted to Pitkin County.

After the blueprint is approved, individual components must go through another round of approvals by the Forest Service when Skico wants to pursue them.

"Snowmaking to the top of Aspen Mountain remains a priority, and once we have approvals we will begin the project as quickly as possible," said Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications.

The existing snowmaking system on Aspen Mountain covers about 172 acres of terrain on the lower two-thirds of the mountain — below about 10,600 feet in elevation, according to the draft master plan.

The reasoning has been that Mother Nature generally pulls through and provides enough natural snow at the top to start the lifts spinning when scheduled. However, Mother Nature doesn't always get the memo. The last two seasons have proven there are no guarantees.

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A last-minute storm this season provided enough base at the top to allow top-to-bottom skiing despite thin coverage. Opening day in 2016-17 was limited to Little Nell due to dry conditions.

"During seasons with marginal early-season snowfall, top-to-bottom skiing can be delayed from the planned opening day, causing a burden on the overall resort and community economy," said Skico's draft master development plan. "To respond to this issue, ASC plans to extend snowmaking capabilities to the summit of Aspen Mountain, which includes snowmaking on approximately 50 acres on One & Two Leaf, Silver Bell, Dipsy Doodle, Buckhorn and North American trails."

The expanded system would require a second water storage pond on Gent's Ridge, where one is currently located, and another pond near the Midnight ski trail.

About 8,600 feet of snowmaking pipeline would be installed beneath the Silver Bell and Copper trails and 7,400 feet of pipeline would be sunk below Dipsy, Buckhorn and North American, the draft plan said.

A pump station would be installed on Gent's Ridge to feed the system uphill from the ponds.

Snowmaking was basically frowned upon by Colorado's ski industry until the disastrous drought of 1976-77. From Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, 1976, only 15 inches of snow fell in town. Aspen Mountain finally opened Jan. 11, 1977.

The Aspen Times reported on Dec. 16, 1976, that the delayed opening had already caused about $1 million in lost revenue for the Aspen Skiing Corp., as the company was then known.

Ski areas that balked at installing snowmaking after the disaster of 1976-77 got a second slap in 1980-81 when a drought gripped the Rocky Mountain West. Now just about every ski area in Colorado has snowmaking as a backup.

Aspen Skiing Co.'s snowmaking systems cover 230 acres at Snowmass, 108 acres at Buttermilk and 121 acres at Aspen Highlands.

Skico has used 203 million gallons of water for snowmaking at the four ski areas so far this season, "about spot on with this time last year," Hanle wrote in an email. Skico uses treated municipal water for snowmaking at Aspen Mountain. The rate that it can use water is limited, both by its contract with the city and by the limits of its system, but there isn't a cap on the overall amount of water that can be used, he said.

"We're pretty much wrapped up on Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands," Hanle said. "More needed for the Grand Prix prep at Snowmass and X Games prep at Buttermilk."

scondon@aspentimes.com