Skico crosses hurdle, ready to seek Pandora lift, terrain on Aspen Mountain

A skier navigates the Walsh's trail on Aspen Mountain last January. Aspen Skiing Co. is ready to pursue the Pandora project, which would add 153 acres of intermediate and expert terrain to skier's right of Walsh's, in the background.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |


While the new Pandora lift and 153 acres of additional terrain is the attention grabber in the Aspen Mountain Master Development Plan (see main story), there are plenty of other projects on the wish list. Here’s a rundown:

•10 acres of gladed terrain would be added within the ski area’s existing boundaries. Glades would be opened on Silver Queen Ridge adjacent to the Silver Queen Trail and between Glade 1 and Glade 2 on skier’s right of Copper Bowl. “These changes would bring the total skiable area within Aspen Mountain’s terrain network to 861 acres,” the master plan says.

•Lift 1A will eventually be replaced with a six-passenger gondola, a detachable quad chairlift or a hybrid. That upgrade has already been approved. Skico is waiting on the outcome of the proposed Gorsuch Haus hotel before deciding how to advance with the lift.

•Ruthie’s Restaurant would be brought out of mothballs after at least 10 years of no use. It will be remodeled or rebuilt close to its current location.

•A new ski patrol headquarters is planned for the top of the mountain, adjacent to the north side of the gondola storage building. The existing PHQ would be demolished.

•Buckhorn Cabin would be redone to expand the visitor use area and upgrade the food and beverage options.

•On-mountain huts would be added near Ruthie’s Restaurant. They would be modeled after the 10th Mountain Huts for backcountry skiers. “These huts are intended to offer hikers, skiers and mountain guests, who may be seeking a less remote location and more controlled experience or who may not have the proper equipment or sufficient stamina to use the backcountry hut systems, a similar on-mountain, in-bounds, overnight experience,” the master plan says.

•Summer amenities would be expanded, including a climbing wall, a challenge course and mountain bike flow trails.

A master development plan for Aspen Mountain that includes a new chairlift and expansion into the Pandora terrain on the east side of the ski area was accepted by the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday.

Now that the master plan has been accepted, Aspen Skiing Co. will submit an application to the Forest Service by the end of this month to open roughly 153 acres of new terrain primarily to skier’s right of the existing Walsh’s trail, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communication.

Pandora is within the ski area boundary of Aspen Mountain but has never been utilized by the ski area. Skico wants to add 73 acres of skiing on developed trails and 80 acres of glades. The master plan said the upper third of the new terrain is “very steep” and would appeal to experts. The lower two-thirds has more “moderate, intermediate grades.”

Skico plans to grade ground near the top of Walsh’s run to create a route for intermediates to bypass the tougher terrain on the top.

“Because the Pandora lift will serve almost 80 percent of all the existing terrain served by the Gent’s Ridge lift — in addition to 153 additional acres — the Gent’s Ridge lift may be removed.”Aspen Mountain master plan

Hanle said the new terrain adds variety to Aspen Mountain.

“It’s a new experience for people who have been skiing and riding Aspen Mountain for a long time,” he said. “It adds more upper-intermediate terrain. It’s not Walsh’s, at least not the whole thing.”

Skico is currently contemplating a detachable quad chairlift to serve Pandora. The new lift would be situated so that the existing Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi trails on the east side of the mountain could be extended downslope, but skiers and snowboarders could catch the lift.

“Currently, skiing the entirety of these trails typically requires an uphill walk out to the Lud’s Lane exit and subsequent return to Aspen Mountain’s lift/trail system,” the master plan says. “The planned lift location and trail extension would eliminate this walk out in the future configuration.”

The top terminal of the lift would be about 950 feet south and slightly east of the Silver Queen Gondola’s upper terminal. The bottom terminal of the Pandora lift would be about 1,500 feet downslope from the bottom end of Walsh’s, the master plan said.

The addition of the Pandora’s lift could eliminate the need for the Gent’s Ridge lift.

“Because the Pandora lift will serve almost 80 percent of all the existing terrain served by the Gent’s Ridge lift — in addition to 153 additional acres — the Gent’s Ridge lift may be removed,” the master plan says. “ASC intends to track Gent’s Ridge ridership numbers once the Pandora lift is installed to determine if it is redundant, and if/when removal would be appropriate.”

The future of the Bell Mountain lift appears more secure, though altered. While it serves the renowned terrain of Bell Mountain, the lift is seldom used because of redundancy with the gondola. Skico is looking at shortening the lift, realigning it or both to shorten ride times and improve skier circulation.

A map in the master plan shows the possibility of bringing the Bell Mountain lift’s lower terminal up the slope to Copper Bowl and swinging the alignment east of Back of Bell 2 Glade, but no decision has been made.

The master plan was last updated in 1997. Skico submitted the latest draft Oct. 31, conferred with White River National Forest officials, then submitted a final draft Jan. 8.

The plan is essentially Skico’s wish list for the ski area. Skico must still submit proposals for individual projects for review by the Forest Service.

The master plan and proposals for the Pandora lift and terrain as well as expanded snowmaking also will be submitted to Pitkin County for review.

White River National Forest officials said there was nothing in the draft that was rejected. The agency asked for clarification on issues, such as how much of the proposed development would be on federal rather than private lands. Because of its mining history, much of Aspen Mountain is privately owned.

The master plan proposes a broad variety of projects, from the Pandora terrain and lift to summer amenities, from resurrection of the old Ruthie’s restaurant to the addition of huts for an overnight experience for small groups, and from a new ski patrol headquarters to summer amenities (see sidebar).

“The real development here is Pandora,” said Roger Poirier, mountain sports program manager for the White River National Forest.

The various proposals by Skico would increase the daily lift capacity on Ajax to 4,610 riders from 4,290, which is an increase of about 7.5 percent, Poirier noted. But the terrain density would remain at about 4 skiers per acre, which is low for the ski industry.

Another of Skico’s priorities, along with Pandora, is the expanded snowmaking. This season emphasized the importance of snowmaking. Skico’s skier visits are down nearly 20 percent through December compared with last season because of the lack of early season snow. Aspen Mountain was the only one of the four ski areas to log an increase due to its snowmaking capacity.

The master plan says Skico wants to add 50 acres of snowmaking on the upper part of the mountain. Skico currently can make snow on about 172 acres on the lower two-thirds of the mountain.

The expanded system would cover the One & Two Leaf, Silver Bell, Dipsy Doodle, Buckhorn and North American trails, the master plan says.

Hanle said Skico’s decrease in business won’t derail plans to pursue approvals for the expanded snowmaking and Pandora terrain and lift.

“If anything, the snowmaking is going to be speeded up,” he said.