The Aspen Times’ top stories of 2019: From historic avalanches to City Hall changes
There’s plenty to say about the news Aspen generated in 2019. It was a year that saw revamped power structures at the city and school systems. It was a year that saw one business have a spectacular crash as it tries to recover, and a year that saw major signs of a hospitality resurgence at the base of Aspen Mountain.
The winter weather was spectacular for all of the right reasons — inches upon inches of skiable powder — but with it came tragedy on the local mountains. Meanwhile, Aspen residents saw some of their neighbors fall on hard times, if only because of their own doing.
The Aspen Times’ newsroom staff selected what it considered the 10 biggest stories of 2019. This is hardly an exact science, but there’s no debating these were some of the Aspen area’s biggest news events of the year — for better, worse, or in between.
NO. 1 — CITY HALL POWER STRUCTURE UPHEAVED
Leadership in Aspen’s City Hall saw a historic shake-up in the early part of 2019 with a 19-year tenured city manager forced to resign and a new mayor elected after the same person held the seat for six years.
Tensions were running high in late 2018 when a majority of council members wanted City Manager Steve Barwick out for a number of reasons, but his undoing came after his underling, Assistant City Manager Barry Crook, disparaged a volunteer citizen board in public.
No communication or apology came from Crook or Barwick and they were both gone in less than a month.
That opened the door for then-Assistant City Manager Sara Ott to take Barwick’s job, and she is slowly building trust within City Hall and in the community.
In a historic spring election (voters in November 2018 moved the municipal election to March from May), Torre finally won the mayor’s seat after five previous attempts.
Now that he’s the dog that caught the proverbial truck, what’s his plan during the two-year term? Building as many as 300 new affordable-housing units, creating affordable child care opportunities and addressing environmental issues and a better quality of life for residents, to name a few initiatives.
No. 2 — Historic avalanche season
It wasn’t so much the number of avalanches that stuck out in the winter of 2018-19 in the Aspen zone as the size and destructive force of the slides.
There were 397 avalanches recorded in the Aspen zone, which includes Marble, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s annual report. That was significantly lower than adjacent areas. The Gunnison zone, which includes Crested Butte terrain, recorded 559 avalanches while the Vail and Summit County zone recorded 478, the report said.
CAIC recorded nearly 1,000 avalanches statewide between March 1 and 14, during an unusually long and intense snow cycle. Brian Lazar, deputy director of the avalanche center, said in a public presentation in November that at least five times as many slides occurred during the intense March cycle but weren’t observed during the winter. The extent of the slide cycled became more evident in May, June and July when hikers ventured into remote valleys and witnessed the carnage left over from the big slides. Many trails weren’t open until July because of remaining snow and downed timber.
CAIC documented 87 avalanches rating a D4 or D5, the most destructive, during the March cycle. To put that into perspective, there were 24 slides of that magnitude from 2010 through 2018.
Two of the biggest slides in March hit in Pitkin County. The first occurred in Conundrum Creek Valley on March 9. It broke along 1 mile of the ridge south of Aspen Highlands, including the Five Fingers area of chutes. The massive slide sheered large conifer trees, bowed multiple aspens and dumped debris as deep as 200 feet into the creek. The home located at the highest elevation in the valley was spared only because it had a protective wedge wall made of concrete.
“This was the biggest avalanche I’ve ever seen in the state of Colorado, probably the biggest avalanche I’ve ever seen in the lower 48 states,” Lazar said. “It wiped out thousands of trees.”
Another D5 avalanche occurred March 14 along a 2-mile ridge starting at Garrett Peak outside of Snowmass Ski Area.
Eight people were killed in Colorado by avalanches and another 135 who survived getting caught. In the past decade, the previous high for people getting caught was 99 in winter 2012-13.
Unfortunately, avalanches claimed the lives of three residents of the Roaring Fork Valley over the course of the winter (see section No. 3).
No 3. Untimely deaths
Sam Coffey. Michael Goerne. Owen Green. Tyler Hamm. Aaron Hill. Arin Trook.
Those are the names of some of the young men who died well before their times, and with the exception of Coffee, also men who died doing winter sports, gripping the tight-knit outdoors community of the Roaring Fork Valley
The popular Coffey, an Aspen native and accomplished skier, was just 29 when he died May 20 after suffering multiple strokes while vacationing near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Coffey was a 2008 graduate of Aspen High School and was part of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. He went on to become an All-American ski racer at the University of New Hampshire.
Coffey’s death was preceded by other local men who were still finding their prime days.
In the early-morning hours of March 3, Aspen resident Aaron Hill’s snowboarding outing turned deadly when he hit a building near the base of Lift 1A on Aspen Mountain. Hill, who moved to Aspen from New York in 2015, was 30 at the time and died from head injuries. He was known as lover of wine and he had experience as a sommelier in Aspen.
Owen Green, of Aspen, was just 27 and Michael Goerne, of Carbondale, 37 when the two were killed an avalanche Feb. 16. in the East Brush Creek area near Crested Butte. They had been training for the Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry ski race across the Elk Mountains from Crested Butte to Aspen. Both also coached lacrosse at the local high school and club teams.
At age 20, Tyler Hamm died Feb. 10 as the result of a snowboarding crash in the terrain park at Snowmass Ski Area. He had moved to the area from North Carolina in 2017.
Arin Trook was a bit older, 48, when he died Jan. 21 in an avalanche while skiing on Green Mountain near Ashcroft. The educator at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies left behind a wife and two children.
“He brought a radically progressive way of thinking. He truly was one of a kind,” ACES director Chris Lane said following his death. “You can’t find very often in this world people who could educate people in that way, I’m talking from kindergarteners to adults.”
Another death that shocked the community was Jerry Hatem, who died in June when he flipped his snowmobile on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Hatem, 59, was the president of the Aspen Rugby Club and organizer of the Ruggerfest.
“Jerome was an extremely generous individual toward the club,” former Gents coach Will Herborn wrote in an email to The Aspen Times in June. “He had been selfless in providing time, money, body and compassion to anyone and everyone that came within arms reach. He helped the high school kids to learn better scrum technique and (win) a state title.”
No. 4 — Big changes coming for Ajax
Voters and elected officials made some big decisions in 2019 about the future of Aspen Mountain and how we will recreate on it in decades to come.
In March, Aspen voters approved — by a 26-vote margin — two ordinances allowing developers to build roughly 300,000 square feet of commercial space at the western base of Aspen Mountain.
The development will include a hotel, timeshare lodge, ski museum, restaurants, bars and a new chairlift/gondola that comes 500 feet farther down the hill than the current Lift 1A terminal.
If developers come together and actually build what voters said they could, it will reignite a nostalgic and historic part of the mountain where World Cup ski racing was held and the first chairlift in North America started turning in 1949.
Pitkin County commissioners’ approval of Aspen Skiing Co.’s 10-year master plan last fall also will reignite the top of the Lift 1A side.
Skico plans to renovate and reopen Ruthies Restaurant with night use.
The master plan also allows a new ski patrol shack on the north side of the gondola building and a new 1,000-square-foot Buckhorn Cabin for people to rent for parties.
But what was absent from the master plan is a planned expansion of the far east side of the mountain in an area known as Pandora’s.
Skico was asking the county to rezone 167 acres and bring the side country into the ski area, and put a new chairlift in to serve that side of the mountain better.
But seeing that commissioners were deadlocked in a 2-2 vote, Skico decided to sever the Pandora’s expansion from the master plan and take a few months to assess its direction and consult with the county.
The plan is for the county and Skico to reconvene in early 2020.
No. 5 — Aspen Club goes bankrupt
The Aspen Club and Spa has a colorful history dating back to the 1970s, but in May it declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, casting its future in doubt.
The bankruptcy has allowed the club to avoid foreclosure and attempt to reorganize its more than $100 million in debts so it can resume its expansion project of 20 timeshares, 12 multi-family affordable-housing units, and the remodel of the 40,000-square-foot Aspen Club & Spa building. Work on the project, located at 1340 Ute Ave., has been essentially dormant since the fall of 2017 when construction firms left the job because they had not been paid.
2020 will likely be the year it is determined whether the club will remain under the leadership of president Michael Fox, or whether a bank, lender or even another hotel operator will take over the space.
Fox is trying to get $140 million in exit financing to pay off the club’s debts and resume construction; but at least three creditors say it’s a bad business plan that will lead to more failure. Ultimately it will be up to a bankruptcy judge in Denver to decide.
No. 6 — New leadership at Aspen School District
The Aspen School District saw significant shake-up in 2019, culminating in the November elections when Katy Frisch and Jonathan Nickell were voted in to replace term-limited Board of Education members Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills.
Peirce and Wills had both been supporters of John Maloy, the superintendent who retired June 30 in the wake of harsh criticism about his job performance, in particular his management style.
Maloy departed after the Board of Education announced Oct. 25, 2018, it would not be renewing his contract past its expiration date of June 30, 2021. As well, the board hired a Denver firm to launch a climate and culture study into the ASD in early 2019. The study’s results varied, but one emerging theme was the lack of faith and trust faculty members had in district leadership.
Other high-ranking ASD administrators to leave in 2019 included its chief financial officer of 11 years, Kate Fuentes, who resigned March for undisclosed reasons, as well as its human resources director of less than two years, Elizabeth Hodges, who resigned in January following publicity surrounding her disbarment from Missouri in April 2018.
The ASD has since hired a new CFO and HR director; a search for a new superintendent is underway while Tom Heald serves as the district’s interim head.
No. 7 — Suicide reveals problems at Pitkin jail
A woman found dead in her Pitkin County Jail cell on the night of Nov. 3 exposed inefficiencies in procedures of handling psychologically unstable inmates.
Inmate Jillian White, 64, of Woody Creek, decided to take her life using an electrical cord to hang herself.
At the time, White was awaiting a bed at the state psychiatric hospital in Pueblo to be restored to mental competency so her criminal cases could proceed in Pitkin County. She had been arrested multiple times for theft, drunken driving and other charges during the past decade.
An incident report, released in December, said White had been deceased 50 minutes before jail deputies found her. The same report said she had threatened suicide during several recorded phone conversations prior to Nov. 3, and she also could be seen in videos from her cell in the days leading up to Nov. 3 testing out her method of suicide.
A new deputy also had been assigned to monitor White the night of her death.
Sheriff Joe DiSalvo conceded the cord should not have been in the cell. He did not take action against the deputy, who told authorities he didn’t inspect the cell when he saw curtains drawn by its toilet and the shower.
“Obviously, we could have done things better,” the sheriff said.
No. 8 — Johnson couple popped in Skico retail scheme
Community stalwarts Derek and Kerri Johnson found themselves on the wrong side of Aspen headlines when they were busted for selling Aspen Skiing Co. winter sports equipment online for millions of dollars.
Derek, 52, a former Aspen city councilman, will be sentenced Jan. 21 for his guilty plea in November to stealing between $100,000 and $1 million from Skico between June 2013 and January 2019. He faces between four and 12 years in prison when he is sentenced in Pitkin County District Court.
Kerri, 48, pleaded guilty earlier in December to helping her husband in the scheme that included selling the equipment on eBay during Derek’s 17 years with Skico. Derek helped found D&E Snowboard Shop and sold it to Skico in 2001, when he became the company’s retail-rental division managing director. Skico fired him in December 2018 when the allegations surfaced.
Police and prosecutors allege the couple stole more than $2.4 million worth of items — including charging Skico for the boxes they used to send their eBay customers the stolen skis. The couple have agreed to pay $250,000 to Aspen Skiing Co. as part of their plea arrangement with prosecutors.
No. 9 — First luxury hotel opens in 25 years
The opening of the W Aspen in August marked the first time in 25 years that Aspen had a new a luxury hotel.
Approved in 2015 to replace the Sky Hotel, the W Aspen is an 88-room hotel with 11 free-market residences selling as fractional condos.
The WET Deck is the W’s main draw — an 8,000-square-foot rooftop area that’s open to the public and has a heated pool, hot tubs, cabanas, couches, fire pits, DJ booth, dance floor, a U-shaped bar and 360-degree views with Aspen Mountain.
No. 10 — An Ikonic ski season
The 2018-19 ski season will be remembered for good snow and long lift lines — at least by Aspen’s standards.
It also will be remembered, right or wrong, for the Invasion of the Ski Line Snatchers, aka Ikon Pass holders.
Several weekend powder days produced crowds, particularly at Aspen Highlands and Snowmass. Many local skiers contended the new pass lured many skiers and snowboarders from out of town, particularly the Front Range. The Ikon Pass was offered for the first time last season by Alterra Mountain Co., which is partially owned by the Lester Crown family, full owners of Aspen Skiing Co. Ikoners were able to ski Aspen’s four resorts a collective five or seven times, depending on the version of the pass they purchased.
The Ikon accounted for about 9% of Skico’s total skier days, or about 139,500 visits.
“There are people who had Aspen-Snowmass on their bucket list for years,” said Katie Ertl, Skico senior vice president, mountain operations. “Ikon got them up here.”
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan was unapologetic about the pass attracting new blood. That’s something local residents have long said was lacking, he reminded them. They should be welcomed, he said.
Skico officials also contended the Ikon got a bum rap. The snowfall was about average heading into late February, and then the faucet got turned on for the first half of March. The weekend powder days during the first half of the season combined with the big snowfall in March created the impression of an epic winter.
Skiers and riders certainly responded. Skico set a record with 1.55 million skier visits for the season. Company officials said the weekend powder days attracted tons of season passholders from the Roaring Fork Valley.
Heading into this winter, Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory said the company’s goal isn’t to overwhelm its resorts and affiliates.
“We’re not just throwing the product out there and sitting back to see how many people show up,” Gregory said. The company also wanted to preserve the character of its ski areas and affiliates, he said.
The Ikon Pass might be easier for some Aspenites to swallow this season. People who purchased Skico’s full season pass also got the Ikon, so they can be the Ski Line Snatchers at other resorts.
This article was based on contributions from staff writers Rick Carroll, Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason.
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.