Money behind Highlands’ short season |

Money behind Highlands’ short season

Aspen Highlands fans will rejoice Saturday when 76 percent of the mountain finally opens, including Steeplechase, Olympic Bowl and Temerity.

But the prospect of a solid, snowy opening also has some of those loyalists asking why the Aspen Skiing Co. has stuck to its policy of not opening Highlands until mid-December, four weeks after opening Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.

“That’s the only negative aspect of the Ski Company’s running it,” said Steve Saunders, a Highlands loyalist since 1979 and member of the informal Ski the Trees Foundation. “Why is the Ski Company opening the Highlands so late in the season?”

The reason is “pure economics,” according to Ron Chauner, mountain manager of both Highlands and Buttermilk.

“There are typically not enough skiers in the market at that time to justify keeping four mountains open, or even three,” he said. “The decision our company has made is to keep the two big mountains – Ajax and Snowmass – open.”

Skico spokeswoman Rose Abello said a partial opening from mid-November to mid-December, like on weekends, isn’t really feasible.

“Once you turn a ski area on, it’s tough to flip the switch off,” Abello said.

Saunders said he hopes the policy will change next season, when most of the construction of the Highlands Village is complete. He reasoned that the ski area’s late opening and early closing were designed to provide a longer, unrestricted construction season.

But Chauner said he doesn’t believe the policy will change anytime soon, construction or not.

The Skico’s policy has been in place since 1993, when it struck a deal to operate the ski area and ultimately to merge Highlands into its umbrella after it was purchased by developer Gerald Hines. The Skico also delayed the opening of Buttermilk until mid-December after acquiring Highlands.

They are the only two major ski areas in the state that were still closed as of Friday – a glaring fact pointed out by The Denver Post snow report.

Highlands founder Whipple Van Ness Jones always tried to open the ski area at Thanksgiving or even before, if conditions allowed.

Highlands and Buttermilk also close before their sister mountains. They are scheduled to close April 1, three weeks earlier than Ajax and Snowmass.

Chauner noted that the Highlander and Highlands-only season passes are priced for a shorter season. If Highlands stayed open longer, the prices would have to be raised to reflect it, he said.

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