New features at Highlands start to pay dividends
It’s amazing what a new chairlift and the addition of some of the steepest ski terrain in the country can do for business.The number of skiers and riders at Aspen Highlands is surging this winter, thanks in large part to the addition of the Deep Temerity chairlift and the additional terrain it accesses, according to Aspen Skiing Co. officials.”Highlands is running well ahead of last year,” said Skico Chief Operating Officer Mike Kaplan.The Deep Temerity chairlift doubled the length of some of the double black diamond Steeplechase trails and added 1,000 vertical feet to the acclaimed Highland Bowl. It also provides quicker access to the bowl and other expert terrain.The buzz over the chairlift and terrain has placed Highlands in its best light in decades, perhaps since the legendary Stein Eriksen wowed crowds in the mid-1970s with aerial ski tricks like jumping the decks of the mountain restaurants.Highlands’ success is apparent in two ways, Kaplan said. First, overall skier and rider visits have increased. Also, the area is accounting for a larger piece of the Skico’s pie.The Skico announced last month that its business was up about 5 percent overall at Aspen Mountain, Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. “All four mountains are up. Highlands is up the most,” Kaplan said.Highlands’ share of the Skico’s total visits – a measure of lift tickets sold plus pass use – used to be only about 7 percent in the 1990s and around 10 percent in recent seasons. Last year Highlands manager Ron Chauner and his staff helped boost it to 11 percent. Through January, Highlands’ share is more than 13 percent, Kaplan said.
Chauner said the seeds of Highlands’ rejuvenation were planted back in the mid-1990s. The Skico took over operations of Highlands, in a partnership with developer Gerald Hines, in 1993. It added two high-speed detachable quad chairlifts the following season, replacing chairs that people joked belonged in a ski antique museum. Terrain expansions and restaurant upgrades have accompanied the lift improvements.”All of those things add to [the success] as time goes by,” Chauner said.But Highlands made its biggest splash by opening Highland Bowl a few seasons ago and adding the Deep Temerity chairlift this winter. “Media interest in the Deep Temerity project has been phenomenal,” Chauner said.It’s a safe bet that Highlands will be a darling of ski industry media coverage for next season.Highlands’ increase in business has come somewhat at the expense of Aspen Mountain. Some longtime aficionados of Ajax say that more people at Highlands, especially on powder days, has meant fewer on Aspen Mountain. Kaplan concurred.One patroller said during a gondola ride last month that the running joke among employees on Ajax is that “the best improvement on Aspen Mountain this year is a new lift at Highlands.”Highlands still isn’t close to its glory days. Since the Skico took over operations there, the best season was 2004-05, with 167,390 skier visits.That’s about half the record numbers the ski area pulled in during the heyday of founder and former operator Whipple Van Ness Jones. Highlands had 320,790 skier visits in 1975-76 and almost 300,000 the season before.Returning to those levels will be difficult, regardless of the popularity of the new terrain and the Deep Temerity chairlift, Skico officials concede. But Chauner is confident he can build on the recent success.”Highlands could easily do a couple hundred thousand per year and still be comfortable,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com