Silver anniversary for Aspen’s Silver Queen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN – The Silver Queen will celebrate her silver anniversary this ski season.

The Silver Queen Gondola was installed 25 years ago and opened in December 1986. Once in operation, it altered the skiing experience on Aspen Mountain and contributed to economic changes that swept the town in the next few years.

The biggest change was reducing the riding time from about 45 minutes on three open-air chairlifts to 14 minutes in enclosed cabins.

“You sort of had to pack a lunch to get to the top of Aspen Mountain,” said Bill Kane, who worked for Design Workshop 25 years ago and helped with the planning of The Little Nell hotel and the gondola plaza. The Skico’s five-star hotel opened in 1989, but the hotel, gondola and plaza were planned together.

Pre-gondola, skiers on the east side of the mountain loaded the short Little Nell Chair, hopped on the Bell Mountain Chair and then made it to the mountaintop on the predecessors of the current Gent’s Ridge and Ajax Express chairlifts, or they rode Chair 6 over to the Ruthie’s side of the mountain.

Skiers could also ride Lift 1A directly to the Ruthie’s chair.

The chairlifts always had long lift lines during busy times of the season. Skiers would stay on the upper half of the ski area once they rode out of the base.

“You didn’t want to go back down to the bottom and fight the lift lines,” Kane said.

Now, a lot of skiers and riders go from top to bottom, with some rarely riding any other chairlifts.

“People immediately started making [top-to-bottom] laps” once the gondola opened, Kane said. It makes so much sense now, but it wasn’t expected by Aspen Skiing Co. officials when they installed the gondola.

As a result, skiers could easily complete more runs and vertical feet in half the time. The speed of the gondola also entices some office-bound workers to make a lap or two on their lunch breaks.

Rich Burkley, the Skico’s vice president of mountain operations, said the gondola is easy to take for granted.

“It’s the backbone of mountain operations – period,” he said.

It’s been a dependable workhorse over the years, with closures due to mechanical reasons in the single-digit hours each season.

“Winds are a whole different game,” Burkley said.

The gondola gives the Skico flexibility on opening and closing dates because passengers can download when the snowpack isn’t beefy enough on the lower mountain.

It also enables the Skico to host night events at the Sundeck on the top of the mountain.

And, most important from a skier’s standpoint, it provides a lot of versatility.

“There are only a handful of machines in the U.S. that go up 1,000 meters,” Burkley said.

So skiers and riders can score nearly 3,000 vertical feet on each lap while only requiring a 14-minute lift ride. The beauty of the gondola is it easily accesses virtually all of the mountain, two of the exceptions being the top of Bell Mountain and the top of Ruthie’s. Aspen Mountain regulars often script their whole day based on variations they can make on laps using the gondola, Burkley said. Few other ski areas offer that flexibility.

The gondola also opened the mountain to a broader range of skiers. Intermediate skiers could ride the gondola up, access the blue trails on the upper half of the mountain and then ride the gondola back down without negotiating Spar Gulch.

Making the mountain more accessible was a wise business move by a company that wanted to boost its skier visits, but some expert skiers bristled at the change. They didn’t appreciate sharing the slopes with skiers of lesser ability.

The quality of the experience was altered more by adding the gondola than by opening the slopes to snowboarders more than a decade later, said longtime Aspen resident Carolann Jacobson Kopf. She said some expert skiers started going to Aspen Highlands more often once the gondola opened on Aspen Mountain.

Major portions of the Silver Queen Gondola have been replaced. The motor is the same, but much of the internal and external machinery has been replaced. The cabins were replaced in 2006 with roomier versions that seat passengers so they face one another. The old cabins had two seats of passengers back-to-back.

“I think the effect of the gondola on the mountain has been heightened since they replaced the cabins,” said Alan Richman, who was part of the city of Aspen-Pitkin County planning staff that reviewed the gondola and hotel in the 1980s. “These are much more social cabins.”

The gondola brought changes off the slopes, as well. Businesses clamored to be closer to the eastern portal to the mountain because the gondola attracted so many people. Residential real estate on the east half of town became more lucrative overnight – for better or worse.

“You started seeing ads about walking distance to the gondola,” Richman said. A location a few blocks from the base area was suddenly a big selling point.

The plaza and the gondola, Kane said, “really integrate the mountain with the town.” Prior to that, there was a “big, gnarly retaining wall” at the bottom of the Little Nell trail and some ramshackle buildings that housed a popular bar called Little Nell’s, a ski shop and other businesses.

“When the ski season would end, the mountain [base] was kind of out of sight, out of mind,” Kane said. Now there’s the open corridor from Durant Avenue through the plaza and up some stairs to the gondola.

Richman recalled that the gondola was widely embraced by Aspenites as a good idea, while The Little Nell hotel stirred much more controversy. Critics were concerned it would “wall off” the mountain. Others complained that it targeted an exclusive clientele.

The hotel received a favorable review from the planning staff.

“We felt we were working with a design of very high quality,” Richman said.

Jacobson Kopf, a longtime Aspen real estate agent, said the gondola had an effect on all real estate from the Roaring Fork River to Lift 1A. It was a “fun but low-rent district” where many residences that had been long-term rentals were suddenly much higher in demand as short-term units. Downtown condominiums became nearly exclusively short-term rentals.

The redevelopment of the ski-area base “had a huge effect on everything that Aspen is,” Jacobson Kopf said. The gondola wasn’t the only factor. Aspen’s real estate market was experiencing one of its red-hot periods then anyway. But the Skico’s investment spurred redevelopment of the residential neighborhoods in the downtown area.

“That’s when the million-dollar townhouse really kicked in,” Jacobson Kopf said.

Prior to the redevelopment, Kane said, the base area was becoming “frumpy.”

“It made Aspen Mountain very clearly the flagship mountain,” he said.