Skico: Expanded snowmaking system saved opening day on Aspen Mountain

More terrain could open soon with snowmaking occurring on frigid nights

Sledders ride down freshly made snow under the Silver Queen Gondola ignoring the “no sledding or tubing” rule on Aspen Mountain on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Aspen Skiing Co. will continue snowmaking operations with the goal of achieving top-to-bottom skiing as soon as possible. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen Skiing Co.’s investment in an expanded snowmaking system on Aspen Mountain prior to the 2019-20 winter is already paying big dividends.

Skico senior vice president for mountain operations Katie Ertl said Monday that the opening of ski season probably would have been delayed if not for snowmaking. Instead, Aspen Mountain will open with 50 acres on the upper part of the mountain while 7 acres will open at the Elk Camp Meadows beginners’ area at Snowmass.

“Having that snowmaking up high has been a lifesaver for us,” Ertl said Monday. “I don’t think we could have done it without snowmaking this year.”

Skico added snowmaking infrastructure on about 20 acres of the Silver Bell Trail, between the summit and where the old system ended on the Deer Park Trail. Under the right conditions, the system also allows the snowmaking guns on the east side of Silver Bell to cover some terrain on Upper Copper Trail.

“We can swivel the guns that are on Silver Bell and point them over and get some overflow onto Upper Copper,” Ertl said.

Even with the expanded snowmaking system, getting enough coverage for an opening was a challenge. Nighttime temperatures remained higher than average until late last week.

“What we’ve seen is just brief periods of nighttime temperatures (low enough),” Ertl said. “What that gives us is between an 8- and 12-hour window of time. With the warmer temperatures, we’ve actually had nights where we just couldn’t fire up.”

A sign outside of the home of the self-named “Porch Girls” is displayed days before Aspen Mountain is slated to open with mandatory uploading and downloading on the Silver Queen Gondola in Aspen on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Aspen Skiing Co. will continue snowmaking operations with the goal of achieving top-to-bottom skiing as soon as possible. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Opening day

Aspen Mountain will open the season Thanksgiving Day with 50 acres of terrain on portions of the Silver Bell, Upper Copper, Lazy Boy and Deer Park trails. The Ajax Express chairlift will operate for skiing and riding while the Silver Queen Gondola will be used for uploading and downloading. The lifts will spin from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The Sundeck will be open for food and drinks.

Tickets are $149 for adults and $99 for children, teens and seniors. Sightseeing tickets are $40 for adults and $30 for children, teens and seniors.

Snowmass will open 7 acres of terrain at the Elk Camp Meadows beginners’ area. The Elk Camp Gondola will provide access to the terrain as well as the Breathtaker Coaster and Elk Camp Restaurant. A small terrain park will open on Fanny Hill and a climbing wall will open afternoons at the Limelight Hotel Snowmass.

Access to Snowmass will be free Thursday and Friday. Beginning Saturday, the gondola will be $40 for adults and $30 for children, teens and seniors.

Aspen Mountain is currently closed for uphill travel due to ski area preparation. The other three mountains are open to uphill travel to people who purchased the uphill pass, a new $69 requirement this season.

Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk are scheduled to open Dec. 11.

The thermometer has changed to Skico’s advantage. Cold temperatures are forecast the next four nights. There’s also the possibility of natural snow falling late Tuesday into Wednesday.

Skico has touted high elevation snowmaking as a way to adapt to warmer temperatures and less snow expected from climate change. Skico’s master plan for Aspen Mountain includes more snowmaking coverage at the mountaintop. The U.S. Forest Service and Pitkin County have approved the general concept. Additional approval is necessary for further expansion, Ertl said.

At Snowmass, most of the snowmaking system is on the lower slopes. Skico is updating its master plan for the mammoth ski area (3,332 acres) and will consider proposing expansion of the snowmaking system. Expansion projects would need specific approval.

Ertl said it is clear that expanded snowmaking is necessary for climate adaptation.

“This year in particular has shown us that having snowmaking up high is of value,” she said. “We are seeing that we can open the gondola and have skiing up top even when we can’t get skiing down to the base yet.”

Snowmaking guns blow snow on the Little Nell run on Aspen Mountain on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

For the immediate future, Ertl is optimistic that a few more nights of frigid temperatures will strengthen chances of opening more terrain.

“(Sunday) night it got so cold, we blew a couple million gallons (of water) on Aspen Mountain,” Ertl said. “If we can have nights like that, we’re going to try to connect top to bottom. If we get the right temperatures, the hope would be we’d begin to see that (additional terrain) over the weekend or early next week.”

All told, the snowmaking system can cover between 150 and 180 acres on Aspen Mountain, she noted.

“We will need a lot more, maybe 12 to 15 inches of natural snow, to open extra terrain beyond that,” Ertl said.

At Snowmass, the goal is to cover terrain to offer skiing from the top of the Village Express chairlift down to the base.