Skico managers explain opening-day obstacles |

Skico managers explain opening-day obstacles

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times staff writer

Every skier who was on Aspen Mountain on Saturday now has a good story to tell, including Mike Kaplan, the senior vice president of mountain operations, and Steve Sewell, the Aspen Mountain manager.

On Monday, Kaplan and Sewell sent a letter to the editor (see page 9) explaining a bit more about what happened on a day that saw a stalled lift, huge lift lines, a rushed opening of Spar Gulch and the Face of Bell, a sketchy opening of Little Nell, and hordes of skiers and snowboarders violating trail closures.

“For many of you, a spectacular early opening day was not as perfect as we all wanted it to be,” the pair write in their letter. “We were not our best on Saturday and we apologize for that.”

The letter clarifies that the Gent’s Ridge chair, which was stopped for long periods twice during the day, did indeed have a slight problem on Friday, “but was fixed and appeared to be running well that afternoon and Saturday morning.”

Kaplan in an interview explained that on Friday the Aspen Mountain lift mechanics thought there was a frozen “stop switch” on the lift.

“It turned out it was a deeper problem,” he said. “But we didn’t know that until we had a full load. That’s the tough thing about opening day. There can be a minor issue and you don’t know it until the circuits get fully stressed with a full load, which you are not going to see until you open.”

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On a normal day, a stalled lift doesn’t have the same repercussions it did on Saturday, when the Gent’s Ridge lift and trail system was being run as a dead-end situation and there was only one other lift open for repeat skiing.

That led first to a rogue tour for a maze full of skiers down Jackpot around 10 a.m., when the lift first went down, then to a huge crowd at the Ajax Express lift at noon, and then to a rebellion at the Gent’s Ridge “Couch” lift when it stalled for a second time in the early afternoon.

Could the Aspen Skiing Co. have done things differently?

“Yes,” Kaplan said, acknowledging that having 3,500 people on 170 acres was not ideal. “We underestimated that.”

The Skico considered opening the Snowmass ski area for a second weekend of skiing along with Ajax, but that was an expensive proposition, especially given the sparse number of lift-ticket-buying skiers expected in town, with all due respect for and appreciation of season-pass holders, Kaplan added.

“If you look at it from a business standpoint, opening two mountains is not realistic in that situation,” Kaplan said.

Could other lifts and terrain have been opened on Ajax? The limiting factor there was the World Cup races coming up next week.

Aspen Mountain’s snowmaking system does not have the capacity to make snow on the race course and make snow on Spar Gulch and Little Nell at the same time.

If Ajax hadn’t opened early this season, that may not have mattered, as there probably would have been time this season to finish the course and then to finish Spar and Nell by Thanksgiving. But with the early opening, it left the main channel off the mountain in thin condition.

And the Ruthie’s lift and trail system was also not an option to open last weekend because race crews and snowmaking crews were still busy on the race course.

In addition, the Skico was not planning on opening the mountain for top-to-bottom skiing last weekend. But it snowed Thursday night and on Friday crews made some snow on Nell. So on Saturday, Kaplan said, the mountain plan changed in an effort to get more terrain open.

After opening Walsh’s and with Back of Bell 1 open, the plan was to quietly prepare Spar and Nell for skiers and then go for a “soft opening” of the Face of Bell, meaning the patrol would subtly start turning closed signs around and then let the powder hounds follow their highly sensitive noses.

“We intentionally refrained from officially announcing the opening of that terrain to avoid a long line-up of people waiting for the ropes to drop, which we thought might produce the dreaded “Chinese Downhill” effect,” Kaplan and Sewell write in their letter.

Ironically, as all hell was breaking loose on the upper mountain in the wake of the Couch stopping, many of the mountain’s patrollers were in Spar and on Nell preparing for the “soft opening.”

They encountered a torrent of poachers coming out of the “Couch Rebellion” and then later saw a frenzied mob anyway when the Face did open.

“We had a plan,” Kaplan said. “The real gum in the works was Gent’s Ridge going down. If it had stayed up, we would have stayed ahead of the thirst.”

But that thirst for powder left some people high and dry. Kaplan said about 10 season passes were pulled on Saturday for violation of closures, and that typically passes are pulled for two weeks.

He also said that the employees working on the mountain that day were doing all they could to give the powder to the people.

“They were doing their best to make things available for the pass holders,” he said. “That’s why Sewell wanted to push to open the Face on Saturday and the Copper side on Sunday.”

Which is pretty much what happened, despite the circus atmosphere and the high exasperation level on Saturday.

Kaplan said at the end of the day as people came off the mountain, he expected to get chewed out more than he did.

“You could see some frustration on people’s faces, but a lot of them came up and said ‘Thanks for opening early,'” Kaplan said. “It wasn’t a perfect day, but in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty awesome.”

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