Skico prepares long-term plan for Aspen Mountain |

Skico prepares long-term plan for Aspen Mountain

Aspen Times fileThe Bell Mountain lift on Aspen Mountain, a slow-moving double chair, runs only on busy weekends.

ASPEN – As the Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of mountain operations, Rich Burkley gets paid, in part, to dream about what is possible with the ski areas. He’s got some big dreams for the east side of Aspen Mountain.

Burkley has a vision for long-term improvements – five to 10 years away – but he stresses that his ideas haven’t even been vetted internally yet, let alone approved by the U.S. Forest Service. Burkley is in the opening stages of working on an updated master plan for Aspen Mountain.

“The Master Plan is like a wish list of potential things to do in the next two decades, and [it] falls apart when a CFO asks ‘How many skiers will this bring?’ and I say ‘None,'” Burkley quipped.

Nevertheless, a guy can dream. Top on the Skico’s list of options is the new Pandora’s chairlift in the sidecountry terrain to the skier’s right, or south, of Walsh’s. That would open up intermediate and expert terrain for lift-served skiing.

“We hope to increase our intermediate offering and utilization on the east side of the hill,” Burkley said. “We are looking at scenarios that allow non-expert skiers to access the lower gladed terrain in Pandora’s.”

Roughly 85 acres of lift-served, intermediate terrain could be added.

“The area immediately below and to the right of Walsh’s is called Postcard – low-angle, gladed, rolling terrain that would be a great addition for the average Aspen Mountain guest,” he said.

The addition of the new intermediate terrain and a chairlift would also make existing intermediate terrain on the east side of the mountain more “desirable” and more popular, Burkley said.

Installing the Pandora’s chairlift would also add expert terrain and increase the vertical drop offering by the existing expert trails of Walsh’s, Kristi and Hyrup’s, according to Burkley.

The Pandora’s area is already heavily skied, with access via a gate south of the top terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola. The terrain has got a backcountry feel, even though it is easily accessible.

The Pandora’s area is within the ski area permit boundary but not part of the managed ski area. There are no formal trail signs, and it isn’t part of regular ski patrol sweeps. Skiers and riders who venture in there must veer left to cut back into the ski area, then negotiate the flat Lud’s Lane to get to the Gent’s Ridge chair, also known as the Couch.

The Pandora’s chairlift is part of the existing Aspen Mountain Master Plan, completed in 1997. In that plan, the Skico envisioned a fixed-grip four-passenger chairlift that would be about 4,250 feet long, with a vertical gain of 1,400 feet.

Installation of the Pandora’s chair isn’t a given. Burkley said the Skico will look at all sorts of options for the updated master plan – including leaving the east side of the mountain as it is.

Probably the most intriguing option is to add Pandora’s and add a new chairlift called Back of Bell, and remove the Gent’s Ridge and existing Bell chairlifts. Burkley said the Back of Bell chairlift would have a base terminal in an area he called Glade Zero, uphill from the Glade 1 trail, on a shelf to the skier’s right as the Copper trail starts to get steep. The upper terminal would be just above the top of the Knowlton’s trail.

The existing Bell lift is a slow-moving double chair that the Skico typically operates only on weekends during the busiest times of the ski season. The Gent’s Ridge chair is a fixed-grip quad chairlift famous for its slow speed.

“Both are mechanically sound at this time, but we do replace chairs sooner than most resorts,” Burkley said. “We can keep anything running for as long as need to, but at a certain point it doesn’t make financial sense.”

Aspen Ranger District of the Forest Service must approve amendments to the Aspen Mountain Master Plan. Burkley said the office wants the Skico to discuss options – such as any possible new chairlifts – with the public before submitting a proposal to the Forest Service. The agency doesn’t want to referee any controversial issues.

The Skico will hold public meetings on the master plan options this summer and fall, though it has not selected dates yet, Burkley said.

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