Planning to start on expanded snowmaking, Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain

This map shows the general line Aspen Skiing Co. considered in the past for a new chairlift that would serve the Pandora's terrain on Aspen Mountain.
Aspen Skiing Co. image |

Aspen Skiing Co. will start the planning process this year for extended snowmaking on Aspen Mountain and expansion into the Pandora’s area, but construction of any projects remains years away, according to a company official.

Skico will work this summer on an updated Aspen Mountain Master Development Plan — a sort of blueprint or wish list of upgrades it wants to pursue, according to Rich Burkley, the company’s vice president of mountain operations.

Skico’s highest priority at Aspen Mountain is to extend the snowmaking system to the top of the mountain, Burkley said. Snowmaking currently stops on the Deer Park trail, above the bottom terminal of the Ajax Express Chairlift.

Burkley explained in the past that Skico wants to install infrastructure to allow snowmaking on the 1 & 2 Leaf and Silver Bell trails. The goal is to extend snowmaking from the bottom to top of the ski area.

Such a system probably would allow Skico to open more terrain sooner in dry early conditions like this season. Aspen Mountain couldn’t open on Thanksgiving as scheduled because of a lack of snow.

Pandora’s expansion plan

The master development plan also will outline the conceptual plan for expansion into the Pandora’s area, which has long been considered by Skico.

The company resolved land ownership issues on the upper eastern side of the ski area in 2015 and 2016. That was a critical first step in pursuing the addition of terrain on skier’s right of the Walsh’s trail.

Skico has looked at adding between 135 and 185 acres by opening new, low-angle terrain and extending the existing Walsh’s, Kristi’s and Hyrup’s trails farther down slope. They would be served by a new chairlift.

“We are looking to add as much intermediate terrain as possible given the contour of the area,” Burkley said in an email. “Obviously the Walsh’s wall extends to the south and presents a challenge. We will work on a trail from the north (bottom of North Star) that will hopefully be intermediate and access most of the terrain below Lud’s Lane.”

Lud’s Lane is a catwalk that leads skiers and snowboarders out of the lower slopes of Walsh’s and the other trails in the vicinity.

The terrain is in Skico’s Aspen Mountain ski-area permit boundary, but it isn’t actively managed. The area is a popular side-country destination for skiers and snowboarders.

Skico also has kicked around the idea of replacing the Bell Mountain and Gent’s Ridge chairlifts with a single, relocated chair.

“We don’t have a plan for replacing Bell and Gent’s, however, we will when we submit the master development plan to the Forest Service,” Burkley said.

Lengthy review process

The Forest Service requires a master development plan so it can keep current with ski areas’ long-term visions for use of public lands. Many ski areas use national forest lands for their operations.

Even if a master plan is accepted by the agency, applications for specific projects — such as the expanded snowmaking system and Pandora terrain expansion — must be submitted and reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Skico officials hope to have the draft master development plan accepted by the Forest Service before the end of 2017, Burkley said. He stressed it could be years before Skico secures approvals and is ready to proceed with projects on Aspen Mountain. Replacing Lift 1A “might supersede” the other projects, he noted.

If the city of Aspen approves the Gorsuch Haus hotel this year, it would trigger an agreement between the developer and Skico to replace the chairlift within a certain timeframe.

Hoping to roll at Snowmass

Meanwhile, Skico won’t be sitting around. The company is awaiting approvals of two major projects at Snowmass.

The White River National Forest released a draft environmental impact statement in November for the Snowmass Multi-Season Recreation Project. Skico’s proposal would enhance summer recreation by adding hiking and biking trails, an alpine coaster ride, a canopy tour and zip line, a ropes challenge course and a climbing wall in the Elk Camp section of the ski area.

The Forest Service announced it intends to issue a final environmental impact statement this spring. That would, in theory, allow Skico to pursue construction of some of the amenities this summer.

Burkley said Skico officials don’t presume they will get approvals and aren’t speculating on construction plans before the approvals are in hand. However, should they come, Skico will start construction on some of the summer amenities this year, he said. A lot of the work will depend on how quickly the snowpack melts, he said. If the snowpack lasts well into summer, Skico won’t be able to accomplish as much as it would like this year.

In a separate application, Skico is seeking Forest Service approval to expand the on-mountain restaurant Sam’s Smokehouse and build a new ski patrol headquarters adjacent to the restaurant at Sam’s Knob.

“We would definitely replace the patrol headquarters this summer if given permission,” Burkley said. “Sam’s expansion is less likely and also would play into how many projects on the east side we’ve started.”

While Snowmass has always been Skico’s bread-and-butter mountain because of its capacity to absorb customers, the company’s interest in enhancing the ski area became even greater after it reacquired undeveloped property at Base Village with partners last year.