Snowmass gets its gondola | AspenTimes.com

Snowmass gets its gondola

Elk Camp Gondola cabins dangle in the breeze, awaiting Saturday's inaugural run. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Aspen, CO ColoradoSNOWMASS There will be no more gondola envy in Snowmass.Snowmass will finally get a bucket Saturday after waiting for 39 years since its founding and 19 years after Aspen Mountain scored the Silver Queen Gondola.The new Elk Camp Gondola will be launched Saturday after a grand opening ceremony at 9:45 a.m. that is open to the pubic. The gondola, which features eight-passenger cabins, will make the trip from the base of Fanny Hill to the base of Elk Camp, on the east side of the ski area, in a little less than nine minutes.The gondola’s failure to go to the Snowmass summit has puzzled some observers. But Skico officials said in preseason interviews that the gondola’s alignment was selected for strategic reasons.

“We didn’t think there was a benefit to go to the top,” said Doug Mackenzie, the longtime general manager of Snowmass who is now director of special projects.Running the gondola to the bottom of Elk Camp rather than the top of that part of the mountain allows it to be utilized by beginners, said Steve Sewell, Snowmass mountain manager.The Skico wants to get beginners off the congested slopes of Fanny Hill. It has approvals from the U.S. Forest Service to build a new beginner park at Lower Turkey Trot, easily accessible from Elk Camp. That new beginner park, dubbed Elk Camp Meadows, is scheduled to be constructed next summer.Beginners will be able to ride the gondola up the mountain, spend the day at the beginner park, then ride the gondola back down. Enabling them to ride up the mountain on their first day on boards is expected to build their enthusiasm for the sport, Mackenzie said. And that could net the Skico more return customers.The bottom of Elk Camp currently has Cafe Suzanne, which is scheduled to be replaced with a new restaurant within the next few years.

Sewell said stopping the gondola at the bottom of Elk Camp also works to disperse skiers and riders better. Some intermediate skiers might want to ride up the Elk Camp high-speed quad while others might move down to the Alpine Springs pod of the mountain. On powder days, expert skiers and riders might shoot up the gondola to eventually access the Hanging Valley Wall terrain, even though it will still require three chairlift rides.Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said the new gondola will also relieve some of the pressure on the popular Big Burn portion of Snowmass. The presence of the gondola will draw more people to the east side of the mountain earlier in the day. Many will likely make their way across the mountain, back to the Big Burn and Campground.The gondola is also designed to relieve base area congestion, Kaplan said. The load will be divided between the gondola and six-passenger Village Express. It used to be concentrated on the Village Express, which is also at the base of Fanny Hill.Mackenzie said the Skico’s master plan for Snowmass and the Forest Service’s approval of the document also dictated the location of the gondola. Earlier approvals restricted the Skico from placing both the Elk Camp high-speed quad and the gondola at the top of Elk Camp. It would have saturated that pod of the mountain with too many skiers and riders.

Approvals would have allowed the chairlift to go to the top of Elk Camp and the gondola to go to the top of Burnt Mountain. That gondola alignment would have sparked opposition from environmentalists and it would have been difficult to get beginning skiers off Burnt Mountain.The Skico made the decision several years ago to upgrade the Elk Camp chairlift and keep its alignment.The Elk Camp Gondola was the Skico’s big-ticket item among $23 million in mountain improvements for this winter. The new cabins on the gondola were manufactured by Poma and painted in “Verkehrsscswarz Black,” according to an announcement by the Skico. The cabins have a shiny silver aspen leaf logo, similar to the new Silver Queen Gondola cabins on Aspen Mountain.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.