Snowmass looks for strong start, last pieces of puzzle coming together | AspenTimes.com

Snowmass looks for strong start, last pieces of puzzle coming together

A good start to the ski season is suggesting Snowmass will be able to erase the tough 2017-18 campaign from memory.

While Aspen Skiing Co. struggled to get terrain open at Snowmass at the beginning of last season, it's starting with a bang this season. Skico anticipates opening at least 475 acres, including terrain on the Big Burn, Sam's Knob and Elk Camp. Sam's Smokehouse and Elk Camp restaurant also will open for the season, while Up 4 Pizza will be open Thursdays through Sundays until begining daily service Dec. 6.

"It's going to be a good opening," said Steve Sewell, who is retiring next month as Snowmass mountain manager. "It's been a long time since we've been able to open the Burn on Thanksgiving."

Sewell seemed to express what a lot of Roaring Fork Valley skiers and snowboarders have been thinking when he said below average snowfall last season has stoked anticipation for this season.

“It’s going to be a good opening.” Steve Sewell, Snowmass Mountain Manager

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Mother Nature has cooperated thus far, dropping temperatures cold enough for consistent snowmaking and adding regular doses of natural snow. Scores of skiers took advantage of good early-season conditions last weekend by using climbing skins to ascend Sam's Knob and the Big Burn.

The lifts will start spinning as scheduled Thanksgiving morning.

Some "old-school" ski area techniques helped get the Big Burn open for the start of the season, according to Sewell. One trail crew was dedicated to picking rocks off the trails on the Burn from mid-June to mid-October while another cleared willow bushes and other brush. Without those efforts, there probably wouldn't be enough snow at this point to open the Big Burn, Sewell said.

The good snow conditions coincide with significant progress at Snowmass Base Village, which has been years in the making. There will be a grand opening celebration of the $600-million-dollar Base Village and Skico's Limelight Hotel on Dec. 15. It will include a climbing competition on the new, five-story climbing wall at the Limelight plus the first Bud Light Hi-Fi concert of the season, featuring Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.

The Limelight will be open to guests starting Dec. 14. With 99 hotel rooms and 11 residences, it's expected to generate significant business for Snowmass over the course of the season.

Sewell, who has been the mountain manager at Snowmass since 2006, said the opening of the Limelight and other buildings at Base Village are "the last piece of the puzzle" needed for Snowmass to blossom.

"I think the hill, if not the best, is one of the very best in North America," he said.

Now after construction delays, the base will be able to match the hill. Skico has chipped away at mountain improvements over the past 15 years. Construction resumed at the base area after a joint venture between Skico, KSL Capital Partners, and East West Partners acquired the lucrative property in December 2016.

Each of Skico's four ski areas has a niche. Snowmass is relied on to produce the big numbers of skier visits. The company doesn't release skier visit data for individual mountains anymore, but Snowmass traditionally has pulled in more than Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk combined. In 1997-98, Snowmass racked up 884,000 skier and snowboarder visits for the season, according to data posted by Colorado Ski Country USA, a ski trade association. That was Snowmass' highest number for the seasons when data is available.

Last season, Skico's overall visits were down 7 percent because of low snowfall. Only Aspen Mountain managed to post a gain; Snowmass, Highlands and Buttermilk were all down compared with the prior season, Skico reported at the time.

"Last year we pulled out a pretty good season despite the lack of snow," Sewell said.

This season, he feels there will be growth again — if it keeps snowing and the national economy stays healthy. There's also a suspicion that the new Ikon Pass, which provides as many as seven days of skiing on the slopes of Aspen/Snowmass, will draw new customers. The Ikon Pass is being sold by Alterra Mountain Co., an affiliate of Aspen Skiing Co. The Crown family of Chicago, who wholly own Skico, are part of the ownership group of Alterra.

"I think we'll have some people who have never skied here before try it," Sewell said.

The guest reservations on the books as of Oct. 31 indicate the winter months are pacing 0.7 percent ahead of last season at the same point in the year, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations business owned by Skico. December and January are pacing behind those months last season. February and March are pacing ahead.

Skico and lodging partners are using promotion to try to drive business in those early months.

"The next 30 days will be very telling with how December fills, now that opening day is upon us," said a statement from the Stay Aspen Snowmass staff.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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