‘Soon’ is a relative term when talking ski terrain expansions

Lauren Glendenning
The Aspen Times

Eyes lit up when Aspen Skiing Co. Chief Operating Officer David Perry said to a room of more than 200 people at Thursday’s Aspen Chamber Resort Association presentation that the Pandora’s expansion project would be entering the U.S. Forest Service’s National Environmental Policy Act process “soon.”

The Aspen Mountain terrain-expansion project has been in Skico’s master plan for years, but it’s a complex project, said Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations.

And “soon” is a relative term as far as ski-terrain expansions go. Burkley said Friday that the project has been on Skico’s list for decades, but the reality is that it’s still “many years away.”

“Even internally, we don’t have a timeline,” he said.

Skico’s next step would be to send a letter to the Forest Service requesting the project, which would kick off the roughly two-year-long National Environmental Policy Act process. That’s the step Perry referred to at the chamber event, but there’s still no definitive timeline for when that part of the process might begin.

Something that could derail movement on Pandora’s is Lift 1A, which Burkley said “is still in the mix right now.”

The aging two-seater Lift 1A has been a bit of a sore subject for Skico over the past year. In June, the International Ski Federation told Skico officials that Aspen needs to make an upgrade to the lift or risk losing the World Cup Finals, scheduled to take place here in March 2017.

Earlier this year, Skico officials said they wouldn’t replace the lift until a comprehensive plan was in place for the Aspen base area where the lift sits. Burkley reiterated The two landowners near the base of the lift are meeting regularly about development plans for the area, and Skico is waiting to see what they come up with before it gets serious about a 1A replacement.

“We don’t want to put the lift in a place where you’re building a hotel — that wouldn’t make sense,” Burkley said. “Once they have a plan, we will address the lift. If (1A) comes up sooner, it would be a priority and would push Pandora’s back.”

When asked if 1A could be replaced in time for the World Cup Finals, Burkley said there’s always hope, but it’s a long shot. Once the development plans are in place for the base area, Skico would move quickly, though.

“I’m pathetically optimistic,” he said, adding that 1A would move to the top of the priority list as soon as base-area plans are more complete.

As for the Pandora’s project, a landownership issue has delayed progress for years, but that has been resolved. There was a mining claim that is now split, so Skico now officially owns the area where it wants to build a chairlift and another party owns the other side, Burkley said.

“That’s a huge first step,” he said. “That takes a big hurdle out of the way.”

When Skico does decide to file a project letter with the Forest Service to kick off the National Environmental Policy Act process, Burkley said that also would include adding snowmaking infrastructure up to the top of Aspen Mountain. Whether snowmaking or the Pandora’s project would happen first is up to Skico executives.

Once built, Pandora’s would add roughly 185 acres of open terrain to Aspen Mountain, which currently has 675 acres. A run would come in from the Northstar area and work its way to the bottom of the new lift via the lower part of the new terrain. The base terminal of the new lift would be a flat area that’s down and to the right, or southeast, of Walsh’s. The rock ridge on Richmond Ridge is where Burkley envisions the summit terminal.

The terrain includes low-angle — about a 25-degree pitch — gladed, rolling sections that would be perfect intermediate terrain, Burkley said.

The area is currently considered backcountry. While it’s in Skico’s permit boundary, it remains out of the current operating boundary. Backcountry skiers currently enter the terrain through a gate south of the upper terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola.