Alan Richman: Guest opinion

Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

The “old school” opening of Aspen Mountain is a reminder of why the proposed plan to remove the Bell Mountain chair from Aspen Mountain and replace it with a short lift on the Back of Bell should be shelved. The Bell chair is proving once again that it is a critical link in Aspen Mountain’s lift system. Removal of the Bell chair would violate a fundamental principle of systems management, which is that a system needs diversity or redundancy to remain stable and effective.

The principle of system redundancy is the reason that water-system managers in cities such as Aspen require developers to install “loops” in the delivery system – the loops create redundant forms of service so one break does not take down the whole system. We can see how the lack of redundancy works (or actually does not work) on Aspen Mountain when we get a high-wind day.

Because some of the gondola towers are exposed to wind, there are usually a couple of days every season when the gondola shuts down. What this means is that guests and locals end up taking the Little Nell lift to 1A just to start their ski day. But 1A isn’t just an access portal; it’s the basic way skiers get to whole sections of the mountain such as the Dumps. So it gets return skiers and the combination of initial access, plus return skiers lead to a huge line at that slow lift and a not very pleasant experience for a guest who’s paying $100-plus per day.

So I believe that instead of removing the Bell chair, Aspen Skiing Co. should replace it with a high-speed double. I can hear Skico’s response to that already: “We’re not going to spend several million dollars for a new Bell Mountain chair just as insurance for the few days a year that there’s big wind or in the event of a drought like we are having this season.” Fair enough, if that were the only benefit of a high-speed Bell chair.

But an improved Bell chair would help to reinvigorate the whole skiing experience on Aspen Mountain. It is, after all, the company’s flagship mountain and one of the true jewels in all of skiing. So how would the chair improve the skiing experience?

1. Advanced skiers would be attracted to ride the speedy Bell chair and wouldn’t find it necessary to ski to the bottom every time they want to go to Bell Mountain or the Dumps, which offer the best skiing on the mountain. I don’t know about you, but my ski experience rarely is enhanced by skiing to the bottom, especially when Little Nell is icy or crowded. Moreover, were the Bell chair an attractive option, advanced skiers would be less likely to take up gondola seats that could be serving our everyday guests. Everybody would get a less crowded lift experience from a high-speed Bell chair. Visitors who arrive at the mountain a little later in the morning on a powder day wouldn’t have to face the hordes of locals who ski the midmountain bumps and then take the gondola, thereby delaying our guests from getting up to the top, where they want to ski.

2. Riding the faster Bell chair also would eliminate the need to go to the top just to ski Bell. That would avoid the conflicts we now see between advanced skiers heading down from the top to get to the traverse that goes to Bell and the intermediate skiers who want to do laps on the blue runs up top. That would create a better (and much safer!) ski experience for everyone using the mountain.

As if all of that were not enough, there’s one more point to consider: The Bell Mountain chair is one of the iconic chairlifts in North America. It has a 50-plus-year history of serving Aspen Mountain and is a part of this community’s heritage that simply cannot be allowed to disappear. Improving the lift would bring it back to life again, giving a whole new generation the chance to ride up Aspen Mountain the way we all once did. The lift should not be relegated to the past; it should be part of Aspen Mountain’s future as a high-speed lift.

I hope the powers that be consider all of this as they plan for the future of this great ski mountain.