Elizabeth Milias: The Myth of Pandora’s: Just Open the Box
The Red Ant
It should not be controversial. This month, the Aspen Skiing Company anticipates the board of county commissioners’ decision on whether or not to approve a 153-acre addition to Aspen Mountain called “the Pandora’s terrain.” The last part of the 2017-era Aspen Mountain Master Plan, which has seen improvements to the Sundeck, reactivation approvals for Ruthie’s Restaurant and snowmaking to the top of Ajax, calls for the rezoning of this parcel. Currently zoned Rural and Remote, a change to Ski-Recreation zoning will enable the addition of 82 acres of 15 trails and another 71 acres of gladed terrain to the skiers’ right of Walsh’s at the top of Aspen Mountain, plus terrain that enables Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi to extend further down the mountain.
The addition will notably include a new, realigned, high-speed detachable quad chair to replace “the Couch,” eliminating the hike out of Walsh’s. This 22% increase in lift-served, north-facing, snow-retaining, expert terrain will also provide accessible glades for intermediates. Best of all, it will directly impact how skiers spread out across the mountain, by reducing top-to-bottom speed runs and alleviating the chokepoint at the mid-mountain Ajax Express. Think what Deep Temerity added to Aspen Highlands.
The addition of Pandora’s is not a new idea. It was originally featured nearly a quarter century ago on a 1997 master plan map, and later described in a White River National Forest plan for use as a ski area. By 2017, it became an official proposal. In early 2019, the new terrain and lift were unanimously approved by the county’s planning and zoning commission, but later that year, the board of county commissioners elected to move forward with the restaurant and snowmaking projects while separately reviewing the re-zoning details associated with Pandora’s. Just last week, county P&Z unanimously approved the rezoning so it now heads to the county commissioners.
Pitkin County created Rural and Remote zoning in 1994 to prevent growth and curtail development of privately-owned land in extremely isolated areas of the county. Later expanded, the zoning now protects thousands of acres throughout the county, including the 16,000 acres that comprise Richmond Ridge, site of the Pandora’s parcel. Former mayor Bill Stirling advocates for the terrain addition because Rural and Remote has been a resounding success, yet was “never designed to prevent the expansion of skiing.”
Much of the public objection falls into the NIMBY category, of course. There aren’t many neighbors up there, but while most are in support, one nearby landowner is fighting the addition because she perceives it as a threat to her serenity, never mind the constant activity of backcountry use in the immediate vicinity even in the winter: snowshoeing, snowmobiling and snow cats for powder tours. It’s an example of being against change because it’s change. Others, in the recreational snowmobile camp, question the changes because of the inevitable relocation of “the marina” where they park their sleds at the top of Ajax, incidentally a gracious amenity provided by SkiCo. (There will still be a marina.) And then there are those who’d prefer to keep the Pandora’s out-of-bounds terrain for themselves.
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Environmentally, timber removal for the addition will actually benefit the forest, as at least half of the impacted trees are dead, diseased or on the ground, a tinder box for Mother Nature. And when this area is cleaned up, the forest floor will return to its lush, green origins. And, the USFS environmental assessment concludes that wildlife in the area will not be adversely affected.
I recently hiked the upper terrain in question to get a visual and a feel for the space being considered. On a partly cloudy, late-June afternoon, I was notably taken aback by the close proximity of the proposed chairlift terminus and ski patrol headquarters to the back and easternmost side of the gondola. There too, between what is “inbounds” terrain today and the proposed addition, is quite the industrial operation. Aspen Skiing Company’s “cat farm” and diesel storage facility is not what anyone would seek out on a nature hike, but such infrastructure is vital to ski area operations. Mostly obscured in the winter, you’d hardly know it’s there unless you looked. It’s just noteworthy to point out that the parcel in question, despite being so zoned, is hardly in the middle of nowhere.
An unfortunate name indeed, Pandora’s. Noted in one of the most descriptive myths about human weakness, Pandora, whose curiosity led her to open a forbidden container that released evils and curses on mankind, is idiomatically referenced to explain the misfortunes of the human race. Incidentally or coincidentally the site of several out-of-bounds ski tragedies where the area’s tempting powder lines were irresistibly deadly, the Pandora’s terrain can perhaps soon lose this apocalyptic association.
As legend goes, Pandora, upon realizing what she had unleashed, quickly closed the box, trapping “hope” inside. It’s 2021, and we’re not in Ancient Greece. It’s time to open our Pandora’s box. There’s good stuff in there for everyone.
Colder temperatures hold the snow longer, so in the era of shorter winters, more terrain at the top means better skiing. Be vocal with your support. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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