Pandora’s is not unknown terrain to many local skiers, but it does take a hike to get there. But maybe not for too much longer.
An expansion of the ski area boundary is one of four key elements Aspen Skiing Company will consider this summer as work progresses on a new management plan for Aspen Mountain. SkiCo officials are mapping out the mountain’s next two decades, including four major projects: Replace 1A, reopen Ruthie’s restaurant, expand lift-served terrain for intermediate skiers and priority number one: “As soon as possible, we’d put in snowmaking to the top,” said Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s vice president of mountain operations.
We’re standing at the top of the NASTAR course on Aspen Mountain, near the intersection of 1 & 2 Leaf and Deer Park. It’s not common, but there are times when, right around Thanksgiving, when skiers are hoping to hit the slopes, there’s a layer of groomed snow up to this point. And then dirt.
Expanded snowmaking, Burkley said, “would fix that.”
Current snowmaking operations end well before the top of the mountain. Burkley said expanding snowmaking is not about being able to open early, but rather to open, period.
Ski resorts are increasingly reliant on man-made snow, but in a warmer climate, it may not be cold enough to make snow at the bottom of the mountain.
“However, your odds are that you’re going to have 27 and below at the top of the mountain versus at the bottom,” Burkley explained. “So it may give us the ability to get open in a year where it’s warm.”
It also means getting water to the top of the mountain. SkiCo’s snowmaking supply comes from the City of Aspen, the same supply that brings water to taps. That means the water has to get from town up to the top of the mountain, which is a seriously energy-intensive process.
“I’d do anything I could to stop lifting water 3,000 feet,” Burkley said.
But there’s not much he can do to store water higher on the mountain. An expansion would mean using a total of about 70 or 80 million gallons of water to make snow on Aspen Mountain each season; the small storage pond at the base of the Gent’s Ridge Lift holds about 3 million gallons.
“That is our bonus water – 3 million gallons, which is very little,” Burkley said. “It can go in four hours, and then we pump it back up. So, it’s horrible.”
Environmental concerns like this are important to Ski Co — and in part because the U.S. Forest Service has to sign off on the management plan. If it is accepted, each project would have to go through separate environmental review. Roger Poirier oversees mountain sports for the White River National Forest.
In the case of snowmaking, he said there are a few foreseeable environmental concerns.
“We’re protecting stream courses,” Poirier said. “We’re making sure that all that snowmaking isn’t causing erosion below or going to cause slope failure.”
Wildlife and impacts to the watershed are primary concerns for the Forest Service. That analysis is still months or years down the road, and maybe even further for an expansion into sidecountry.
From the Walsh’s ski run, you can clearly see the area tagged for new trails. It’s beyond Walsh’s but before McFarland’s, a sidecountry area on Richmond Ridge.
A new lift would start about 200 feet below the bottom of Walsh’s or Lud’s Lane and end on Richmond Ridge, a few hundred feet above the top of the gondola.
It’s likely at least five years away, Burkley said, but eventually the hope is to add 185 acres in the Pandora’s area. It would mean about 30 percent more terrain in the ski area, and would push the boundary to the limits of the Forest Service permit.
Most of it would be wide, groomed trails for intermediate skiers.
“And then the rest of the terrain would be heavily gladed,” Burkley said, which would mean a 30 to 40 percent reduction in trees.
Across the ski industry, Aspen Skiing Company has a reputation as a leader on environmental issues, and cutting trees is a concern.
“Increasing your acreage certainly increases all of the negatives,” Burkley said, but he added that a 30 percent reduction in trees wouldn’t really have that much impact.
“We lose terrain every year because we have more forest growth than we have trees taken out,” he said.
Poirier said this is difficult to measure, but the Forest Service is working with SkiCo on conceptual ideas and is likely to support an expansion. This part of the forest is designated for recreation — and too much growth is unlikely in Aspen anyway.
“I think these are mature resorts that are looking at fine tuning rather than major development,” Poirier said.
Ski Co plans to submit the new Aspen Mountain Master Plan this summer.