Aspen Skiing Co. anticipates engaging in a season-long campaign to remind skiers and riders that things aren’t what they used to be in the Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain.
Unlike in years past, people cannot dive into the sidecountry terrain whenever they want. The Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol is spending time on avalanche mitigation exercises in anticipation of 150 acres and a high-speed quad chairlift being added to Aspen Mountain’s operational boundary next season.
Ropes have been placed and two access gates were added this season as well as two exit gates for re-entry into the ski area.
“As far as skiing this year goes, our focus is on learning how to control and mitigate avalanche risk on the new terrain,” SkiCo Senior Vice President of Planning and Development Chris Kiley told Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday. “So patrol is really focused on getting in there and learning.”
On numerous occasions so far this season, the patrol has run experiments using explosives to trigger slides to see how the snow reacts. That work will continue when front-side duties don’t keep the patrol occupied.
“When those gates are open, people can go in and ski in the Pandora’s area,” Kiley said. “When those gates are closed, we’re asking people to stay out of that because patrol is in there learning how to do avalanche control and otherwise learning the ins and outs of the property.”
SkiCo received approval last year from Pitkin County to add the Pandora’s terrain on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. The U.S. Forest Service had previously given a green light. SkiCo crews cleared timber off the lift line for the future chairlift last summer as well as cleared one traditional trail and thinned some glades. Kiley said dead, diseased and dying trees were felled from 20 acres, mulched and spread over the terrain to accelerate revegetation.
Another 33 truckloads of timber were removed from the site. Some of the timber was used by the nonprofit Farm Collaborative to build new structures at its campus at Cozy Point Ranch. Three loads of firewood were donated to residents on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Remaining timber was delivered to a regional mill for use in various products, Kiley said.
In an annual check-in session between officials with SkiCo and Pitkin County, Commissioner Greg Poschman said he is concerned that skiers and riders who are unaware that Pandora’s is backcountry terrain might be venturing in there this season because the future trails are more visible.
“It’s almost like it’s creating a nuisance by (clearing) these trails but not opening them for business yet,” Poschman said. “The biggest concern is that somebody goes in and gets caught in an avalanche back there because Pandora’s is calling them. How comfortable are you with the way this is being managed so we can do our absolute best to avoid that?
SkiCo President and CEO Mike Kaplan said it is definitely treated by the company as backcountry terrain.
“It’s roped and signed that way,” he said. “We’re trying to reinforce that message. Now when you look over it’s easier to see. It’s really important that people, as always, obey all closures. Know before you go if you’re going to leave the ski area.”
Experienced Roaring Fork Valley residents have skied Pandora’s terrain for decades and many know the terrain as well as the inbounds trails. But there has been greater visitation to the terrain the last decade or so as sidecountry and backcountry skiing gains popularity. Not all of those visitors are ready for the challenge.
“We had people back there (this season) that probably shouldn’t have been,” Kaplan said. “We get that every year.”
Next season the terrain will be patrolled and controlled. SkiCo has ordered the lift and anticipates its installation this summer. Further thinning of glades will be undertaken. It will be the first significant expansion of Aspen Mountain’s operational boundary since Walsh’s was added about 40 years ago.
“All of the (Pandora’s) terrain is above 10,000 feet in elevation and is situated in an ideal aspect for holding early- and late-season snow,” Kiley said.
SkiCo’s annual check-in also included an update on the base area renovations at Buttermilk. SkiCo lost its race to get the new, 9,300-square-foot skier services building finished by Christmas but it’s on track to get a certificate of occupancy this week and move in equipment needed for the ticketing office, ski school, equipment rentals and other guest services. The building will be operating in time for X Games later this month.
The new facility replaces an ancient structure known simply as the green building.
“We are almost there,” Kiley said. “We finally got rid of our oldest, stinkiest building in our fleet, the green building.”
The project was 20 years in the making. “It’s been a full-on sprint since last April to get this done,”Kiley said.
Problems getting materials and labor issues were among the hurdles that had to be crossed. The result will be worth it, according to Kiley.
“That is going to be a beacon particularly for the never-ever skier who shows up at Buttermilk and doesn’t know anything about skiing other than they want to learn,” he said “We think it’s really going to simplify and improve that first impression of skiing.”
The other big improvement at Buttermilk was the renovation inside and out of the former Bumps restaurant building, now known as the Buttermilk Mountain Lodge. It’s got a fresh appearance, including an expanded bar and patio. Garage doors open to the patio and provide great views of Buttermilk’s superpipe. The work was completed prior to Christmas.
Appliances are being changed out to make the kitchen all-electric.
“This building is really set up for the next 20 to 30 years,” Kiley said.
All told, SkiCo spent about $23 million on the Buttermilk base renovations.
Commissioner Patti Clapper noted one small problem with the project.
“We tried to rename Buttermilk before,” she said, referring to an effort SkiCo officials launched in the early 1990s to replace the Buttermilk name with Tiehack. The effort fell flat and was abandoned.
Clapper said the same will happen with the renaming of the restaurant. “It’s still going to be Bumps,” she said.
By Scott Condon I Aspen Daily News I Jan 18, 2023