On a bluebird day in late March, ski patrol director Tessa Dawson stretches her arm toward a tantalizing swath of powder dotted with lodgepole pines that spills down Aspen Mountain. She’s showing off Hero’s: 153 acres of new groomers, glades, and steeps that will increase the resort’s acreage by more than 20 percent when it debuts this winter. “We haven’t added terrain on Aspen Mountain in a long, long time,” Dawson says. In fact, Hero’s is the biggest thing that’s happened here since the Silver Queen Gondola started spinning in 1985.
Skiers and boarders will certainly enjoy the extra space and new high-speed quad chair, but there’s a grimmer reason for the expansion: climate change. “The threat is extreme,” says Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company’s senior vice president of sustainability. “Without drastic changes, I believe the ski industry will look radically different in 50 years. There will still be skiing to be had, but it will be scarce.” To that end, in 2019, the four largest North American ski companies—Powdr Corporation, Vail Resorts, Boyne Resorts, and Alterra Mountain Company (the hospitality venture Aspen Skiing Company partners with)—banded together to create the Mountain Collaborative for Climate Action (MCCA). Under its umbrella, they’ve pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and “advocate for climate action through federal, state, and local policies,” among other vague goals. Critics have panned the effort as a public relations stunt lacking any real teeth.
To preserve the on-mountain experience while they campaign for climate solutions, many resorts have ramped up their snowmaking capabilities and switched to renewable energy, but Hero’s is an example of how far ski resorts may have to go to protect their futures. Sitting almost entirely above 10,000 feet on Aspen’s shady northeastern aspect (Aspen’s base area is at 7,945 feet), Hero’s cooler, high-mountain terrain should hold snow longer as ski seasons shorten and temperatures rise, which, in the best-case scenario, might be by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. That timeline may seem distant, but the Rocky Mountains’ snowpack already declined by 41 percent on average between 1982 and 2016.
SkiCo’s $9 million endeavor wasn’t without opposition. Some locals bemoaned the commercialization of a favorite out-of-bounds powder stash. Others worry about possible harm to the wetlands below Hero’s and to wildlife, in particular the potential disturbance of elk calving grounds. “We have four ski areas, we are known to have some of the shortest lift lines in the entire state, and Aspen Skiing Company is very environmentally focused,” says Aspen City Councilman John Doyle, “so I just didn’t understand why [the expansion] was necessary.” After a contested approval process, including environmental reviews, revisions, and a PR campaign to rally local support for the project, the Pitkin County Commission voted three to one to greenlight the expansion in November 2021.
Despite the victory, Hero’s is still just a Band-Aid, not a cure. “We all love skiing, and that’s why we’re here,” Dawson says. “But how do we evolve to exist in the future?” That’s the question the ski industry is still confronting as a warming world threatens its existence. Right now, those concerns seem far away on top of Aspen Mountain. As if to prove it, Dawson flips her skis downhill and arcs a graceful telemark turn through some fresh, boot-topping snow. For the moment, winter is still alive and well.
What’s New In Ski Country
Five fresh reasons to wax your planks and boards.
The boutique Mollie Aspen hotel will open in December on the site of the old Molly Gibson lodge and comes complete with a rooftop pool and lobby bar by Gin & Luck, the folks behind the award-winning Death & Co cocktail bars.
2. Breckenridge Ski Resort
The Peak 8 base area’s makeover continues with the conversion of 5-Chair, its last slow-speed lift, into a high-speed quad, a welcome upgrade for the mountain’s most notoriously crowded loading zone.
3. Keystone Resort
A high-speed six-pack will now whisk skiers to the Bergman and Erickson bowls, 550 acres of intermediate and expert terrain that was previously only accessible by slinging your skis over your shoulders and hoofing it.
4. Steamboat Ski Resort
When Steamboat drops the inaugural rope on Mahogany Ridge this season—the culmination of a three-year, $220 million expansion—the roughly 650-acre ski zone will make the resort Colorado’s second-largest behind Vail. The mountain’s new Wild Blue Gondola will also be North America’s longest and fastest 10-person gondola.
The Grand—formerly known as the National, Telluride’s hottest eatery—is moving to a bigger space on Main Street this winter (date TBD). But don’t worry: Legendary barman “Diamond” Dave Derinzy will still serve some of the best cocktails in ski country at the new digs.
Kelley Manley | 5280.com | November 2023