Aspen Mountain opens for ski season, gets big boon from surprise storm |

Aspen Mountain opens for ski season, gets big boon from surprise storm

Ajax opened Thursday morning with about 100 acres of skiable terrain

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times
A skier makes a tight turn on Deer Park during opening day on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Winter showed up just in time and turned opening day on Aspen Mountain into a celebration 75 years in the making.

While top-to-bottom skiing wasn’t available when the first passengers of the season were loaded into the Silver Queen Gondola just before 9 a.m. Thursday, a surprise storm barely 24 hours earlier that left 7 to 10 inches in spots salvaged the day and got Aspen Skiing Co.’s milestone anniversary season off to a strong start.

“It just goes to show you that you never know,” Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan told The Aspen Times on Thursday, only moments after giving a season-opening pep talk to a long and enthusiastic line of skiers and snowboarders at the base of Aspen Mountain. “It’s a community celebration. It was a whole community awakening or coming out of the quiet years. It’s really amazing to reflect back and think 75 years ago, none of this was a given. We take so much for granted now.”

This winter marks Skico’s 75th season, dating back to the founding and dedication of the original Lift 1 on Jan. 11, 1947. At the time, it was believed to be the longest ski lift in the world and replaced the old “boat tow” lift. Aspen’s evolution into becoming one of the world’s most iconic ski destinations dates back to Lift 1’s arrival.

Skiers wait in a line that wrapped around the block from gondola plaza before opening day on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Thursday, during Aspen Mountain’s annual Thanksgiving Day opening, passengers took the modern gondola to the top where they had about 100 acres available to them. This was a big boost from the original plan, announced only Monday, that was to have 50 acres open at the top while uploading and downloading from the gondola.

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But Wednesday morning’s surprise storm and colder temperatures ideal for snowmaking were able to double the acreage by Thursday morning, although skiers still had to download via the gondola.

“It took its sweet time getting here, right? We have been teed up since mid-October and ready to go with snowmaking since Nov. 1,” said J.T. Welden, Aspen Mountain’s manager, of winter’s arrival. “But fits and starts doesn’t get you a lot on the ground when you need 60 million gallons (of water) to really blanket the place, and you are getting 500,000 here and there.”

Skiers wait in a line up the hill from the Ajax Express on opening day during opening day on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Not only has a lack of natural snow made opening terrain difficult, but warm temperatures have made snowmaking nearly impossible. Aspen Mountain is outfitted for top-to-bottom snowmaking, but it still needs help from Mother Nature to make that happen.

With colder temps expected to persist over the coming days, Welden said Aspen Mountain should be open for top-to-bottom skiing by the end of this weekend, if not much sooner. Opening other terrain will be largely dependent on natural snow.

“Being a ski area guy, it’s fun to finally get going,” said Welden, who like so many gave thanks to being able to ski on Thanksgiving. “There are certainly a laundry list of things I’m not thankful for, but we know what those are. This is the best time of year when you are in the ski business, is getting up and running. You do all the work, really from the close of the previous ski season.”

Thursday’s atmosphere resembled a return to normal of sorts for skiers and riders. Last winter was marred by the coronavirus pandemic and the extra safety regulations put in place, from wearing masks in line to spacing out passengers on lifts.

This year, Skico is still asking everyone to wear masks when in the gondola cabins and when inside most of its establishments, but masks currently are not required when standing in line and Welden said they are filling all 147 gondola cabins to capacity as much as possible with no limitations on ridership.

A skier pushes fresh snow as they make turns on the hill during opening day on Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“It’s an opportunity for us to set a new tone, for us to be grateful and express gratitude everywhere we can,” Kaplan said of starting off the 75th anniversary season in this way. “At the end of the day, we are lucky. We are lucky to be here and it’s my honor to be here and be part of it and try to play my part in keeping it moving.”

As Welden put it, last winter didn’t come with much enthusiasm as “74 and a pandemic doesn’t have quite as much luster” as No. 75 will this season. Skico plans to celebrate its diamond anniversary in various ways all winter long, with the Jan. 11 festivities being at the top of that list.

Kaplan, who was wearing Skico’s new-look blue jacket emblazoned with the company’s new logo, mirrored Welden in being thankful for the chance to ski at all considering the past two years.

“It’s time we open this ski season this year right here, right now, to be thankful for what we have, to express gratitude, resilience, optimism and the joy of skiing,” Kaplan said. “I’m most thankful for skiing. To me, it’s the center of my universe and to me that’s the way I connect with my family. It’s the way I connect with myself and my friends and stay connected to the world in a way where I feel like I’m doing something and making a difference.”

Snowmass Ski Area also opened for the season on Thursday, although only seven acres of the Meadows beginner area were accessible. Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands are scheduled to open for the season on Dec. 11.

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