Aspen Mountain opens for the season with little issue, lots of good snow
As masked up as everyone was, it was difficult to tell how many people were smiling. But considering the long lines, all of which moved surprisingly fast, and general vibe when the first skiers and snowboarders boarded the Silver Queen Gondola on Wednesday morning, it’s safe to say the stoke was as high as it’s ever been.
“I was thrilled,” said Katie Ertl, Aspen Skiing Co.’s senior vice president of mountain operations. “People were spaced well. They kept their face coverings on. They were just fantastic about getting on the gondola and getting up and enjoying themselves. I’m so glad. And we couldn’t have asked for a better day with sunny weather and great conditions.”
Wednesday’s opening day on Aspen Mountain marked the first time since March 14 skiers had access to the chairlifts. The Ides of March brought with it an early end to the ski season in Colorado as the coronavirus pandemic forced Gov. Jared Polis to close up shop despite many mountains still having a good month or so of skiing on the calendar.
Certainly, it wasn’t quite business as usual Wednesday with everyone being required to wear facemasks and to social distance in line. But by the time skis found snow, it almost felt like all was finally right with the world.
“The ski season always seemed to be that one constant until last March, then we got the call,” Aspen Mountain manager J.T. Welden said. “The reports from the other resorts that are open in the state were that everyone was very well behaved and aware of all the new guidelines and luckily skiing and riding is so important to people they are really going to be sure they are doing everything they are supposed to to make sure we can all keep skiing and riding.”
A sizeable line had formed Wednesday morning at the base of Aspen Mountain prior to opening, but it only took about 20 minutes to get the initial push up the gondola. On top of the 160 acres available on Ajax, there was around 86 acres of terrain open at Snowmass. Both resorts had originally been scheduled to open Thanksgiving Day, as is the norm, but Skico decided to get the season going a day early to help deal with holiday crowds.
Other than a minor glitch with some tickets and passes not working, which Skico quickly figured out, there were no major hiccups despite more than an eight-month offseason.
“Things went really smoothly this morning,” Ertl said. “I do think having skiing and riding available and having our lifts turning is so important for mental health as much as it is for physical. It does allow us to be out here together, outdoors, and in a healthier environment than indoors eating a meal together.”
Another key reason why opening day was so successful was because of the good snow. This is the first opening where Aspen Mountain had top-to-bottom snowmaking available, and to combine that with this week’s latest storm made for primo conditions up top.
“It’s game-changing,” Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said Wednesday morning of the snowmaking. “If it wasn’t for that new snowmaking, we’d be doing laps off Nell. It’s incredible.”
The roughly 160 acres available Wednesday matched that of 2019, but didn’t quite reach the 180 acres that were skiable on opening day in 2018. There was only 100 acres available on opening day in 2017, and 2016 was the last time that opening day only included the Little Nell chairlift, the bottom most lift other than the gondola.
On Wednesday, Skico was operating the gondola, Little Nell, Bell, Ajax Express and Gents Ridge chairlifts on Aspen Mountain. Welden said they’d have an additional 30 acres available on Thursday, and Ertl said they are close to being able to open the entire Copper Bowl run. Anything beyond that will require some extra help from Mother Nature.
Also Thursday, Skico will open the Thunder Bowl lift at Aspen Highlands for a single day before the track will be returned to the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, which uses it as part of its Stapleton Training Center. At Buttermilk, the Panda Peak beginner’s terrain and lift will also be open Thursday through Saturday.
Highlands will open fully for the season on Dec. 12, and Buttermilk will open on Dec. 18.
All open ski runs will remain closed to uphill traffic from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sunday.
“To be around people and smiles and happiness and wind in your face, it’s been great,” Ertl said. “I know we are all dealing with the fatigue of it and we hate having things over our faces. We are used to being able to engage and smile and just talk to each other not through a covering. But today was an example of if we can do that every day, we are going to have a great season.”
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