Aspen ponders preserving powder |

Aspen ponders preserving powder

Paul Conrad/The Aspen TimesSteve Sewell, Snowmass mountain manager, is dwarfed by the immense amount of snow protected by a snow blanket from this past summer's heat.

SNOWMASS, Colorado ” On the slopes just above the Spider Sabich Race Arena at Snowmass, Colorado there is a sight guaranteed to make observers do a double take.

There is a big mound of snow, roughly 50 by 75 feet and 20 feet high. The exterior is rock hard to the touch, even on a sun-drenched fall day when the temperatures climbs into the 60s.

The huge monolith has been out of place, all summer. It survived direct exposure from the sun and temperatures that occasionally topped 80 degrees at 9,000 feet. It’s part of an experiment that a Swiss company convinced the Aspen Skiing Co. to participate in ” and it could result in a mini-technological revolution in the U.S. skiing industry.

The snow block is the remnant of a massive jump that was part of the snowboard terrain park at Snowmass, according to Rich Burkley, Aspen’s general manager of mountain operations.

The jump was covered until the first week of October by a snow blanket produced by a Swiss flooring firm called Landolt. A company called Eiger International is promoting the snow blanket, formally called the Ice Protector Optiforce, as a way of preserving ice and snow at ski areas.

Last month, Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot said Vail Mountain also would test the blanket to preserve terrain park features between ski seasons.

“The question is, is it good enough quality and can we move it around with a snowcat, or is it a frozen block of ice?” Jarnot said.

The snow blanket is already used at European ski resorts as a sort of insurance policy against global warming, Burkley said.

Usually, Burkley said, the snow blanket is used in short stretches of terrain where snowmaking systems don’t work and snowcats cannot push snow. The snow blankets aren’t practical to preserve snow on widespread patches of ski slopes, he said.

At Aspen-Snowmass, the snow blanket was tested this summer to see if there is practical application in preserving features like half-pipes and parts of terrain parks like the jump. If the snow that was preserved can be used again for the 2008-09 season, it could help reduce water and energy consumption needed for snowmaking, Burkley said.

The blanket also could preserve snow, in theory, so that ski and snowboarding events could be presented under a blazing summer sun.

Tests in Austria and Switzerland indicated the Ice Protector preserved 80 percent of the snow and ice that was covered, according to Eiger International’s Web site. Burkley and Snowmass Ski Area Mountain Manager Steve Sewell said at least that much of the snow mound was preserved at Snowmass.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the test was a success. The critical factor is whether the snow within the big mound can be molded back into terrain park features, Burkley said.

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