Aspen Skiing Co. hopes to harness public support for second debate on expansion
Aspen Mountain Pandora’s terrain expansion, new chairlift will be reviewed Aug. 25
Aspen Skiing Co. hopes to harness public support for its proposal to expand into the Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain when it renews a bid for approval from the Pitkin County Commissioners on Aug. 25.
In a presentation Tuesday morning to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors, Skico representatives indicated the support was low-key the first time the commissioners considered Skico’s proposal to add 153 acres of new terrain and a quad chairlift to the upper east side of Aspen Mountain.
“From Ski Company’s perspective, we believe that support for this is really quite broad in the community, albeit perhaps somewhat latent or quiet,” said David Corbin, Skico’s senior vice president for planning.
Skico officials urged chamber members to “spread the word” that “Pandora’s will make Aspen Mountain better” and to consider speaking in support at the county commissioners’ meeting or submit a letter to the county.
Skico also is working with a group called Friends of Pandora’s, which has started an online petition in support of the proposal. Friends of Pandora’s is an independent, privately funded citizens’ group, according to Skico director of community engagement Michael Miracle.
To stoke excitement about Pandora’s, Skico is touting the benefits of adding a mixture of advanced and intermediate terrain. Much of the new skiing and riding would be through glades in the trees.
“It’s probably best thought of as terrain below the existing Walsh’s and Hyrup’s and to the south of those two runs,” Corbin said.
A groomed, intermediate trail would let skiers and riders avoid steeper terrain at the top and access more gentle slopes to the skier’s right of Walsh’s.
“From there down is new intermediate and gladed terrain that is the bread-and-butter of this skiing terrain, if you will,” Corbin said. “It yields 1,200 feet of vertical, which amounts to quite a bit of skiing.”
Skico touts the new terrain as adding the diversity that will keep Aspen Mountain in demand among customers. It would be the first terrain addition on Aspen Mountain since Walsh’s was developed in 1985.
The chairlift would be configured to allow the extension of the Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi terrain as well, so there would be additional expert terrain.
The U.S. Forest Service has reviewed and granted approval to Skico’s proposal. In its environmental assessment, the Forest Service said there would be about 77.5 acres of traditional, cleared trails as part of Pandora’s. Eight trails would provide 40.1 acres of expert terrain. Seven trails would provide 37.4 acres of intermediate terrain. The gladed terrain wasn’t broken down by ability.
“The gladed terrain would consist primarily of expert- and intermediate-level terrain while the traditional trails would provide a mixture of low-intermediate, intermediate- and expert-level terrain,” the Forest Service review said. “The terrain would be accessible to intermediate skiers via trails like the Copper Trail.”
Another appealing aspect of the Pandora’s terrain is its elevation above 10,000 feet and the north facing aspect.
“What people may not fully understand is how this really changes the experience for skiing,” Corbin said. “It’s a whole new aspect. It’s high. It holds snow really well and for many of our skiers, it’s going to give them the opportunity to circulate on the upper section of the mountain in a different way.”
More skiers and riders will likely make laps off Pandora’s chair and other upper mountain lifts and not return to the base through the day. The new lift will also eliminate the need for the “interminable ride of Gent’s Ridge,” a notoriously slow quad chairlift.
“It’s really, from our part, a substantial improvement in the skiing experience,” Corbin said.
Miracle stressed the high elevation value of Pandora’s.
“This is a key climate change adaptation, to open high elevation terrain,” he said. “(It is) north-facing. Snow really lasts a longtime up there.”
While the skiing is the exciting part, the county commissioners’ decision will hinge on land use. To achieve its goals, Skico needs the commissioners to approve rezoning 132 acres from Rural and Remote to Ski-Recreation.
Rural and Remote Zoning is regarded as the gold standard by conservationists because it prevented the Pitkin County backcountry from getting developed with McMansions such as those on Red Mountain, Starwood, McLain Flats Road and Castle Creek Valley, to name a few areas. Rural and Remote Zoning was approved in 1994 to stave off development on the private pockets of land on the backside of Aspen Mountain, Smuggler Mountain, Hunter Creek Valley, Van Horn Park, the Lenado and Fryingpan Valley.
Skico notes that Rural and Remote Zoning was never intended to exclude developed skiing. The company has pledged not to build anything like restaurants on the land that would be rezoned from Rural and Remote. Development would be limited to the bottom lift terminal, related storage and perhaps a ski patrol station, Corbin said.
Critics have said allowing a rezoning of Rural and Remote lands would set a bad precedent that other private property owners could follow.
The county commissioners were deadlocked 2-2 on Skico’s initial proposal for Pandora’s in the first review in 2019 (Commissioner Clapper recused herself because she has a family member who works for Skico).
Skico exercised its right to have the application tabled rather than formally voted on. The company provided supplemental information — essentially bolstering its position — and returned to the county review process this year. The Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-0 on June 1 to recommend approval of the plan. Now the real show begins.