March madness: Aspen skiing going strong |

March madness: Aspen skiing going strong

ASPEN ” One statistic says it all about the difference between this ski season and last year: The temperature plunged to 4 below in the Aspen area Monday, March 3.

Last season on the same date it was 56 above.

In March 2007, hordes of locals soaked up rays while loading their mountain bikes for trips to Moab. Many more are sticking to the slopes this season.

The snow base at the top of Snowmass Ski Area was 101 inches and 75 inches midmountain Thursday. It was 72 inches on March 6 last season.

At Aspen Highlands, the difference in the base is even more dramatic: The snow depth was 119 inches Thursday compared to 79 inches last season.

After a mediocre March the past two seasons, Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Operations Rich Burkley pulled some strings for improvement this season.

“Apparently you can only sell your soul once. Next year somebody else is going to have to take this one on,” Burkley said.

His soul was apparently worth something. It snowed 19 of 29 days in February and March opened with 21 inches of powder. Snowmass has received 341 inches of snow so far since November. The season average is 300 inches.

Burkley said a veteran Aspen Mountain ski instructor of 44 years assured him it’s been the best season he has ever experienced.

Ski patrol veterans have opened “extracurricular terrain” ” gated areas that are usually closed within Aspen Mountain’s boundaries ” more than ever this season, Burkley said.

Cloud Nine Restaurant has been dubbed “The Igloo” by Aspen Highlands workers. Snow on roofs of structures at Snowmass look like surreal pillows. Terrain beneath chairlifts like High Alpine at Snowmass and Deep Temerity at Highlands is roped off to prevent skiers and riders from whacking the boards of lift riders.

You know it’s a good season when there is the danger of hitting someone riding a lift.

With snow and cold continuing into March, there’s no question the slopes will remain skiable past the scheduled lift closings. Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk are scheduled to close April 6. Aspen Mountain and Snowmass shut down on April 13.

Burkley expects Highlands Bowl to be a magnet throughout the spring for skiers willing to skin up after the lifts close.

“Pending no wet slide issues, the Bowl will be skiable into June,” he said.

The Skico is already pondering how to handle requests from passengers who want to take skis up the Silver Queen Gondola when it opens for summer operations on June 13.

Extending the season isn’t as easy as it sounds. The gondola must be closed as scheduled for replacement of the electrical system, Burkley said. And at Snowmass, construction must begin on the Sam’s Knob Restaurant the day after the chairlifts close. The construction season at that high altitude is so short that the project cannot be delayed, Burkley said. It requires roads to be plowed and eliminates use of the Village Express chairlift, which runs from the base to the top of Sam’s Knob.

So, what about extending the season at Highlands? Burkley would only hint at what the Skico brass is thinking.

“Highlands will close on April 6. That doesn’t preclude it from opening at a later date,” he said.

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