What’s In Pandora’s?
The skiing is great, the zoning is tricky and the county will have the final say on the proposed Pandora’s terrain expansion
Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to expand into the Pandora’s terrain is spurring plenty of barstool talk about the first major expansion on Aspen Mountain since 1985.
But it is a zoning debate rather than a skiing debate that will make or break Skico’s plan. Nobody is questioning the spectacularly shreddable quality of these slopes on the highest reaches of Aspen Mountain above Gentleman’s Ridge. Whether to open it, rezone it and add a lift, however, is a thornier issue for some.
The expansion requires a rezoning of 167 acres near the mountaintop to make it work. The Pitkin County commissioners will start their review on Aug. 25.
Skico wants to add 153 acres of skiable terrain in the Pandora’s section on the upper east side of the mountain. There would be no access from the base of the ski area. Instead, it would be access from three places on the mountain: behind the gondola’s upper terminal; from a new trail cut just below the existing entrance to Walsh’s, where the 1 & 2 Leaf Trail intersects with Upper Copper; and on a reverse trail that would extend where the existing Lazy Boy trail hits the ski area boundary. The expansion would create 15 traditional trails totaling 82 acres that would generally be geared toward intermediates. Another 71 acres of glades would tend to be black diamond terrain interspersed with gentler pitches.
All the terrain is above 10,000 feet on north and northeast aspects that tend to build glorious pockets of snow over the winter and holds it well into spring. Selective tree removal is planned to create nearly infinite lines through the glades.
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“This mountain skis bigger than it is already and this will continue that feel,” said Skico senior project manager Mak Keeling.
A New Ajax ‘Pod’
The Pandora’s pod has been in the Aspen Mountain special use permit area for decades even though it hasn’t been utilized. Now Skico wants to add it to the operational boundary. Skico is proposing to build a four-passenger chairlift with a ride time of about five minutes to serve terrain that will provide about 1,300 vertical feet of riding.
Skico officials have taken the stance that increasing numbers of skiers and riders are already diving into the terrain, particularly on powder days. Unlike some ski areas, Skico provides access via gates to backcountry or sidecountry terrain outside its ski areas without avalanche control or patrol support. Two existing gates behind the upper terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola provide winter access to lines such as Dakine and Power Line in Pandora’s as well as to Richmond Ridge. Skico’s plan would make Pandora’s safer through avalanche mitigation and regular sweeps by the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol. Skico would also design access points that would allow intermediate skiers and riders to enjoy the Pandora’s terrain without forcing them to negotiate advanced or expert terrain.
Bill Stirling, a proponent of the expansion and a former Aspen mayor, said he feels there are clear-cut benefits to the community and individual skiers.
“We can all ski Pandora’s safely,” he said.
Stirling helped found a group called Friends of Pandora’s that had collected 700 signatures by Aug. 11 on an online petition in support of the plan. It will be submitted to the county.
But for the skiers and riders already earning their turns by hiking into and out of Pandora’s, the thought of a chairlift bringing waves of newbies into the terrain is demoralizing.
“My main concern is, honestly, selfish,” said Mike Kashinski of Aspen. “I’m back there when it’s good.”
Kashinski said he wants to continue using the terrain without “stumbling over people” that would result if a chairlift is installed.
His powder days consist of six to eight laps in Pandora’s with access through the gate and a return to the ski area via Lud’s Lane, the same flat route that requires skate skiing or hiking at the bottom of the existing Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi trails. He then rides up the slow “Couch” chair to repeat laps. Skico officials said they will reassess the need for the Couch and the alignment for the Bell Mountain chair after skier patterns are established with the addition of Pandora’s.
Kashinski isn’t alone on his sentiments about Pandora’s, nor is the debate isolated to Aspen Mountain. When Skico added terrain on Burnt Mountain into the Snowmass Ski Area operational boundary, many skiers and riders were bummed about losing their private sidecountry stash.
The White River National Forest, which has already granted approval for the Pandora’s terrain and lift addition, said in its Environmental Assessment of the project that up to 100 people per day are currently using Pandora’s. The “Comfortable Carrying Capacity” for the proposed terrain and lift would be 620 people, the agency said, citing a measurement it uses for ski area capacity.
“That is, a comfortable usage amount in the Pandora’s area would be around 600 people, although actual numbers on any given day could be higher or much lower,” the EA said. “Those seeking the current user density on the Pandora’s area would have to recreate farther south on Richmond Ridge.”
Pushing people further back on Richmond Ridge creates the potential of conflicts between backcountry users relying on climbing skins, those using snowmobiles and Skico’s own Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, which utilizes much of the terrain south of Pandora’s.
Mike Sladdin, a founder of a citizens group called Powder to the People, which advocates for backcountry skiers and riders, shares Kashinski’s concerns about increased use.
“I would say it’s not the time for it,” Sladdin said. He wants to see the Pandora’s area off limits for motorized and mechanized uses and remain the same backcountry haven it has been for decades.
“They’ve been out there since the ‘50’s skiing that stuff,” he said.
Adding a chairlift ruins the special terrain and character of Pandora’s, he said.
“It is all about the quality of the turns,” Sladdin said.
His preference would be to see the area “cleaned up” and available to skiers and riders relying on their own power to access it.
His concerns, however, extend beyond skiing. He also questions if the addition of a chairlift and the expansion of Aspen Mountain is worth the increased carbon footprint for Skico and the community. Skico contends the new lift and terrain isn’t about growth. It’s about better serving existing customers. Its application to the county said the terrain expansion will result in a negligible increase in employees.
Skico contends the time is ripe for Pandora’s for several reasons. Drawing more skiers and riders onto that pod will relieve pressure and decrease crowds elsewhere on the mountain, such as the terrain served by the Ajax Express chairlift. Some people will choose to stay on Pandora’s for their ski day, said Rich Burkley, Skico senior vice president of strategic planning. Adding that pod will also reduce the amount of sliders heading down the mountain and creating longer lines for the Silver Queen Gondola, Keeling said.
In addition, Pandora’s provides the type of tree skiing that is in en vogue. Only about 85 acres of Aspen Mountain’s existing expert terrain is considered gladed, according to Skico’s estimate.
“While the cleared trails remain popular, an increasing number of users enjoy gladed terrain within more natural settings,” reads Skico’s proposal to the Forest Service. “This trend is evidenced by the increased use of sidecountry terrain — the areas immediately adjacent to the ski areas boundaries. This proposal for Aspen Mountain addresses that trend and offers more unique, lift-served gladed terrain for advanced intermediates and experts that enhances the existing options available to Aspen Mountain users.”
David Corbin, Skico’s senior vice president of planning and development, said the goal would be to start clearing timber for the traditional trails and thinning trees in the gladed terrain next summer, if Skico receives county approval this fall. The lift would be constructed in summer 2022.
“Ideally we’d be skiing in ’23-24 with a lift,” Corbin said.
Forest and Trees
The expansion of ski terrain and removal of trees have also been a topic of debate. At an online meeting hosted by Friends of Pandora’s on Aug. 11, audience member Karen Ryman of Aspen asked why new terrain was needed when Skico already operates four ski areas in Aspen and Snowmass. They total about 5,500 acres of skiing.
Ryman also expressed concern about the removal of trees and potential displacement of wildlife. The Forest Service assessment determined Pandora’s isn’t winter range or a calving area. However, it is summer range. Ryman said she is concerned about the plight of smaller animals.
Skico’s Keeling has walked the Pandora’s terrain multiple times, including trips with Forest Service personnel. The terrain is thick with dead timber that is on the ground and still standing, he said.
In the 71 acres of terrain earmarked for glade skiing, about 33% of the trees would be removed. But a large portion of that can be achieved by removing deadfall and standing dead conifer trees, he said.
“We’re not looking for the 150-foot wide traditional ski trail,” Keeling said.
For the traditionally cleared trails, Skico aims to take advantage of existing meadows and small open areas.
Keeling said wildlife experts concluded thinning the forest in Pandora’s would result in more browse for wildlife. A 2012 study by the Forest Service on forest health in the Aspen Snowmass ski areas actually identified a need for tree thinning in areas that included Pandora’s. The study’s recommendations will be incorporated into the ski trails planning whenever possible.
“With only improving forest health, we have a skiable product in many locations,” Keeling said.
A reporter and photographer from The Aspen Times verified there is an abundance of dead and dying Douglas fir, lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce trees in the Pandora’s area during a hiking tour last Wednesday. The hike went from the gondola, south to the southern boundary of Pandora’s, down steep slopes to an area above Loushin’s Pond and north to the bottom of Walsh’s.
In some areas, a rat’s nest of downed tree trunks make passage impossible. In other areas, numerous dead trunks remain upright surrounding live trees.
The tour also showed that the terrain constantly changes. There are sustained steep pitches on the upper slopes, vast benches and easier pitches. Sometimes short stretches of steep pitches flow into gentler slope that creates a mix of expert and intermediate terrain.
Former Aspen mayor Stirling said he feels the addition of the Pandora’s terrain is important for Skico’s flagship mountain to maintain a competitive edge among resorts and because it offers a great amenity to locals. It’s also a key adaptive step by Skico on a warming planet, he said.
“I think skiing’s days are numbered unless we get ahold of this,” he said, referring to global warming.
The north-facing, high-elevation slopes will hold the snow better and won’t require snowmaking, he noted.
Public Hearings Begin
Just as there are differing views on whether skiing should be “enhanced” with a chairlift in Pandora’s or left alone, there are different views on whether or not the Pitkin County Commissioners should grant the required rezoning.
Skico wants to rezone 35 acres that are currently “Agricultural/Residential 10 acres” to “Ski Recreation.” That’s pretty much a slam-dunk for approval.
Catching more attention is the proposal to rezone 132 acres that is currently Rural and Remote to Ski Recreation. Rural and Remote Zoning was created in 1994 and expanded in later years to prevent pristine areas such as the backside of Aspen Mountain, Hunter Creek Valley, Lenado and parts of the Fryingpan Valley from getting developed with the type of McMansions proliferating in more urban areas of the county. It’s differentiated Pitkin County from many wealthy mountain resort areas. For that reason, many Roaring Fork Valley residents regard it as sacrosanct.
Ryman doesn’t want to set a precedent with rezoning where “we gradually keep eating away at the pieces that are Rural and Remote.”
Stirling said he regards Rural and Remote Zoning as landmark growth control in Pitkin County and he fully supports it. But he notes, as do Skico officials, that Rural and Remote Zoning was never intended to exclude developed skiing. Skico officials contend the inclusion of the Pandora’s terrain in the Rural and Remote Zone in 1994 was an oversight.
In addition, Stirling doesn’t believe granting Skico’s request sets a precedent. The commissioners retain the ability to decline other proposals.
Skico officials realize the rezoning is a touchy subject for some people. They have tried to ease concerns about their request by pledging to apply only for barebones amenities on the 132 acres eyed for rezoning. They would build the chairlift along with a lower lift terminal, a patrol shack and a bathroom. They wouldn’t pursue any of the other amenities allowable in the Ski Recreation Zone, such as a restaurant.
“We’re not here to promote residential or other buildings in Rural and Remote,” Skico’s Corbin said. “This is just about skiing for us.”
The proposal stalled at an earlier review by the county commissioners because of the rezoning request. The board was split 2-2 on the question in August 2019, forcing Skico officials to ask to table the matter rather than go to a formal vote.
Two years later, Skico is trying again with much the same pitch.
At that time of the first review, commissioners Greg Poschman and George Newman expressed support for the rezoning while commissioners Kelly McNicholas Kury and Steve Child were opposed. Patti Clapper abstained because her son-in-law is a Skico employee.
Newman was term-limited out of office and was replaced in January by Francie Jacober. Since Jacober is new to office, she hasn’t expressed her views on the Pandora’s proposal. Skico needs to find two votes in addition to Poschman to get the rezoning passed, hoping to swing McNicholas Kury or Child and win Jacober’s support.
In the earlier review process, there wasn’t an abundance of public support expressed for the proposal during the review, though Skico officials said they felt there was broad support. This time around, Skico and Friends of Pandora’s are trying to harness more vocal support through letters, the petition and in-person testimony.
As of deadline time, the review is scheduled to be held in a hybrid meeting, with both in-person seating and online viewing offered starting on Aug. 25.
WHAT’S THE PROPOSAL?
Aspen Skiing Co. wants to add about 153 acres of ski terrain on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain to its operational boundary. That terrain is already in its permit with the U.S. Forest Service, but it isn’t utilized for lift-served or patrolled skiing.
DIDN’T THE FOREST SERVICE ALREADY APPROVE PANDORA’S?
Yes. The White River National Forest granted final approval in March 2019. However, it requires review by both the Forest Service and Pitkin County because there is national forest land as well as private land involved. The terrain addition requires a rezoning. Pitkin County will start to consider the rezoning request on Aug. 25.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR SKIERS AND RIDERS?
The Pandora’s terrain provides a mix of intermediate and expert terrain. Much of the upper terrain will be expert, as will glades to the south. Aspen Mountain doesn’t currently offer a lot of tree skiing of this type.
Much of the lower terrain will be intermediate. The expansion will allow extensions of existing terrain on the Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi trails.
In addition, the new quad chairlift will allow lap skiing on the Pandora’s pod and take pressure off the Ajax Express and surrounding terrain. The lift ride will be less than 5 minutes, sparing customers from a ride on the “Couch” chair.
The Pandora’s terrain is also on north and northeast aspects and at high elevation so it holds the snow well. Aspen Skiing Co. contends that is a key factor in adapting to climate change.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
Skiers have been accessing the Pandora’s terrain for decades. They don’t want to lose something they have enjoyed for years. Installing a chairlift and groomed trails will invite a lot more skiers and riders into the area.
Other observers wonder why it is so important to add terrain when Aspen Snowmass already offers 5,527 acres across its four ski areas.
While Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the Pandora’s terrain isn’t an elk calving area, nearby lands are. In addition, North Star Nature Preserve is on the valley floor, well below Pandora’s. Some environmentalists are concerned that increased use with lift-served skiing will have an indirect impact wildlife.
The issue that the county will be primarily concerned with is rezoning land from Rural and Remote to Ski-Recreation. Rural and Remote Zoning was created in 1994 to prevent the proliferation of large home construction in sensitive, high-altitude lands such as the backside of Aspen Mountain. Some people see rezoning as setting a bad precedent. Aspen Skiing Co. will agree to limit the type of development in the rezoned lands. They only want ski trails, the lift and a ski patrol shack. They will not request other uses allowed in the Ski-Rec Zone such as restaurants and cabins, according to David Corbin, Skico senior vice president of planning and development.
WHAT’S SKICO’S TIMETABLE?
If Pitkin County approves the rezoning this fall, Skico plans to clear timber for traditional ski trails and thin timber for tree skiing in summer 2022. The lift would be installed in summer 2023, so lift-served skiing would be offered starting in 2023-24, according to Corbin.