With only four days before the start of the 2012-13 ski season, Aspen Skiing Co. officials are working diligently to give their guests as much terrain and new offerings as possible.
In what has been a slow start for natural precipitation, SkiCo has been cranking up the guns to make artificial snow to cover the slopes; 31 million gallons of water, as of Friday, have been siphoned from multiple sources in an effort to get adequate acreage at both Ajax and Snowmass for opening day on Thursday.
While the official call will be made on Monday in terms of what skiers can expect for available terrain, barring any natural snowfall of at least 4 inches, it’s a likely scenario that the top of Ajax won’t have enough coverage since SkiCo does not have snowmaking capabilities above the Nastar race course. That means opening day might be limited to the Little Nell and Bell chairs, serving three runs and 70 acres. Opening day at Snowmass could be between 57 and 93 acres, depending on snowmaking and natural precipitation. So, with both mountains, total acreage is a minimum of 127 acres and as much as 150 acres, as of Friday.
“We have a guaranteed opening on both mountains, it’s just a question of how much,” said Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s vice president of mountain operations.
Burkley was eagerly watching a storm in California on Friday, hoping it would drop a few inches at least in Aspen and Snowmass as it made its way east (the storm ended up not producing any measurable snowfall in Aspen). There’s another chance for a storm tonight but it’s too early to tell at this point what will materialize.
“It really comes down to days now,” Burkley said of changing conditions.
He added: “We are right on the cusp,” of having enough snow to open the top of Ajax, which had an 8-inch base on Friday. Areas with man-made snow have as much as a 40-inch base or more, Burkley said.
The west side of Aspen Mountain is ready to go for the World Cup, which will bring the best women ski racers to town for giant slalom and slalom races on Nov. 24 and Nov. 25, respectively. The U.S. Ski Team women were to train on Saturday on the course, and SkiCo received the official go-ahead for the races on Thursday, said SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle.
Cold temperatures for snowmaking and last weekend’s storm helped to make World Cup skiing a reality.
“The course is basically done,” said Aspen Mountain Manager Peter King. He noted, however, that more natural snow is a necessity on the top of the mountain since snow guns stop at around Bonnie’s restaurant and the Nastar race course. Still, King is confident that crews are doing their best to make opening day happen, even with it coming a week earlier than typical because of Thanksgiving’s date.
“Everything is looking good,” he said.
Over at Snowmass, mountain manager Steve Sewell said snow-cat crews in the past few days have been focused on pushing the snow around to make the critical connections within the ski area.
Snowmaking capabilities are much less of an issue at Snowmass now that the SkiCo has secured an agreement with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District to draw from Ziegler Reservoir, which has a primary purpose of supplying water to the town.
Before securing that agreement this past summer, SkiCo drew its water from Snowmass Creek and there was a limit to how much it could take based on minimum streamflows during any given month.
“Often, for us to maintain that streamflow we had to throttle back,” Sewell said, adding that normally SkiCo could pump around 3,000 gallons a minute, but during drier times that could be scaled back to as little as 500 gallons. And because of water rights limitations, after Jan. 1 SkiCo wasn’t allowed to draw from the creek at all.
Now, at Ziegler, SkiCo has access to between 80 and 85 million gallons of water to fill its three storage ponds at Snowmass and draw from them to make snow during cold snaps throughout the winter.
“We can take as much as we need,” Sewell said, adding that the extra capacity was fully utilized last week. “The snowmakers crushed it.”
Burkley characterized the Ziegler connection as increasing snowmaking capability by a factor of five.
And, of course, Mother Nature will eventually show up but in the meantime, mountain operators will continue to work with what they’ve got.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve been here,” Sewell said.
The enhanced snowmaking at Snowmass is just the tip of the iceberg for what’s new this season. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into new facilities on and off-mountain, from additional terrain on Burnt Mountain to the $12.9 million new Elk Camp restaurant, and the Westin and Wildwood Snowmass Resorts’ $55 million renovation.
The Westin and Wildwood complex opened on Thursday, including its six new restaurants and bars, said the resorts’ general manager, John Curnow.
“One of the things we are trying to do is keep the energy here, so there’s a lot of focus on [food and beverage],” he said of the restaurants, slope-side bars and other amenities that make up the new culinary scene in Snowmass.
Both the Westin, featuring 254 rooms, and Wildwood, with 151 rooms, were originally scheduled to open in mid-December, but construction crews were ahead of schedule, allowing the resort to be open for Thanksgiving.
The conference center operated by the resort will be hosting a community potluck dinner today and ribbon cutting at 6:30 p.m. There also will be live music at both the Westin and Wildwood after-parties following the dinner.
They’ll also be rolling out a new locals’ appreciation program during the event, which will give area residents savings at all the food and beverage outlets, and special hotel offers for their friends and families when they visit throughout the year.
Curnow said while there was only one hotel guest arrival for Thursday night’s opening, there are more than 100 bookings for the upcoming holiday week. And to fill rooms, the ownership group is offering early-season visitors rates as low as $89 and $119 per night between Nov. 21 and Dec. 20.
The slow-start is a bit of a blessing since in most cities, a new hotel would be 80 percent full on opening day, but at the Westin and Wildwood Snowmass Resorts, its employees (called associates) have some time to work out the kinks that come with a new operation.
“We get to practice a little more,” Curnow said.
For the past two weeks, 200 associates have been hard at work training and playing hotel before the properties opened. About 60 people from Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which is overseeing management of the two new hotels, were on hand for training.
“There has been a lot of commitment on Starwood’s part,” Curnow said. “The amount of ownership put into it is evident.”
The Westin and Wildwood are owned by a joint venture between Starwood Capital Group and Wasserman Real Estate. The entities bought the two hotels in June 2011 from longtime owners, the Burwell family, paying $42 million. They announced in September 2011 that Westin, which operates 190 properties in 40 countries, would renovate the former Silvertree Hotel.
After two years of construction, the 17,480-square-foot restaurant known simply as “Elk Camp,” which sits at the top of the gondola of the same name from Base Village and serves the east side of the Snowmass Ski Area, will open its doors on Thanksgiving Day.
The new building includes a 4,345-square-foot great room and bar, with a curving roof 43 feet high at its tallest point on the southeast corner. The peaked roof is designed to help capture views up the mountain toward Hanging Valley. The lower level of the building houses the kitchen and an 1,100-square-foot kid’s ski school dining room.
Upstairs there is a reception area, a flexible guest-services space, the “great hall,” a bar, and a large “servery” area with four food stations. The cuisine, coming predominately from Colorado, will include rotisserie items, with roasted chickens and other specialty dishes, as well as pasta, soups and stews, sandwiches and pizza, and a salad bar. The restaurant portion of the new building seats 225 people.
The architectural design of Elk Camp aims to express both contemporary and rustic alpine characteristics.
“We aspired to have something that was contemporary but felt like it belonged there,” said David Corbin, the company’s vice president of planning and development.
Large glass folding doors in the dining room and bar are to let the inside spaces extend into the outdoor realm on good weather days. The outdoor deck, seating 98 people, is one of the highlights of the new facility, which replaces the old Cafe Suzanne.
Designed by CCY Architects and built by general contractor Hyder Construction, Inc., Elk Camp is part of SkiCo’s 10-year, $30 million food-and-beverage master plan, Corbin said. Elk Camp is the largest and biggest in terms of its size and budget in that effort, he noted.
Recognizing that its on-mountain restaurants were beginning to age, SkiCo set out a few years ago to renovate or replace its facilities, and make each one unique in its architecture, feel and cuisine.
“[Our on-mountain restaurants] were well past their prime physically and we knew we needed to do something,” Corbin said. “We made a conscious decision that we wanted our places to be different and we wanted our guests to experience something different.”
Elk Camp was designed to be a campus of sorts for the east side of the mountain, and as such, it is a tightly contained venue, Burkley noted.
The restaurant has the ability to operate in the winter and summer, with some day and night activities.
Starting on Dec. 28, there will be regularly scheduled events every Friday night at Elk Camp, including bonfires, a sledding hill, snow bike runs, head lamp tours, ice skating and movies. The cost is $10 for adults; $5 for children and pass holders.
Also seeing a change is the restaurant at The Little Nell hotel, which used to be called Montagna and is now named Element 47. The entire restaurant went through a renovation and is scheduled to open on Nov. 30.
Design elements include a fortified connection between the bar scene and the dining room, a focus on large-scale artwork, as well as a glass wall to feature wines.
New to Element 47, and a major departure from the previous menu format at Montagna, guests will choose dishes from an à la carte-focused menu. Colorado agriculture will be the focal point of chef Robert McCormick’s menu, drawing from local produce and livestock, as well as sustainable seafood from both coasts.
Burnt Mountain has officially been added into the Snowmass Ski Area, giving people three more trails (called “Split Tree,” “Rio” and “A-line”) covering 230 acres.
Crews got enough work done this summer in order for the sidecountry skiing experience to be ready, Sewell said.
The area features rolling, low-angle meadows suitable for moderate-level skiers, but will be marked as expert terrain because of the egress that will take skiers back to the Two Creeks chairlift.
“There is a lot of nice gladed skiing in there,” Sewell said, adding that there will be plenty of tree skiing and stashes to be found.
The Burnt Mountain terrain, which will make the Snowmass Ski Area the second-largest ski resort in Colorado behind Vail, was a longtime sidecountry experience that will now have ski patrol oversight for injuries and avalanche control.
At Aspen Highlands, glading and clean-up work has been done in the Hyde Park/Temerity areas. At Buttermilk, guests will experience cleaner terrain at Tiehack and in Uncle Chuck’s Glades.
And at Base Village in Snowmass, Related Colorado, which owns the development, is creating a new drop-off area at the arrival center that is designed to alleviate what’s been described as a complete traffic cluster at the nearby Treehouse, which has served as the primary skier drop-off.
People will be able to catch the elevator at the parking garage, or walk through the arrival center and take an escalator or elevator to Base Village.
SkiCo managers said they’re pumped for the season, and looking forward to the changes and what hopefully will be abundant snowfall.
“Any opening is a good opening,” Burkley said.