Snow polo is dependent on adequate snow depth

by Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

When snow polo returns to Wagner Park next month, there will need to be an 18-inch snow base on the ground and if Mother Nature doesn’t provide it, expect hundreds of truckloads of the white stuff coming through town or snowmaking guns running up to a week at the venue.

The 18-inch, un-packed snow base is one of nearly two dozen requirements the city of Aspen is placing on the event organizer, Aspen Valley Polo Club, LLC, according to a lease the organization has with the municipal government.

The club is leasing the park, which will be closed for at least four days, for $7,500. The USPA Piaget World Snow Polo Championship will occur for one day only, on Dec. 20. But there are other events surrounding the tournament on the day before and the day after the competition. Also, a portion of South Monarch Street will be closed on the days leading up to, during and after the event.

The park could be closed longer than just from Dec. 17-21, as its application with the city outlines. Deric Gunshor, senior event marketing manager for the Aspen Skiing Co., which the polo club has contracted with for snow services, said snowmaking is the preferred option in the park if natural snowfall hasn’t accumulated to the required depth.

“We’d pull [a snowmaking gun] from Aspen Mountain and blow away,” Gunshor said.

The deep snow base is intended to protect the turf underneath from the weight of the horses and their hooves. The event has caused damage to the park in the past, which has been a concern for city officials.

Gunshor said while it is up to city officials and event organizers to determine what method to employ, pulling a snowmaking gun from Aspen Mountain and blowing snow in Wagner would have less impact than making it on the 1A side of the hill and trucking it to the park, which would take at least a few days.

“That has far greater impact than putting a gun in the park,” he said, referencing traffic, noise and environmental impacts.

Event organizers, SkiCo officials and city park staffers plan to meet this week to discuss what route to go.

“It’s definitely a moving target,” Gunshor said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the city to determine what is least impactful. … We’re OK to do either but we’d prefer to do snowmaking for the reasons stated.”

Because there are so many variables relating to making snow in Wagner Park, such as temperatures and water pressure, it’s difficult to predict how long it would take to reach the 18-inch threshold. Gunshor said it could take as long as a week. The park would be closed during snowmaking operations, in addition to Dec. 17-21.

The SkiCo has never made snow in Wagner Park, but it undertook a similar project in Snowmass when it created a sledding hill. That took between 80 and 100 hours, Gunshor said.

The Aspen Valley Polo Club is contracting with the SkiCo to make enough snow to create the 18-inch base, so it is up to them to get the proper approvals from the city, Gunshor noted. SkiCo also has been contracted to groom the field prior to the event. Gunshor said that would be done with a snowcat, although the lease between the polo club and the city references grooming done by snowmobile.

The municipal government has written in protections in the lease to prevent damage from occurring like it has in the past with the polo matches.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Andy Israel points at the 18-inch mark on a measuring stick in Wagner Park on Wednesday afternoon, illustrating the amount of snow needed to cover the field for the upcoming snow polo event next month. Israel is not opposed to the event per se, just the fact that it is scheduled to be held in what he calls the “crown jewel” park of Aspen. At Monday night’s City Council meeting, Israel spoke out against the event and presented each of the council members with their own customized yard stick.

“Lessee shall post a cash or surety bond in the amount $40,000 to cover any potential damages to the park caused by the event,” reads the language in the lease. “Any bond or other security, other than cash, shall be in a form approved by the city attorney. Lessee shall pay a fee of $20,000 to re-sod Wagner Park if needed as determined by city of Aspen parks staff.”

The city special events committee approved the event last week, after discussing the club’s plans if there wasn’t a sufficient snow base. Marc Ganzi, who runs the Aspen Valley Polo Club, said in the meeting that he is putting in a significant financial investment to ensure the park is protected. He told members of the public and the committee that trucks would be used to haul in the snow in the event Mother Nature doesn’t come through.

The event’s organizers are required to provide a transportation and loading plan to city parks staff at least two weeks prior to the event, according to the lease.

In recent years, snow polo was held at the Marolt Open Space and Rio Grande Park, due to a lack of snow and concerns of turf damage at Wagner.

Ganzi said at the special events committee held Nov. 14 that Wagner Park is the best venue for the polo match, given Aspen Mountain serving as the backdrop and its downtown location. He said this is the first time Aspen is the location for a world championship event and he is putting five times more investment into it than in previous years, when New Castle-based Roaring Fork Polo Club was the organizer.

“If we had America’s Downhill at Buttermilk it wouldn’t work,” he said of Wagner Park being the preferred venue. “This event has a lot of promise and delivers a lot of benefit to this city. ... We are going to pour in enough resources to not damage the field.”

Event organizers expect approximately 500 people to attend the event per day, and see it as a tourism draw. The event a few years ago resulted in 600 lodging room nights, according to the event’s previous organizer, who said at the time that the polo clientele tends to spend money. There also is significant public relations value due to national press about the snow polo tournament.

Ganzi’s comments at last week’s meeting were in response to Aspen resident Andy Israel, an avid user of Wagner Park, who lamented that the open space is closed too frequently for special events and believes snow polo should be held at the Marolt property. He also said he believes Aspen City Council rubber-stamped the event last month during a short presentation by organizers, despite long-standing concerns about preserving the park.

“I was surprised at council ... this year it wasn’t even five minutes of discussion and five years ago it was discussed ad nauseam,” Israel said. “It’s like history wasn’t considered; it’s less impactful at Marolt. ... In defense of the park, it’s almost like we should take baby steps.

“I don’t feel like the City Council gave it much more than a cursory review.”

But Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s parks and open space director, said he and his staff have vetted this year’s proposal more than any other snow polo event, which was first introduced here in 2000.

“We have taken this to the highest level of review,” he said, adding the snow base is crucial. “We are not going to acquiesce on that point.”