Ajax pandora map

This map shows the upper section of Aspen Mountain which will be expanded with the new chairlift in the Pandora zone, shown here in red. Trail P9 includes the existing Walsh’s run. P1-3 and P9-11 and 14 and 15 are rated as expert, while trails P4-8 are rated intermediate. The area also includes 100 acres of gladed terrain. New snowmaking coverage is tinted light blue, on the right of the map.

The White River National Forest on Tuesday signaled its approval of projects to expand ski terrain on Aspen Mountain into the Pandora zone and install enough snowmaking for top to-bottom coverage.

Building a new 1,200-vertical-foot lift off the upper east side of the existing ski area boundary, severing what is now popular side-country terrain, and closing the gap on the snowmaking system have been in the ski area’s long term plans for decades. With the draft decision notice released by White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, those plans are close to becoming reality, signifying what is perhaps the most significant work to be undertaken on Aspen Mountain in a generation.

Construction on phase one of the snowmaking, involving infrastructure and 15 acres of coverage, could begin as soon as this summer, pending Pitkin County approval. Some timber clearing could begin this summer for the Pandora lift, but lift installation won’t happen until summer 2020. It is expected to open for the 2020-21 season, according to David Corbin, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president for planning and development.

National forest officials backed the Aspen Skiing Co. proposal following the acceptance last year of an updated ski area master development plan and a project-specific review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Tuesday’s announcement kicks off a 45-day objection period. If none come forward — to object, one must have gotten involved earlier in the process — then the decision becomes final. If objections are submitted, they must be adjudicated through a formal process.

The Forest Service cited improved skier circulation on the upper east side of the mountain, reliable and consistent snow coverage on the upper mountain and additional minimally maintained lift-served terrain and traditional alpine trails as reasons to approve the projects.

The expansion into the Pandora terrain encompasses some 180 acres to the skier’s right of the expert Walsh’s run. About 80 acres would be traditionally cleared alpine trails and 100 acres would be gladed skiing, where 30 to 40 percent of trees in a natural forest are removed for improved tree skiing, though some areas as open enough in their current natural state. Roughly 30 percent of the gladed terrain will be intermediate friendly, according to Corbin.

Of the cleared trails, 47 percent will be rated as “intermediate,” according to documents included in the decision notice, with the rest rated as expert.

Much of the new lift-served terrain is today enjoyed as “sidecountry,” meaning out-of-bounds runs that feed back into the resort. It encompasses what’s known now as the Pandora, Powerline and Harris’ Wall runs.

Expanding into the expert, intermediate and gladed terrain adds to the diversity and variety of offerings on Aspen Mountain, according to the Forest Service and SkiCo.  

“While the existing traditionally cleared trails remain popular at Aspen Mountain, an increasing number of its guests seek undeveloped terrain as well as traditional trails located within more natural-appearing and remote settings,” says the decision notice authored by Fitzwilliams. “This trend is evidenced by the increased use of Aspen Mountain’s sidecountry terrain.”

“ … There is a need for additional undeveloped lift-served terrain in the form of larger contiguous gladed areas that contain a variety of natural skiable features (such as rocks, cliff bands, gullies, and chutes) not currently present within Aspen Mountain’s existing gladed areas. Further, Aspen Mountain has a need for intermediate level glades, which are not currently offered within the existing operational boundary,” the decision notice says.

The new lift will be located about 1,500 linear feet below the current end of Walsh’s and it will extend that trail along with Hyrup’s and Kristi. It will top out about 950 feet south of the Sundeck.

“Our guests, both intermediates and experts, express interest in gladed terrain,” Corbin wrote in an email. “Pandora’s terrain offers the advantages of a northeast aspect to hold snow, different scenery, varied pitches, high elevation and efficient circulation with glades, braided trails and tree pockets which should be attractive to our guests. The lower portion of the Pandora terrain in particular should be very appealing to intermediates.”

Between the traditionally cleared runs and gladed terrain, a total of 106 acres of trees will need to be cleared to make way for the expansion. To access the site, logging trucks will make as many as two round trips a day over a three-month period up Little Annie Road on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Other construction traffic will use the Summer Road on the frontside.

The Forest Service decision also covers a plan to add 53 acres of snowmaking coverage to the top of the mountain. The current snowmaking system, installed in the early 1980s following a desperate drought season in 1977-’78, stops about 500 vertical feet short of the top of the mountain, as it was focused on providing coverage on the less-reliable lower portions.

Recent years have proven that the top of the mountain is also susceptible to a lack of natural snow coverage in the early season. When that happens, skiing is only possible on man-made snow that ends at the top of the Deer Park run, meaning the gondola cannot be used. Instead, skiers access the terrain on the Little Nell and Bell Mountain chairs, which are old and slow.

The now-approved project will add snowmaking coverage to the top portions of the One and Two Leaf, Silver Bell, Dipsy Doodle, Buckhorn, North American and Copper runs. This will require a second water storage pond near the existing pond at the bottom of the Gent’s Ridge chairlift, a new pump station and miles of pipeline.

The decision analyzed the watershed and runoff impacts of the extra snowmaking, which SkiCo officials have said will require an additional 57 acre feet of water purchased annually from the city of Aspen.

“I recognize that the project may affect the Spar Gulch and Keno Gulch watersheds as well as the broader Roaring Fork Valley watershed, including Maroon and Castle Creeks,” Fitzwilliams wrote. “However, watershed … and drainage management improvements approved for this project will mitigate these impacts.

“In addition, the water use approved for this project will ultimately be beholden to instream flow requirements for stream health. Under existing authority, Aspen Mountain can only draw water through the city of Aspen’s diversions from Castle Creek and Maroon Creek if stream flows are high enough to handle the withdrawals without falling below the instream flow amount.”

The Forest Service received 20 written comments on the proposal during the process, both positive and negative in their feedback.

“I also understand there is concern over impacts to wildlife that currently use the Pandora area, specifically elk and Canada lynx,” Fitzwilliams wrote in the decision. “I believe the additional impacts from the proposal will be negligible given that recent wildlife surveys indicate minimal use by the species, and that the area, after decades of use by backcountry users, already has lower suitability as habitat.

“There are other potential impacts to the project including the potential displacement of backcountry users that currently use the Pandora area, and the scenic impacts from certain viewsheds. In the context of the existing developed conditions at Aspen Mountain and the potential benefits to the Aspen Mountain guests, I believe the benefits outweigh the potential costs. Overall, I feel my decision will improve the experience of guests to the forest within the Aspen Mountain special use permit area in conjunction with the stated environmental impacts.”

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.