one more lap

Uphillers make their way through Aspen Mountain’s gondola plaza Tuesday before starting the skin up. The popular off-season past time will not be allowed on Ajax starting Thursday until the mountain opens as a safety measure as crews get the hill ready for Saturday’s season kick off.

Aspen Mountain will be closed to uphillers all day on Thursday and Friday, as well as Saturday morning as crews prepare for Saturday’s early opening.

The closure is needed to ensure public safety during the busy sprint to opening day, in light of the growing popularity of hiking up the hill before the season officially kicks off.

“When we are working hard to get things prepared, there’s a lot of traffic and movement on hill,” said Katie Ertl, Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of mountain operations. “We have snowmaking and snowmobiles, we have guns running and then we have cats pushing snow.”

Anywhere between 50 and 200 uphillers a day have been skinning or hiking up Aspen Mountain during the last few weeks, she said.

Occasionally, a block of snow being pushed by a snow cat will break off and roll down hill, potentially endangering someone below, she said. 

“Our biggest concern is the safety of the individual,” Ertl said. SkiCo wants its employees to be able to work without the concern of “who’s behind me, who’s around the corner, and knowing we have all this traffic coming up the hill was a factor in this decision,” she said.

The situation is particularly challenged on Aspen Mountain because the uphill route is the same confined space that crews are working to get ready for Saturday’s opening — the Little Nell and Spar Gulch runs.

After Saturday, normal uphill policy resumes on Aspen Mountain, which requires uphillers to be nearing the top once the mountain opens at 9 a.m. each morning.  

Snowmass remains open to uphillers in the run up to Saturday’s opening, which will see 60 acres of skiing from the midway point on the Village Express six-person chairlift.

On Aspen Mountain, terrain that will be open when the season starts five days early on Saturday could be a fluid situation, depending on the amount of snow that falls in the coming days.

As of Tuesday, the base on the top of Aspen Mountain, above the terminus of the snowmaking system, was too “fragile” to support public, lift-served skiing, Ertl said.

Based on those current conditions, the only viable skiing product SkiCo is comfortable offering involves man-made snow served by the Little Nell and Bell Mountain chairlifts, where the compacted base is at least 18 inches deep. 

“On Sunday, [SkiCo CEO] Mike Kaplan and I, at different times, went up on our skinning setups and looked at the top and decided that a better product to open on right now would be man-made snow, with the hopes that we get between 6 and 10 inches and could open the top on natural [snow],” she explained.

If that happens, skiers could ride up the Silver Queen Gondola — which will be open to sightseers regardless — and ski top to bottom. Even if there is enough snow and enough time to get the top of the mountain set up for an opening, Ajax Express — also known as Chair 3 — may not open right away for return skiing.

Snow is in the forecast on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. According to Aspen Weather, a local subscription-based forecasting website, 2 to 4 inches of wet snow could fall on the ski areas Wednesday night, with the chance for another 3 to 6 inches at the ski areas by overnight on Thursday. On Friday, 1 to 3 more inches could fall before the skies clear for the weekend.

For now, crews have been focusing on getting Nell and Bell chairs ready to go, with enough snow to set up line mazes and loading and unloading ramps.

More SkiCo personnel are on standby if needed, Ertl added.

“They’re ready to work. When we call them in, they are pretty excited to open as well,” she said. 

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