Even with an expanded system, snowmaking faces challenges on Aspen Mountain this season

Snowmaking at the Buttermilk ski area took off on Thursday, November 18, 2021, a week after opening day for Aspen Mountain and Snowmass. Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands plan to open on December 11. (Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times)

The expansion of Aspen Skiing Co.’s snowmaking system on Mount Aspen to ensure early season openings will be put to the test this year.

Skico extended the snowmaking system to parts of the upper third of Aspen Mountain ahead of the 2020-21 season. The expansion paid instant dividends in helping to establish top-to-bottom skiing on opening day of 2020. Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said at the time, “Without this new snowmaking, we would do tours off Nell. “

Temperatures this year have not been cold enough to undertake nearly as much snowfall as last season, a point made on Wednesday at a meeting of Pitkin County Commissioners by Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability and community engagement.

According to figures updated by Schendler on Friday, Skico has used 13.77 million gallons of water so far this season for making snow on Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and Buttermilk on Friday morning. By that time in 2020, it had used 61.26 million gallons. This year’s snow cover is only 22% of what it was last season due to the dry and hot conditions so far in November.

Snowmaking on Aspen Mountain has consumed about 8.12 million gallons of water so far this season, up from 30.78 million gallons at this point last year. Colder temperatures from Wednesday evening through Thursday morning contributed to an increase in snow production. About a quarter of all the snow produced on Aspen Mountain came in during this recent 24 hour period.

Snowmass is even further behind. So far, about 4.11 million gallons of water have been used for making snow. Last year at the same point, it was at 23.82 million gallons.

Buttermilk had used 1.53 million gallons of water as of Friday, up from 6.66 million gallons at the same time last year. Skico has not snowed in Aspen Highlands so far this season, although Aspen Valley Ski Club has blown snow on the lower slopes which they use for training.

Last season, Skico used a total of 229.25 million gallons of water for its snowmaking operations.

Cooler nighttime temperatures are settling in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, so Skico will likely be able to catch up. Minimum temperatures in Aspen are expected to be between 16 and 26 degrees every night until the scheduled opening of Thanksgiving Day, according to the National Weather Service.

Aspen Mountain and Snowmass are scheduled to open Thursday; Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk are scheduled to open on December 11.

At Aspen Mountain, Skico received approval from the US Forest Service and Pitkin County in 2019 to add 53 acres of snow to six of the top trails. Skico added infrastructure on about 20 acres of the Silver Bell Trail, between where the old system ended on the Deer Park Trail and the summit. No plan has been announced regarding the schedule for expanding the system.

The Forest Service analysis said the expanded system would provide clear benefits.

“During seasons with minimal snowfall at the start of the season, skiing up and down may be delayed from the scheduled opening day, reducing the available land offerings and placing a financial burden on ski operations. station, “the agency said.

Schendler told county commissioners on Wednesday that Skico officials are making more decisions based on the need for climate adaptation.

“It’s now 3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in 1950,” Schendler said, citing data for Aspen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He also referred to a Aspen Global Change Institute study who determined that the Aspen area is now about 30 days less with freezing winter temperatures than in the early 1980s.

In addition to the larger snowmaking system, Pandora’s field expansion in the upper eastern part of Aspen Mountain is designed to adapt to global warming, Schendler said. The Pandora land expansion, approved by the commissioners, will add 153 acres of land that is generally oriented east and above 10,000 feet in elevation.

“This is a climate adaptation movement” to add ground to Pandora, Schendler told commissioners. “At some point, communities like Aspen and Pitkin County will start making decisions based on climate adaptation. “

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