We hope so! Aspen Snowmass is looking to add a lift-served terrain pod to Aspen Mountain. It’s in the area known as Pandora’s, the rolling, gladed terrain located just east of the Walsh’s run at the top of the mountain. Pandora’s sits within Aspen Mountain’s permit boundary and has been in our ski area plans for years, its terrain accessed for decades by local backcountry enthusiasts. (You may have been one of them: This terrain already sees extensive use, with skiers making thousands of excursions into the zone from the top of the gondola every season.) The U.S. Forest Service has already approved the project through an exhaustive Environmental Assessment, as has Pitkin County’s Planning and Zoning Board. We are currently working to earn final approval from the Pitkin County Commissioners.
The biggest reason we want to add Pandora’s? It’s wonderful terrain on a gorgeous section of the mountain. Look up to the east, and views travel up Independence Pass. Turn your eyes to the valley floor, and you’ll see the Northstar Nature Preserve, with the Roaring Fork River carving a meandering line through the snow. The setting is as idyllic as it gets—and Pandora’s delivers a big payoff for a modest addition of infrastructure. By thoughtfully placing one lift, cutting a handful of runs, and glading existing tree stands, Pandora’s will increase Aspen Mountain’s lift-served skiable acreage by more than 20 percent—adding 153 acres to the current 675. The project will extend some of our favorite existing runs, including Walsh’s and Kristi, lengthening vertical drop to 1,220 feet and eliminating the hike out at the bottom. (Instead, you will hop on the new lift.) Importantly, Pandora’s will also diversify Aspen Mountain’s terrain mix, adding a nice helping of intermediate glades and groomed runs.
Aspen Snowmass updates each of our four mountain’s master plans at least once a decade. These collaborative processes involve federal agencies and community stakeholders. The resulting plans guide our product and infrastructure development. The Pandora’s proposal was originally included in the 2017 Aspen Mountain Master Plan, but because of a technical zoning concern was separated out for additional consideration. The rest of the 2017 plan went on to win approval by the Forest Service, then Pitkin County P&Z, and finally the Pitkin County Commissioners by the fall of 2019.
Some of the plan’s projects have already been completed—most notably the extension of snowmaking to the summit of Aspen Mountain—while others, such as replacing the Bell Chair and an approved redevelopment and new lift on the Lift 1A side of the mountain, will come later.
It’s important to see Pandora’s as a complementary piece to the 2017 Master Plan. Bringing it to life is key to ensuring the bigger plan’s full potential, which includes improving skier circulation on the upper mountain by taking pressure off the Ajax Express chair.
Not to overstate the obvious, but Aspen is a ski town, and climate change threatens our very way of life. Aspen Snowmass has aggressively fought climate change for decades. We installed a micro-hydro plant on Snowmass, one of many renewable energy projects on our mountains. We consistently lobby for smart state and national climate policies. And we built a one-of-a-kind power plant that converts methane leaking from a closed coalmine into electricity (and which was recently featured in the Washington Post).
While our climate advocacy work will continue and expand going forward, we also need to adapt to the changes we’re already seeing. That’s why we installed snowmaking to the summit of Aspen Mountain—it helps ensure good skiing when Mother Nature doesn’t play along. Beyond its great pitch, the Pandora’s terrain is north-facing and at high elevation. It’s like a snow refrigerator up there, meaning natural snowfall—our very favorite kind—holds up longer. Increasing the public’s access to the Pandora’s terrain should be viewed as a logical hedge against future climate-challenged ski seasons.
Leaving forests alone isn’t always the best thing for them. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 Forest Health Environmental Assessment (EA) for the area that includes Pandora’s, “Without intervention, stand resilience and overall forest health is likely to continue deteriorating.” The 2017 Forest Service EA produced for the Aspen Mountain Master Plan goes even further, stating that the Pandora’s glading and timbering options will:
1. Reduce risk of forest fires;
2. Increase penetration of sunlight to benefit new growth on the forest floor
3. Result in a healthy forest with a diversity of trees; and
4. Not endanger any wildlife—no critical habitat is involved.
In terms of energy use, the construction of the lift and removal of trees will bring vehicle trips. That’s unavoidable. But once the lift is running, it will be powered by Holy Cross Energy. Aspen Snowmass has worked hard to help Holy Cross move toward renewable-energy sources for its power. And it’s working: By 2030, Holy Cross — and all of our Aspen Mountain lifts — will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
We love the idea of Pandora’s and truly believe that if the skiing public were to vote on it, it would be overwhelmingly embraced. But Pandora’s fate lies in the hands of the Pitkin County Commissioners. To support the commissioners in saying yes to Pandora’s, a group of citizens has formed an advocacy and awareness group, Friends of Pandora’s. To learn more about what they’re up to and how you might help, visit FriendsofPandoras.com. Get even more involved by signing the petition in support of Pandora's.