Some of the most “unusual” snow conditions have created some of the best early-season skiing that Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Mountain Operations Rich Burkley has witnessed in 20-plus years on the hill.
It’s extremely rare that Skico can open double-black-diamond terrain prior to Thanksgiving, Burkley said. So much snow fell so early that trails crews were able to use winch cats to compact the snow in the expert terrain of Walsh’s and Kristi. They both opened Saturday. One skier with 40 years of skiing on Aspen Mountain said it is the first time ever Walsh’s was open to start the season.
Typically ski patrollers would compact the snow by boot packing or ski packing — tamping down the snow so it would be less susceptible to sliding. In rare occasions, such as this year, conditions allow use of the winch cats, modified snowcats with a winch on the back. The cable from the cats is attached to an anchor point or to another cat so it can compact or groom snow in steep terrain.
Using winch cats is quicker and safer than boot packing.
“It keeps a bunch of packers out of harm’s way,” Burkley said.
The cat makes about five or six passes through Walsh’s to compact it. The same work requires 12 patrollers working two full days, he said.
The winch cat couldn’t be used to compact snow in Hyrup’s because the trail has too many trees, according to Burkley. Hyrup’s is between Walsh’s and Kristi.
The winch cats also were employed to compact the snow in McFarlane’s, a popular backcountry area on the backside of Aspen Mountain used by Skico’s Aspen Powder Tours. McFarlane’s regularly slides after accumulating enough snow. Compacting the base with the winch cat will make it safer, Burkley said.
Skico uses part of the White River National Forest for its powder-tour operation. U.S. Forest Service officials were initially uncertain if the use of winch cats was allowed in the backcountry under Aspen Powder Tours’ special-use permit. Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the agency had to research the issue because longtime winter-sports coordinator Jim Stark retired prior to this winter. His replacement, Matt Ehrman, said the “short answer is yes,” Skico can use a winch cat as part of its powder-tour operations.
Burkley said the snow on the steep slopes of Walsh’s and McFarlane’s typically slides after about 60 inches accumulates. History shows the snow would slide to the bare dirt. Instead of making that snow slide, Skico wants to compact it to create a solid, safe base to build on throughout the season.
“Our avalanche control means pinning it down,” he said.
The snowpack east of Aspen on Independence Pass is 112 percent of average for this time of year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Aspen Mountain opened for the weekend of Nov. 16 and 17 and then opened for the season Saturday along with Snowmass. They were scheduled to open on Thanksgiving Day.
Aspen Mountain is reporting a 23-inch base at top with 412 acres open.
Snowmass is reporting a 32-inch mountaintop base. It has 615 acres open.
Burkley ventured a guess that Aspen-Snowmass is one of the few resorts with double-diamond terrain open so early. A glance at the Colorado Ski Country USA snow report shows that’s true. Wolf Creek had expert terrain open, and Winter Park had a small amount of expert trails open. Resorts such as Vail Mountain, Breckenridge and Keystone haven’t been able to open their steepest terrain yet, their snow reports indicated.