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Aspen, Snowmass under winter storm watch from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday night

The winter storm barreling across the West is expected to bring heavy snow to the upper Roaring Fork Valley from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service’s winter storm watch update on Monday night.

Heavy snow is possible over many of the Western Colorado mountain ranges, with total snow accumulations of 12 to 18 inches with higher amounts up to 2 feet on the southwest facing slopes will be possible. Winds gusting as high as 55 mph in exposed areas will also be possible.

Motorists should anticipate hazardous driving conditions, including blowing snow that could significantly reduce visibility at times.

The winter storm watch does not include Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Rifle.


Storm brings avalanche warnings to Aspen, Snowmass area

Another round of snow with a forecast of as much as a foot Friday is making travel difficult around Aspen and Snowmass and sparking avalanche warnings in the Colorado mountains.

The National Weather Service forecast calls for 6 to 12 inches of snow by Friday night and winds gusting to 35 mph in the central and northern Colorado mountains. The advisory area includes the Elk and Gore mountains, up to the Steamboat area and toward Vail.

Avalanche warnings have been issued for all of the central Colorado mountains from Wyoming to New Mexico as a storm rolls through the state, including around the Roaring Fork Valley.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Friday morning update, as of 6 a.m. “weather stations are showing 0.5 to 1.5 inches of snow-water equivalent, but only 6 to 8 inches of snow. Winds have been blowing in a good range to drift snow, with ridge top gusts over 40 miles per hour. Dense snow, falling at high rates, and lots of drifting.”

The National Weather Service advisory in in effect until 6 p.m., and an update Friday said the “hazardous conditions could impact the evening commute.” Mountain passes will be difficult for holiday travelers, as heavy, wet snow hits most of the Colorado high country.

The Aspen School District canceled classes for Friday because of the overnight snow.

Those traveling in and out of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport should check their flight status before heading to Sardy Field.

Parts of southern and western Colorado are under a winter weather warning with more than a foot predicted in some areas, the NWS said.

The forecasted snow has increased the avalanche danger to high (level 4 out of 5) and backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is not advised, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center warned. This storm comes after up to 15 inches of snow fell Wednesday in the central mountains.

“Expect a heavy snow load on a weak snowpack beginning late Thursday night and continuing through Friday,” the CAIC said.

The avalanche danger will rise rapidly, according to the state agency, and slides will be large and easy to trigger or occur naturally in much of the Colorado high country.

The storm is forecast to clear out by Saturday, and the next chance for snow in the area on Monday and again Wednesday, the NWS said.

Colorado ski areas to open early for 2018-19 season

VAIL, Colo. (AP) — Vail and Beaver Creek mountains will join other Colorado resorts in opening early for the 2018-19 season.

The Vail Daily reports Vail, originally slated to open Friday, will open for the season at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Beaver Creek will open Saturday, four days ahead of its scheduled Nov. 21 opening date.

The early openings come as more than 4 feet of natural snow fell last week and cold temperatures helped with snowmaking conditions.

Vail will open with skiing and riding out of both Vail Village and Lionshead with about 0.8 square miles of skiable land and access to seven lifts:

Beaver Creek will open access to four lifts: Centennial Express, Cinch Express, Red Buffalo Express and Haymeadow Express Gondola.

Aspen Skiing Co. officials announced last week that Aspen Mountain will open for the season on Saturday, Nov. 17, five days before the scheduled opening — though what exactly will open was still to be determined.

Sunlight Mountain Resort projects Dec. 21 opening

Sunlight Mountain Resort expects to open Dec. 21, Marketing and Sales Director Troy Hawks said Wednesday. The resort’s original projected opening date was Dec. 8, but lack of snow forced staff to postpone the opening. At the time of the original announcement, Hawks didn’t offer a new projection.

“We’re still at that 18 inches, really, to get top-to-bottom skiing,” he said Wednesday.

The resort’s snowmaking capabilities do not extend to the top of the mountain. However, crews have made snow that extends to the top of the mountain’s lower lift. Hawks said they’re spreading that snow out to help prepare for opening.

Next week, Hawks expects food and beverage and rental shop employees to begin reporting to work. Ski patrollers will put up padding and signage as the staff makes its final push toward opening day.

“It’s supposed to break, and then hopefully that means at least some natural snow falls,” Hawks said. “We’re still hopeful we can make a nice Christmas for everyone.”

General Manager Tom Jankovsky has been with the resort since 1985, and remembers 1987 as the latest opening during his tenure, Hawks said. The 1987 season was projected to begin Nov. 25, but Sunlight wasn’t able to open until Dec. 18. At that point, 40 percent of the mountain was open with marginal conditions, according to a Glenwood Post article. By Dec. 28, 75 percent of the mountain had opened.

Cooler temperatures mean Vail, Beaver Creek can make snow in big bunches

EAGLE COUNTY — Businesses that depend on nature often have to adapt. In the ski business, adapting means being able to make your own snow. But even that human boost needs some cooperation from the elements.

The Vail Valley has had a warm fall so far. Those warm temperatures — until this week — may have been good for die-hard cyclists, but not so much for snowmaking crews at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort.

There’s a science to snowmaking, and nature has to provide low temperatures and a little more to really get the snow guns running.

Crews look at what’s called “wet bulb” temperatures. That means using a combination of both temperature and relative humidity.

Gary Shimanowitz, vice president of mountain operations at Beaver Creek, said the drier the air, the more effective snowmaking operations can be. Those temperatures need to be below 26 degrees to 28 degrees on the wet-bulb scale to get the best use from the equipment.

And, Shimanowitz said, colder temperatures help make more and better snow.

“If it’s 28 degrees, then 14 degrees, it’s not just double the snow,” he said. “It’s a non-linear scale.”

Watching the weather

Managers also have to carefully watch the weather, both forecasts and in real time.

“I look at as many (forecasts) as I possibly can,” Vail Mountain Snowmaking Manager Dave Tucholke said. That research includes the National Weather Service, opensnow.com, AccuWeather and others. Snowmaking crews average out those forecasts and then add a good-sized grain of salt.

There are also weather stations across the resorts and the mountains that provide instant information.

If temperatures and humidity cooperate, as they have this week, crews can make a lot of snow.

“You can literally make twice to two-thirds more if we can run all day,” Tucholke said.

With the equipment running flat out, Beaver Creek can cover 48 acres of terrain with a foot of snow in 24 hours.

Crews move the snow guns around, so they’re able to spread the snow around. In some places on Beaver Creek, the water hydrants that connect to the machinery can be just 150 feet apart, at the edges of runs.

Where to move equipment and people takes a lot of planning.

Tucholke said he’s usually awake at about 5 a.m. these days. He’ll get in touch with his team to find out how much work has been done. Later, he’ll get on the mountain to see for himself and decide where to move crews and equipment.

Right now, crews are working 24 hours a day — in shifts — to get as much work done as possible.

There’s more terrain to cover at Beaver Creek. There, about 700 acres of terrain can be covered with man-made snow. There’s less territory to cover at Vail — a bit more than 450 acres.

Making, then moving

Once the snow is blown, it’s up to the snow cat crews to move it around.

Even that isn’t a simple task. Sally Gunter, senior communications manager for Vail and Beaver Creek, said piles of snow have to sit for a while to dry out before cats can move them around. Otherwise, the snow turns icy and hard. That’s great for ski racing, but not for recreational skiing.

Cat crews stay busy not just with newly blown snow, but also the snow that’s been moved around by skiers during the day. At night, cat crews move snow from the freshly made wales and the edges of the runs back into the center.

At the moment, a lot of departments are working on the mountain, Gunter said.

“Snowmaking is a top priority now,” Tucholke said. That means bringing in people from other, less-busy departments to work on the mountain, as needed.

“We want to be as efficient as possible,” Tucholke said. “People are volunteering.”

They’re also hoping for some nature-made snow, and sooner than later.

“The great thing about Vail and Beaver Creek is that it doesn’t take a lot of natural snow to get the mountain open really quickly,” Gunter said. “We’re in a great weather pattern now, so hopefully that will continue.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

Skico wants to expand snowmaking on Aspen Mountain

Aspen Skiing Co. wants to take uncertainty out of the equation for opening Aspen Mountain at Thanksgiving in future seasons.

Skico’s updated master plan for Aspen Mountain proposes expansion of snowmaking onto 35 acres of terrain on the upper mountain. That might not sound like a lot, but it would provide top-to-bottom snowmaking capabilities. Snowmaking infrastructure currently stops at the Deer Park trail, just above the bottom terminal of the Ajax Express chairlift.

Skico officials have said in the past they want to add snowmaking to the 1 & 2 Leaf and Silver Bell trails.

Expanded snowmaking would provide a good backup in those seasons where Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with natural snow. Warm, dry conditions this fall haven’t brought much natural snow or allowed for snowmaking, but it’s rare that warm temperatures persist far into December.

Aspen Mountain was unable to open as scheduled last Thanksgiving, and the company has expressed concerns about climate change.

The updated master plan has been submitted to the U.S. Forest Service for review and also will be submitted to Pitkin County.