The quiet off-season came to a close with the early opening of Aspen Mountain on Saturday. Skiers and snowboarders lined up early, eager to get to the top to start off the season. Excitement was in the air as people loaded the Silver Queen Gondola, ready for the start of a new season.
Longtime Aspen Skiing Co. employee Travis Benson took the reins as mountain manager at Ajax over the summer and had his first opening day on Saturday. Formerly the Buttermilk mountain manager, he has been with Skico since 2005. Benson, an Aspen native, is the former head coach of the Aspen High School football team.
His first Opening Day as Aspen Mountain manager went went smoothly, he said, but not without knocking on wood because “it’s only 2:15,” and the day was not over yet.
“Winter is here, and it’s exciting,” he said. “Opening on a good snow surface on a sunny day. There were lots of smiles.”
Aspen Mountain opened with top-to-bottom skiing. The cold weather, paired with the ability to make snow across the mountain, allowed for an early opening that excited beginners and experts.
Benson said things went smoothly and estimated they were able to open about 260 acres of skiable terrain, which made for a “huge success” on Opening Day.
“From maintenance all the way through to what I call the ‘dark ops’ of cats and snowmaking, to lift-off patrol to guest-facing services, everybody was on point. I am truly honored to be working with this team,” he said.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan greeted everyone at the bottom of the Silver Queen Gondola in the early morning, calling this his “last first day.”
“It’s awesome. I couldn’t ask for it to be any better, right? The sun’s out, we have incredible snow on the ground,” said Kaplan, who will step down from his post after this season.
Both he and Benson gave kudos to employees and emphasized how smoothly operations went because of their efforts.
“Hats off to the operations team,” Benson said. “From snowmaking to winter trails to lift operations crew and maintenance. Everyone was diving in and cranking away to get us where we are. The guest services team was out in force this morning. Every ounce of this mountain, every employee put in a ton of work.”
“(The crews) took advantage of every minute of cold temperatures and every inch of snow we got and put it down,” Kaplan said.
He estimated staffing was up 40% from where they were last year.
“We’re doing a lot better with staffing, significantly better than last year,” he said. “We’re in much better shape than we were really the last two years.”
Aspen Mountain kicked off the year with Buckhorn Cutoff, Buckhorn Trail, Copper, Copper Bowl, Silver Bell, Deer Park, Dipsey Doodle, Easy Chair, Lazy Boy, Midnight, North American, One and Two Leaf, Pumphouse Hill, Silver Dip, Spar Gulch, and Little Nell all open. Silver Queen Gondola, Ajax Express, and the Gent’s Ridge chairlift were running.
“It’s amazing up there. I couldn’t be happier,” Kaplan said.
The Sundeck at Aspen Mountain was open for food and drink. Music on the Mountain returned from noon to 3 p.m. for the crowds of people to enjoy during their mountaintop break.
Kaplan added he was planning on tackling both Aspen and Snowmass Ski Area on his last first day as president and CEO.
Looking forward, Aspen Mountain is dependent on Mother Nature to see what terrain will be open next.
“We have some more snowmaking capabilities on the west side, but Mother Nature is going to have to assist us with some of the other steeper terrain,” Benson said.
Opening day at Snowmass was equally successful and featured a lot more terrain than Skico originally expected.
As of Friday, the night before opening day, Snowmass was set to open with only 78 acres, recently adding skiing to the top of Village Express Lift into play. Upper Scooper, Lower Hals, Fanny Hill, Elk Camp Meadows, Upper Hals, Upper Velvet, Pocket Park on lower Fanny, and the ski-back trail to the clinic were scheduled to be open. The operating lifts were scheduled to be Sky Cab, Village Express to midway, Elk Camp Gondola, and Elk Camp Meadows.
However, officials said they were able to open the frontside of Sam’s Knob, as well as a portion of Big Burn. This brought the skiable terrain up to 418 acres over 18 trails at Snowmass.
Aspen Highlands is still set to open Dec. 10. Buttermilk will open Dec. 17, giving ample time for construction to wrap up on the new base area.
To reach Audrey Ryan, email her at email@example.com.