Aspen Skiing Co. banks on summer business to diversify interests, hedge against climate change

Snowmass sees steady increase in visitation at Lost Forest, bike park

Eight young climbers tackle the routes on the Rugged Ascent Climbing Wall at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola on Snowmass on Monday, June 21, 2021. Summer business at the Lost Forest adventure center is steadily growing. (Kelsey Brunner/Snowmass Sun)

Aspen Skiing Co. officials are thrilled that summer visits are becoming a bigger part of the business portfolio, but not just because it puts more money in the company’s pockets.

Nurturing summer business is also a good hedge for a company dependent on snow on a warming planet.

Skico invested $10 million in the middle of the last decade to add a variety of activities at Snowmass — canopy cruiser zip line, a ropes challenge course, the Breathtaker alpine coaster and a climbing wall. It has also invested to a lesser extent on amenities at the top of Aspen Mountain.

The investments are paying off.

“Lost Forest came online in 2018 and visitation has increased double digits each year,” said Skico Vice President of Communications Jeff Hanle.

Meanwhile, the number of customers who purchased a summer lift ticket to haul a bicycle up and and scream down several thousand vertical feet on the specially built trails in the bike park at Snowmass have doubled in the past five years.

Over at Aspen Mountain, summer visits have remained relatively flat in the past few years, in part because of a shortened operating season in 2021 when the wire cable on the Silver Queen Gondola was replaced.

“Overall our summer visitation has seen a steady increase,” Hanle said.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said in an interview last month that building summer business is one of the company’s accomplishments he is most proud of during his 16 years at the helm. Kaplan, 57, announced in March he will retire at the end of next ski season.

Adding summer amenities was a big part of Kaplan’s strategy to diversify and add to the ski business.

“It’s a big deal and it’s really taken off,” he told The Aspen Times last month. “It’s proven up and we’re thinking of what Summer 2.0 looks like in terms of next phase of bike trails and experiences on the mountain.”

But promoting activities that aren’t dependent on snow is also a survival strategy.

“Obviously the climate issue is the biggest looming issue upon us,” Kaplan said of the ski industry and mountain communities dependent on winter tourism. “We’re dealing with it every month now. Yeah, we’ve had a great year, but look back on how (winter snow) came in and when it came in and the temperatures — it shows how it’s weirding out. You look at the West Coast, basically California had one storm.”

National Geographic magazine reported in its March issue that low-altitude ski resorts in the Alps are fighting for their lives. Many of them must adapt — or wither.

As the magazine reported, a small increase in warming might not sound like much, but it determines if precipitation falls as snow or rain. The warmer it gets, the less snow falls.

It’s not just a problem for the 1,100 ski lift operators in the Alps. The Brooks Mountain Range in the U.S. and Canada has experienced the first snow falling three days later and the last snow day coming 12 days earlier over the past 21 years, according to National Geographic.

In Aspen, there were about 30 more frost-free days between 2010-2018 than there were between 1980 and 1989, according to an analysis of weather records by the Aspen Global Change Institute.

Skico is attempting to make its bread-and-butter product — skiing — less susceptible to climate change. It added snowmaking coverage on the upper third of Aspen Mountain two seasons ago. In winter 2023-24, it will add skiing on north- and northeast-facing slopes in the Pandora’s area of Aspen Mountain. Those slopes are above 10,000 feet and hold snow well due to the elevation and aspect.

People ride the Breathtaker Alpine Coaster on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, at Snowmass Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“Our winter seasons have been shortening,” Hanle said. As a result, it makes sense for Skico to offer activities such as the alpine coaster at Snowmass in case ski season openings are delayed in the future, he noted.

But to put conditions into perspective, Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t figure it will evolve into Aspen Summer Co. any time soon. Hanle said most of the company’s summer offerings are intended to be alternative activities for people already visiting the area rather than activities that attract people to the area on their own.

“It’s less of a destination driver than skiing in the winter,” Hanle said.

The lone exception might by the downhill mountain bike park, which attracts some riders to Snowmass specifically for the experience.

Skico is exploring ways to better utilize its summer amenities to increase business and possible expansion of the bike park.

Skico typically racks up 1.4 million skier and snowboard rider visits per winter. The company won’t release specific summer visit numbers but Hanle said it is a small fraction of the winter numbers.

“We’re not anywhere near there,” he said. “It’s going to continue to grow, but I don’t think it’s going to come close to what we do in the winter.”

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