Aspen’s Terrain Expansion Shows Us What Climate-Resistant Slopes Will Look Like

This article originally appeared on Outside

On a bluebird day last March, Tessa Dawson carved graceful telemark turns down Walsh's, a double black diamond run on the eastern flank of Aspen Mountain, known as Ajax by locals. Six inches of new snow coated the hill. About halfway down, she pulled over to a boundary rope and pointed toward a stretch of pines and untouched snow that tumbled at a perfect pitch down the northeast side of Ajax. The Roaring Fork River snaked through the valley below. Dawson was showing me Hero's, 153 acres of prime chutes, glades, and trails that Aspen will unveil in December, upping Ajax's inbounds' acreage by over 20 percent. It's the most exciting thing that's happened on the mountain since the Silver Queen gondola debuted in 1985.

Pandora Aspen Snowmass
The Pandora expansion's north-facing, high-elevation terrain is naturally climate-resistant, and adds 20 percents to the resort's skiable acreage this season. (Photo: Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company)

Named as a tribute to some of the legendary figures who shaped Aspen into the place it is today--including Jim Crown, of the family that owns Aspen Skiing Co, who passed away last summer--Hero's is a nine-million-dollar project that's been decades in the making and will serve up 19 double black chutes, four main expert runs, and three intermediate gladed zones dropping over 1,220 vertical feet and serviced by a new high-speed quad. "It's a great opportunity to take advantage of some phenomenal terrain," said Dawson, a 15-year veteran ski patroller whose long, blond braid was coated in frost after a morning spent mitigating avalanche hazards.

Not only is Hero's a win for skiers, but it's also insurance of sorts for climate-impacted winters. "A large driving factor in opening it was how do we deal with the ever-evolving climate?" said Dawson. The answer for Aspen came, in part, in the form of Hero's and its stash of shady, high-mountain terrain, which sits above 10,000 feet and will hold snow as temperatures rise. "It's largely north and northeast-facing," Dawson explained. "So, as we get warmer and the base area may see more rain events, this will help us with climate change and keep us skiing longer."

Also Read: See Where Aspen Snowmass Ranked in the SKI's 2024 Reader Resort Survey

Resorts around the world are already suffering the impacts of climate change. Winters are getting warmer, and storms are becoming more violent but less frequent. While Alta, Utah was slammed with over 75 feet of snow last winter, closing the resort for days at a time, photos last January of the Swiss Alps showed green alpine meadows where snow-covered ski slopes should have been. The International Olympic Committee recently expressed concerns about declining options for viable Winter Games hosts. By 2050, ski season across the U.S. is projected to shrink by 50 percent. In 50 years, coastal and low-lying resorts will likely cease to exist. "Without drastic changes I believe the ski industry will look radically different in 50 years," said Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Co's senior vice president of sustainability.

Pandora terrain addition
The almost-entirely expert addition sits above 10,000 feet on Aspen Mountain. (Photo: Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company)

As a result, resorts are starting to take action. In 2019, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort began powering all of its on-mountain operations by wind power. Seven years earlier, Aspen Ski Company partnered with Holy Cross Energy to convert methane from a defunct coal mine an hour away into usable energy. The coal mine now generates enough power annually to power ASC's four resorts, as well as its hotels and restaurants.

But, for the most part, these climate mitigating actions largely amount to little more than installing energy efficient lightbulbs in resort facilities, ramping up snowmaking and making it more energy efficient, and diversifying revenue streams geographically and business-wise. Cue Vail Resorts global takeover and the addition of ziplines, alpine slides and mountain bike parks to ski hills worldwide. Real change, says Schendler, will require systemic solutions.

With Hero's, Aspen Skiing Co. is making a different play in that they're implementing changes on the mountain that skiers can see, feel, and enjoy-- a move that's likely a glimpse of what's to come industry wide. But Hero's wasn't Aspen's first climate change-inspired terrain modification. About ten years ago, Aspen Skiing Company moved some of Snowmass's beginner terrain from the bottom of the mountain to the top of the Elk's gondola at over 11,000 feet. Aspen, it seems, has always been one step ahead of its competition.

Pandora Aspen Snowmass
The north-facing terrain will hold snow for longer, especially the three gladed sections, where skiers can powder pockets for days after a storm. (Photo: Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company/Matt Power)

For the most part, the community supported Hero's, though a small constituency opposed it. Some grumbled about making public a beloved insider's powder stash. Others cited environmental concerns and wondered why it was necessary to add more acreage to Aspen Skiing Company's collective 5,527 acres spread over four mountains. In a 2021 presentation about the project, one local complained that SkiCo was adding to climate change, not ameliorating it, by removing trees from the forest, which she said, "made no sense," according to the Aspen Times.

Nonetheless, many locals look forward to the day the boundary rope on Hero's will drop. "It's fantastic terrain for anyone who loves steeps. I'm looking forward to completion," said Aspen native Johno McBride, former U.S. Ski Team men's coach.

Back on the mountain, Dawson and I discuss the future of skiing and what that might hold for Aspen. "We all love skiing and that's why we're here. We also understand that it's impactful," she said. "So, we're trying to be creative in how we approach this industry and our impact and the future." It's a hard balance to strike, but for the moment, it's one Aspen seems to have accomplished: innovating novel approaches to fighting climate change off the mountain while trying to guarantee a future for skiing on it. Then, Dawson's walkie talkie crackled alive, and she had to go. She turned her skis downhill and, moments later, disappeared into a cloud of cold smoke. For the moment, winter in Aspen was in full force.

If You Go...

Pandora Aspen Snowmass
There are plenty of new diversions this season in that little ski town at the base of Ajax. (Photo: Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company)

Hero's isn't the only addition to Aspen this season. From new apres spots to spas, here are five new, not-to-missed offerings in one of the world's best ski towns.

After a 10-year, 50-million-dollar-renovation, the old Molly Gibson will reopen in December as the MOLLIE Aspen, a four-star lodge with 68 rooms, a rooftop pool, and a slick cocktail lounge with a menu designed by the folks from the Denver speakeasy Death & Co.

In December, Colorado's oldest whiskey distillery Stranahan's debuts a new tasting room on Aspen's pedestrian mall overlooking Wagner Park. Complete with alpine-inspired bites, craft cocktails, and drams of its signature American single malt whiskey, Stranahan's promises to be a staple of Aspen's tippling scene.

The Little Nell unveils The Spa at the Little Nell, a 5,000-square-foot facility that features a state-of-the-art workout room, four treatment suites, infrared sauna, innovative skin care offerings, and the latest advances in performance and recovery treatments. Try the Flow, a 75-minute Swedish style massage that uses warm herbal compresses and high-performance botanicals to ease aches and pains--the perfect antidote after a day on Aspen's steeps.

In a land of $80 entrees, the Bar Under Cooper and Kitchen, aka the Buck, will offer affordable--by Aspen standards--drinks and bar food in hopes of becoming locals' preferred apres ski spot. Look for daily drink specials, six beers on tap, and tables from the shuttered Red Onion, which have ski passes of longtime Aspen locals embedded in the tabletops.

Further afield in Snowmass, Viewline will partner with Moet & Chandon to host daily "Moet on the Mountain," daily, slopeside apres-ski parties starting December 23 and featuring discounted bubbly, deals on food, and, Thursday through Sunday, a live DJ.

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