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Skico's Pandora Expansion Still Alive

Oct 28, 2019

Aspen Skiing Company vice president Rich Burkley in 2017 standing along Richmond Ridge, near where the top terminal of a proposed new lift would go if the Pandora expansion is approved.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

This Fall, The Aspen Skiing Company's (Skico) proposal to expand skiing into the Pandora area of Aspen Mountain was halted when county commissioners said no to a zoning change for the project. But Aspen Journalism’s Environmental Editor Elizabeth Stewart-Severy says Skico is asking to go back to the planning commission stage to try and keep the project alive.

"The sticking point is this Rural and Remote designation is partially intended to protect some areas from big development," said Stewart-Severy. "And so there's sort of a worry that if this zoning designation changes for Skico that would put pressure on... there's an open question on what that might mean for that zoning designation across the county. And there's quite a bit of land across the county that is designated rural and remote and some commissioners think, is this going to be a slippery slope?"

The idea for an expansion in the Pandora area is not a new one.

"Skico has had this in their plans, their master plans, for decades," Stewart-Severy explained. "So Skico's argument was this actually does fit with the character of the area, it's right adjacent to the current ski area and it wouldn't be that big of a change."

And, the Pandora area is already being used by skiers.

"This area is pretty heavily used by back country or side country users. Skico estimates that anywhere from zero to a hundred skiers a day are using the Pandora area currently," said Stewart-Severy. "And a hundred skiers in a not lift-served area is a pretty high density of back country skiers. The lift would bring, in their planning documents Skico estimated up to 600 people would be able to comfortably ski in this area if it were to be lift-served. So it would mean a substantial increase in the number of skiers."

Skico has had the Pandora area targeted for expansion for a reason. People who aren't expert-level skiers are looking for a more wild experience, and this area would provide it.

"Skico says this this would bring minimally-developed skiing to intermediate skiers. Right now on Aspen Mountain there is gladed skiing but it's all primarily expert terrain," Stewart-Severy said. "So they say there's a need for intermediate level skiing that feels a little bit more wild and a little bit more remote."

So, if the area is already being used for back country skiing and there's a need for a back country experience for intermediate skiers, the real issue is changing the zoning to allow for a lift. Could SkiCo expand Pandora without a lift?

"That idea has been floated by members of the public and one county commissioner brought it up in one of these approval meetings. Some people have really made the argument that some of the most popular skiing in the Aspen area is not served by a lift," Stewart-Severy explained. "Highland Bowl comes to mind. It's this incredibly popular, kind of iconic Aspen experience to hike up the bowl and ski it. And, the Pandora area is not as advanced skiing as the Highland Bowl and people could still have this back country-ish experience but not have the heavy industry of a lift."