Aspen Skiing Co. bets on summer activities to diversify its interests and protect against climate change

Eight young climbers tackle the routes of the Rugged Ascent climbing wall at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola on Snowmass on Monday, June 21, 2021. Summer activities at the Lost Forest Adventure Center continue to grow. (Kelsey Brunner/Snowmass Sun)

Aspen Skiing Co. officials are excited for summer tours to become a bigger part of the business portfolio, but not just because it puts more money in the company’s pockets.

Feeding the summer business is also good cover for a snow-dependent business on a warming planet.

Skico has invested $10 million in the middle of the last decade to add a variety of activities to Snowmass – canopy zip line, a high ropes course, the Breathtaker alpine coaster and a rock climbing wall. He also invested to a lesser extent in amenities atop Aspen Mountain.

Investments are paying off.

“Lost Forest went live in 2018 and visits have grown in 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 bike and scream several thousand vertical feet on the specially constructed trails in the Snowmass Bike Park has doubled in the past five years. .

At Aspen Mountain, summer visits have remained relatively stable over the past few years, in part due to a shortened operating season in 2021 when the Silver Queen Gondola wire rope was replaced.

“Overall, our summer visits have seen a steady increase,” Hanle said.

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

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

“It’s a big deal and it’s really taken off,” he told The Aspen Times last month. “It’s been proven and we’re thinking about what Summer 2.0 will look like in terms of the next phase of cycle paths and mountain experiences.”

But promoting activities that don’t rely on snow is also a survival strategy.

“Obviously the climate issue is the biggest issue facing us,” Kaplan said of the ski industry and mountain communities dependent on winter tourism. “We deal with it every month now. Yes, we had a great year, but look at how (the winter snow) came and when it came and the temperatures – it shows how weird it is. You look at the west coast, basically California had a storm.

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

As the magazine reported, a small increase in warming may seem small, but it determines whether precipitation falls as snow or rain. The warmer it is, the less it snows.

This is not only a problem for the 1,100 ski lift operators in the Alps. The Brooks Mountain Range in the United States and Canada saw the first snowfall three days later and the last day of snowfall 12 days earlier in the past 21 years, according to National Geographic.

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

Skico is trying to make its bread-and-butter product – skiing – less susceptible to climate change. Two seasons ago, he added artificial snow cover on the upper third of Aspen Mountain. In the winter of 2023-24, it will add skiing on north and northeast facing slopes in the Pandora area of ​​Aspen Mountain. These slopes are above 10,000 feet and hold snow well due to the elevation and exposure.

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

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

But to put the terms into perspective, Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t think it will become Aspen Summer Co. anytime soon. Hanle said most of the company’s summer offerings are intended to be alternative activities for people who are already visiting the area rather than activities that bring people to the area on their own.

“It’s less of a destination driver and more of winter skiing,” Hanle said.

The only exception might be 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 bike park expansion.

Skico typically sees 1.4 million skier and snowboarder visits per winter. The company won’t release specific summer visitation numbers, but Hanle said that’s only a small fraction of winter numbers.

“We’re not far from there,” he said. “It’s going to keep growing, but I don’t think it’s going to come close to what we do in the winter.”

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