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City explores snowmaking on Nordic course

Austin Corona, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
The trails at Aspen Cross Country Center get groomed in March. The Aspen Snowmass-Nordic Trail System could soon see artificial snow, much like the downhill runs that rise beyond them. Rick Carroll/Aspen Daily News

The city of Aspen will explore snowmaking on the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Trail System, an unprecedented measure in response to what city staff say is a recent decline in reliable snow conditions on the course.

Aspen City Council members unanimously approved a contract for the planning and design of a potential Nordic trail snowmaking system during their regular meeting on Tuesday. As part of the contract, Utah-based outdoor recreation consulting firm SE Group will analyze the feasibility of snowmaking, design a potential system and estimate the system’s probable cost.

SE Group will focus its analysis on two “nodes” where the course sees particularly high traffic: one near the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s clubhouse, which largely serves youth programs, and another near the Aspen Cross Country Center, where the system sees its largest concentration of Nordic beginners.

“I don’t want to suggest that at the completion of this project, we’ll have a shovel-ready design,” said Aspen Parks and Open Space director Matt Kuhn during the meeting. “We’re really aiming to understand all the components that would go into a snowmaking system at these two locations and what that might look like from a budget perspective.”

After completing the study, Kuhn said the city can approach partner organizations and Pitkin County to decide whether they want to actually build the snowmaking system.

The contract will cost up to $140,000. Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program funds the trail system, while the city maintains and operates it in coordination with the system’s advisory board, the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council. Staff did not clarify in the meeting or in their memo whether the county would compensate the city for SE Group’s study.

A city memorandum states that “variable” winter weather in recent years, combined with a recent “boom” in Nordic skiing, has added urgency to providing consistent and reliable snow coverage on the trails.

Scott Lacy, the city’s assistant Nordic coordinator, said trails on the public golf course opened late this year and the system struggled to stay open through its usual closing date around the end of March.

Kuhn said city staff did not know exactly how many skiers are using the trails, saying it’s difficult to monitor the user numbers because of the system’s size and many access points.

The roughly 30-year-old trail system is the country's largest free, groomed system, holding 90 kilometers of trails. The system stretches from Aspen and Snowmass Village to Basalt.

Mayor Torre asked during the meeting whether there has been much discussion around the snowmaking concept in the past.

“I think if this came up 10 years ago, people would have gasped,” Torre said.

Kuhn said the Nordic council and the city have discussed snowmaking since at least the early 2010s. Aspen Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who has previously served on the Nordic council, confirmed that the subject had a yearslong history of debate.

Aspen Councilman John Doyle, a sitting member of the Nordic council, said he fully supported the contract because of its benefits for Aspen’s Nordic-skiing youth.

“It will save them having to travel farther afield like Grand Mesa or West Yellowstone to train,” Doyle said. “And I think the ‘fifth mountain,’ as the Nordic system is known, is more highly utilized than anybody imagines.”

Torre asked Kuhn how much it might cost to construct the snowmaking system if the study deems it necessary. Kuhn said the cost would vary, increasing significantly if the project requires water storage.

“It’s just a little too early to say what the costs will be,” Kuhn said.

Courtesy of the Aspen Daily News