There have been many different visions through the years on how best to ski the terrain off of Richmond Ridge.
Proponents of the Little Annie ski area once mapped out six lifts, all of them coming together on the ridge’s flat summit. Four of the lifts were to serve the terrain on the east side, and one was to be built in Little Annie Basin. The lifts were approved by the Forest Service in 1981, but the ski area was never built.
Commercial snowcat operators have been working both sides of the ridge since at least 1970. And each operator has generally preferred to first ski out the powder on the west side, and then move over to the colder east side.
Over about the last 20 years, snowmobile-aided skiers have found the combination of winter-only roads and near-empty slopes off of Richmond Ridge to be increasingly appealing, despite the fact it is nearly impossible to make motorized laps without either trespassing on private property or violating federal regulations on public land.
And for the past seven years, Mike Sladdin of Aspen and his group, Powder to the People, have been working to open up the prime skiing terrain on the east side for anyone on a snowmobile. But today, the only motorized use the Forest Service allows there is by Aspen Mountain Powder Tours and its three snowcats.
(Disclosure: Mike Sladdin is married to Catherine Lutz, who is on the board of directors of Aspen Journalism.)
Sladdin’s vision for the ridge was denied this year through a series of meetings and decisions, the last of which was held on Oct. 25 with officials from the Forest Service and Aspen Skiing Co., which owns the Powder Tours operation.
And ironically, his efforts appear to have tightened the restrictions on snowmobile-skiing on Richmond Ridge, not loosened them.
“The clamps are a little bit tighter,” Sladdin acknowledged. “There is a little more understanding of what the rules are.”
Scott Fitzwilliams, the supervisor of the White River National Forest, certainly now has a strong command of the rules — he made them.
He decided in March that the public land on the east side of Richmond Ridge, from the Loushin’s run to the Ptarmigan run, will remain off limits to motorized users, except for Powder Tours, which holds an outfitter-guide permit from the Forest Service for commercial snowcat skiing on public land.
The permit grants Powder Tours the right to set, maintain and use three over-the-snow roads on an expanse of perfectly pitched, east-facing slopes above the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Anyone can ski the fresh snow on top of Forest Service land, but Powder Tours’ customers don’t have to walk back up to the ridge. Others have to skin back up, or ski down the tricky terrain to the valley floor.
A seat on a powder cat is $410 a day this season, or $360 a seat if you book a whole 12-seat cat for $4,320, which is an increasingly common practice by wealthy skiers.
Sladdin, who works in a ski shop at the base of Aspen Mountain, thinks Powder Tours is inherently elitist.
And he knows that in the late 1970s, former Aspenite Steve Crockett used to take his own snowcat back there with friends to enjoy the high-quality skiing on both sides of the ridge — without a Forest Service permit.
In Sladdin’s view, the east side of the ridge was once a public area, but it is now privatized, at least when it comes to using a snowmobile to make laps on Powder Tours’ roads.
During his long effort to change the Forest Service designation for the area in the White River Travel Management Plan, Sladdin seemed to make some progress toward his goal.
But the up-and-down ride played out this year, with mixed signals coming from the Forest Service toward the finale.
“They certainly encouraged him to follow the process that was laid out,” said Tim Mooney, a longtime Aspenite who used to ski the backside with Crockett and now admires Sladdin’s goals. “But I think they knew that his idea was basically going to die in that process.”
Sladdin’s proposals evolved over time, and varied between getting access to about a third of the Powder Tours terrain, to getting access to all of it.
In March, the Forest Service made a formal decision, and said no motorized use would be allowed on the east side of the ridge, except for Powder Tours.
After appealing the decision, Sladdin and Powder to the People then got a surprising letter from the Forest Service indicating a compromise could in fact be worked out to open some terrain to snowmobiles.
Then, in August, the Forest Service said “no” again, when it formally denied the appeal and ruled out the potential compromise.
And finally, in late October, Sladdin was asked to come up with yet another compromise, only to be told “no” yet again — no snowmobiles would be allowed inside the Powder Tours permit area on the east side of the ridge.
Powder to the People had lost its long battle.
And the game of powder cat-and-mouse on the backside just got a little more complicated.
Map from Pitkin County GIS department. See notes on map.
The McFarlane compromise
The Forest Service’s commercial-snowcat-only policy for the east side of the ridge has been in place since 1985. But it came into sharper focus over the last 10 years as snowmobile-aided skiing, or “hybrid skiing” as the Forest Service calls it, grew in popularity.
“Ten years ago, there were maybe 10 sleds back there in the winter,” said JF Bruegger of Aspen, who is an experienced snowmobile-skier on the ridge. “But as sled technology has changed, it has become an issue. And they didn’t care when it was a group of two or four people. But when it is six sleds at a time lapping people …”
For Powder Tours, more snowmobile-skiers means more competition for fresh powder — more tracks in the snow on terrain that, by federal regulation, is supposed to be off-limits to snowmobiles.
“When they show up with their guests, and it is tracked out, how do they explain that?” said Bruegger.
Prompted by Powder Tours, the Forest Service put an employee on a sled in the area in the winter of 2002-03 and began enforcing its regulations.
And in the winter of 2004-05, SkiCo entered into an agreement with the Forest Service and covered the cost of a Forest Service officer patrolling the ridge for 59 days.
The stepped-up enforcement caught the attention of Sladdin and other snowmobile skiers, and Powder to the People was formed to try and speak to the Forest Service and SkiCo with a collective voice.
One of the group’s first achievements was to enter into a gentleman’s agreement with SkiCo to share some of the terrain in the Powder Tours permit area.
Snowmobile-skiers could use the road next to the steep terrain in McFarlane Gulch, and they could also park their sleds in the informal “marina” behind the gondola building.
In exchange, Powder to the People agreed its members would not ski in the rest of the Powder Tours permit boundary. That way, Powder Tours could still offer fresh tracks to its customers two and even three days after a storm.
The compromise, which gave Powder to the People and other local snowmobile-skiers access to two of nine named runs in the Powder Tours terrain on the east side, worked fairly well for both sides for four winters.
Then in 2008, Aspen District Ranger Irene Davidson, who had recently been assigned to the area, determined that the gentleman’s agreement violated the existing travel management plan.
Davidson said it was clear that the management plan only allowed commercial snowcat use and the public land was not open to general private snowmobile use. That ended the gentleman’s agreement.
She and Sladdin butted heads over potential compromise solutions.
“She framed the question differently,” Sladdin said. “It was either open or closed.”
So Sladdin chose “open,” as in open the whole Powder Tours permit area to both commercial snowcats and private snowmobiles.
But others familiar with Davidson’s position at the time, including Jim Stark of the Forest Service and Bob Perlmutter of Powder Tours, said she asked Sladdin, “If you could have one just one winter road, which one would you choose?”
Sladdin responded that he would choose all three of the roads, according to Stark and Perlmutter.
Powder Tours said that would ruin its operation.
In 2009, he took the position as head of the White River National Forest. He had held other forest posts in Jackson Hole and Alaska and was now the designated “decision-maker” for the draft travel management plan for the White River.
In 2010, as he prepared to make the call about the terrain off of Richmond Ridge, Fitzwilliams found Sladdin and Powder to the People insistent on opening up all of the terrain for motorized use.
“They said, ‘We want the whole damn thing,’ and we said, ‘OK, we’ll stick with what we want to do,’” said Fitzwilliams, who also called Powder to the People “a small group of people.”
In March, Fitzwilliams issued his "record of decision." The area would be restricted to commercial snowcat use only, just as it had been since 1985.
Fitzwilliams said he found the snowcat operation was working well and still left a quality experience for those who wanted to ski the terrain and hike back up, without a swarm of snowmobiles around them.
“I wanted to preserve that,” Fitzwilliams said. “And you can’t make it perfect for everyone back there.”
Sladdin and Powder to the People appealed the decision, claiming the Forest Service had not listened to public comment.
And they also backed down from their all-or-nothing stance, and instead proposed that the Forest Service formally adopt the old McFarlane Gulch gentleman’s agreement.
As part of the process, the Forest Service was required to see if a compromise could be reached and the appeal dropped.
A meeting was held in June, which apparently went well for Sladdin.
In early July, he got a letter from Wendy Haskins of the Forest Service, summarizing the result of the meeting.
“The gentleman’s agreement, under which Powder to the People has for years been operating in the Richmond Ridge area, will be formalized in order to clarify, structure, and put some limits on the amount of motorized use on Richmond Ridge,” Haskins wrote.
Sladdin’s hopes soared.
“We were as close as we ever were to gaining public motorized access to our now privatized/motorized public lands on Richmond Ridge,” he said.
Then, Sladdin said, the Forest Service went radio silent.
And in August, Sladdin’s appeal was officially denied.
“What was proposed to us wouldn’t have worked for us,” said Fitzwilliams about the rejection of the gentleman’s agreement.
The official denial letter stated that “Requested relief to allow public access to McFarlane’s (sic) over snow road should be denied.”
It also said, “All appeal issues raised have been considered, however there is an opportunity to re-engage with the public regarding the winter travel portions of the decision.”
So one more meeting was set for the Forest Service, Sladdin and SkiCo to “re-engage.”
Sladdin’s up-and-down ride was not yet over.
The Oct. 25 meeting
Scott Snelson, the current district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, held the meeting on Oct. 25.
Sladdin showed up with yet another potential compromise.
Powder to the People would become a formal snowmobile club, get a special-use permit from the Forest Service, register up to 500 members, and cap use at 10 people a day.
Access would be granted to McFarlane Gulch and Top of the World, a run near Hurricane Point on a short square of public land on the west side.
In return, Powder to the People would ensure its users stayed off private land on the rest of the Powder Tours terrain, including the private land on the west side that is leased by Powder Tours for its operations.
Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations for SkiCo, also came to the Oct. 25 meeting with a draft compromise.
The first deal point was that the marina on SkiCo’s private land just behind the Aspen Mountain gondola building would need to move to public land, either a half-mile away from the gondola, or down to lower Little Annie or Midnight Mine Road.
The second deal point was that SkiCo was willing to maintain new over-the-snow roads in the Sawmill Ridge area, one bowl out from the Powder Tours’ operational boundary. And SkiCo would also cut trees in the area to improve the skiing, at its expense.
This would then give snowmobile-skiers their own little playground.
SkiCo also said it would glade terrain in the Midnight Mine run, which starts below the Sundeck restaurant — out of bounds — and goes to lower Midnight Mine Road. And the company said it would pay for winter maintenance on the road to make it easier to lap on a snowmobile.
Snelson, the Aspen District Ranger, supported the idea of opening new terrain for “hybrid skiing,” but said it would require a review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which could easily cost up to $200,000.
SkiCo said it would not pay for that. And Powder to the People doesn’t have that kind of money.
Looking back now, the participants at that Oct. 25 meeting each have a slightly different view of what went down.
Sladdin said he was told that “the current permit holder [SkiCo] had put the brakes on” a potential compromise.
Burkley frames it differently.
“At that point, it really skewed to the Forest Service telling Powder to the People there would be no further compromise discussions,” he said.
Snelson said he had been seeking a compromise in good faith, but one simply could not be reached.
The end result?
There was to be no snowmobile use in the Powder Tours permit area.
The Forest Service and SkiCo had spoken.
And Powder to the People, which does not plan to pursue further appeals in court, had been shut out.
This winter’s rules
Shortly after the meeting, the rules of the game on Richmond Ridge tightened up a bit and this winter will likely be different than others.
For one, SkiCo plans to inform anyone who parks in the marina that they are trespassing on private property, and that it has the right to remove their sled.
Snowmobile users apparently are now left with the option to park within the 60-foot right of way of the two county roads that come together behind the gondola building. Technically, sleds on the roadway can be considered abandoned property and towed, but Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo says he has no intent to do so.
SkiCo’s decision to assert its private property rights and close the marina seems to have been strongly influenced by the October 25 meeting.
“Once the travel management plan became set in stone and we really had clarity from the Forest Service, we figured it was time to move forward in this direction,” Burkley said.
The Forest Service’s clear stance will be reinforced again this winter by a “forest protection officer,” who will be out on average three days a week, and definitely after snowstorms.
A ticket for riding in the Powder Tours area is $250. A ticket for riding in the nearby Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is $500. And given the extensive attention Richmond Ridge was given during the planning process because of the efforts by Powder to the People, claiming ignorance of the rules is now going to be harder.
Sladdin, ever persistent, is now investigating the Sawmill Ridge and Midnight Mine options put forward by SkiCo as potential alternatives outside of the Powder Tours operations area.
And he’s being encouraged to do so by Snelson, the Aspen District Ranger.
Sladdin has also proposed that Pitkin County set up a new marina on its Twilight mining claim, a half-mile back from the gondola on Richmond Ridge Road. This plan could conflict with the goals for the area as articulated in the county's Richmond Ridge management plan.
Despite the tightening of the rules on the backside, Sladdin doesn’t think the fundamental game of chasing powder on the ridge has changed yet.
“People are going to do what they are comfortable doing,” he said.
Sladdin knows that not everyone who uses a snowmobile to make laps on the ridge is a member of Powder to the People, or is pleased with the results of his campaign, which cast a bright light on a usually hidden side of Aspen.
“I think I could be voted off the island pretty quickly,” Sladdin said.
But Mooney, who coached Sladdin through the end game, said Sladdin should not be judged harshly, even by those who think he should have found a way to seize the McFarlane’s Gulch compromise rather than holding out for all of the powder terrain.
“He had higher goals,” Mooney said. “He thought the definition of fairness would work for everyone. But there was perhaps a kind of naiveté as to who he was dealing with.”
Then there are others that say it hardly matters what the rules are now on the backside because it has become such a snowmobile circus.
“Backcountry skiing on Richmond Ridge of any kind — foot-powered, sled-powered, or cat-powered — within a 5-mile radius of the gondola is just stupid,” said Zach Ornitz, a former Aspenite (and Aspen Daily News photographer) who kept a sled for skiing on the back of Aspen Mountain from 2006 to 2009.
“My interest died the day — a Saturday, over President’s Day weekend in 2008 — I counted over 20 sled trailers at the base of Little Annie Road ... not to mention the armada of sleds lining the county road that leads to Little Annie Basin," Ornitz wrote in an email. "I had to do a double-take, as I thought I had been miraculously transported to Summit County. The party’s over. I’m going skinning somewhere that’s quiet and un-tracked.”
When asked if he would be using a snowmobile to make laps in the forbidden Powder Tours terrain this winter, Sladdin said, “No, I do not belong to their club, nor would I feel comfortable breaking their law, even though they basically wrote and paid for it.”
But he’s also said that Powder to the People’s motto for this winter is, “Ski the ridge — any which way you can.”
Editor's Note: This story was produced in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News, which ran the story on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011.