SKI ASPEN: Magic of the mountains

Story by Anne Z. Cooke, Photography by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld

If they talk you into trying it, think twice. As every Aspen skier knows, there’s nothing more addictive than swooping in lazy half-circle turns down Ajax Mountain on light, white powder, the wind in your hair and the sun on your back.

But for me, there’s another reason for skiing at Aspen -- or anywhere. I thrill to the joy of just being there, in the mountains, the most mystical features on earth.

Last run down, as the sun sets and the crowds go home, at Snowmass Resort, Snowmass, Colorado.

As every mountain is different, so is every ski area. Each has its own particular trees, rocks, valleys, intersections of altitude and latitude and patterns of sun and shade. The mix determines where the snow falls, how fast it melts, how the snowcats groom it and -- what matters to me -- how high the chairlifts go.

Pretty-in-pink and everyone else at the top of lift at Snowmass Resort, Snowmass, Colorado.The cathedral in the sky is where I want to be. Earthbound in the lift line, my feet bolted to stiff fiberglass slats, the chairlift carries me up, up and away to the top of the world. There on the highest peak I’m ruler of the universe --- just for a moment -- and a humble speck dwarfed by the immense grandeur beyond. 

But – and I’ll admit it – for years I avoided Aspen, ignoring invitations and staying away.   Ajax Mountain, a peak with a killer reputation, 11,212 feet of vertical mass, looms up behind the town, challenging all comers. Seeing it from below, I bought into the myth of Aspen-the-terrible, assuming that if those steep lower slopes were the easy runs, the really scary stuff must be on the top.

Staying in Aspen, with its clever stores, intriguing nightlife and historic streets, was easy, a kick. But I skied at the places I knew: Snowmass and Buttermilk, 20 minutes away. And year after year, Aspen’s best intermediate (the blue runs) skiing was right there in the clouds.  

“All the fun runs start up here, at the top of the gondola,” said Molly Simpson, a town resident whose winter workouts include hiking up Ajax in the snow.  “You can have breakfast here, at the Sundeck, or hang out and ride the gondola back down.”   

Full disclosure: there are no green (beginner) runs at Aspen. If you’re a novice, you’ll love Buttermilk. But Ajax has more blue runs than you’d expect. Some are steep, but they’re short, predictable and groomed. To find my favorites, make your way toward the Silver Queen Gondola through the hubbub at the village base, where everybody – tycoons, hotdoggers, parents, kids, singles and teenagers – line up for the ride up the front face.

High-speed six-pack chairlifts quadruple the miles you can ski in a day. At Keystone Resort, Colorado.Climb aboard one of the Silver Queen gondola’s 173 Swiss-made, passenger cabins for a comfortable ride up, with panoramic views of the Roaring Fork Valley as it stretches away between snow-capped ridges. Once on top, stop at the on-mountain concierge to check the daily grooming schedule, listing the runs that were groomed the night before.

The concierge, serving out of a wood shelter, offers hot apple cider or lemonade, a cookie and information, all with a smile. Then look for some of North America’s best-groomed ski trails, flaring high, wide and handsome away over humps and valleys feeding back to the Ajax Express, a high speed quad loading at mid-mountain.

Look for Silver Bell, Silver Dip, Dipsy Doodle and Deer Park going over the top, ride back up on the Ajax Express and try another one. Or ski down to the Gent’s Ridge double-chair. 

At the end of the day, ski back to the bottom on Spar Gulch, a study in angles. This long swooping run cruises for two miles between parallel ridges, from the Ajax Express down to Kleenex Corner where you hang a left, then a right on Little Nell.

It’s a natural for a race, which is why Spar Gulch is where Aspen’s famous relay race the “24 Hours Of Aspen” is held. Teams from around the world converge here to compete, skiing non-stop for 24 hours and raising nearly a million dollars annually for charity.

The competitors reach speeds in excess of 90 miles an hour going down Spar Gulch.  But don’t even think about it trying it yourself. To make sure you don’t, a ski patroller guards the slope, lifting ski tickets from rule-breakers. 

About half of Aspen’s named trails are rated for intermediates. The rest are either double-black diamond fright-mares, or “more difficult” slopes, appropriate for confident intermediates. . Fresh groomed powder is easiest to ski, of course.  Skiing melted and refrozen crud, the result of sunny days and freezing nights, is a lot more iffy.      

Terrain parks’ pipes – snow features -- challenge boarders to fly higher, spin faster. At Steamboat Resort, Colorado.

Once you’ve skied the top, try the blue runs near the base area, accessed from the Little Nell quad chairlift. Or use your lift ticket (and the free ski shuttle service) to ski at Aspen’s three sister resorts, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.

When spring weather turns the snow to mush, vacationers play at Gorgoza Tubing Park, near Park City, Utah.If you can find a non-stop flight into the Aspen airport, give thanks. If not, book a flight into Denver’s International Airport with a leg on to Aspen or Eagle, then rent a car or hop on an airport shuttle.

We were lucky. We left Los Angeles at 7 a.m. on a Thursday, flew nonstop to Aspen, grabbed a cab for the 10-minute ride into town, dropped our bags at the hotel and by noon we were on top. 

IF YOU GO: 

Get your wallet out. Rates at the plainest 1960s-style motels aren’t cheap, starting around $200 a night during high season, from mid-February through March and on holidays. For Central Reservations and lift ticket information call (800)262-7736 or go to www.aspensnowmass.com.

©The Syndicator, Anne Z. Cooke

©SteveHaggerty/ColorWorld

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