Being the supportive husband I am, I agreed to accompany my wife on her business trip to Aspen. After all, if somebody had to have no-cost luxury lodging in Aspen, ski while others worked, and be occasionally wined and dined, it might as well be me, right? Right.
This was my first time to Aspen, and only my second time skiing in Colorado (the first being Winter park two years ago). Aspen is something else. Probably no surprise to many, but the town is a fascinating mix of the uber-rich 0.001%, and local ski bums in the hospitality/service industry, the latter of whom all seemed deliriously happy to have left their flat, humid homelands for the good life. I honestly have never seen so much wealth on display in one place, and, mind you, I live in New York City. Some of the "fashion" on display around town was bizarre, as were the ostentatious displays in the Gorsuch windows. If you've read the Hunger Games, you'll understand what I mean when I say I felt like I was in the Capital. The town seemed overrun by people on vacation from the southern hemisphere, with Australia and Brazil dominating. Extreme wealth aside, Aspen is a charming place.
Pedestrian Street in Aspen
More importantly, it is a wonderful, beautiful, challenging, and varied place to ski. I purchased my 4-day pass in advance through Liftopia. While not really much of a discount, it included a $20.00 lunch voucher per day, which pretty much covered a nice lunch and beverage in the on-mountain cafeterias.
As many know, there are four separate ski areas there that you can access on one lift ticket. Ajax (Aspen Mountain) is right in town, and Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk are a short, free, and convenient bus ride down the road. Snowmass, the largest of the four, is a slightly longer drive away, also on free bus lines. Although I wasn't able to ski Snowmass, I stayed there my last night in my Hotwire hotel (the Wildwood), after the expense account gravy train timed out. Although I didn't spend much time in Snowmass, in comparison to Aspen, which is a charming, real town, Snowmass Village is a rather generic looking, manufactured mega-resort. I'm sure the skiing is great there too, and the lodging can be more affordable, I just ran out of time to do it.
We stayed at Aspen Meadows at the Aspen Institute, which is a beautiful, historic place built in the Bauhaus style just out of town, but has an efficient, free shuttle to town and helpful staff. I wouldn't recommend staying there if walking is a challenge for you, though. I had planned to ski Ajax my first ski day (Thursday), to keep it simple and stay in town. I booted up in the visitor center under the gondola, but then learned that I could sign up for the next day's First Tracks, a free program to ski the mountain top to bottom before the lifts open to the public.
Ajax Main Base & Gondola
Since First Tracks is only available at Ajax (and also Snowmass), I decided to check out Highlands instead that day. I hopped on the free bus and was there in no time.
Highlands is an amazing, deceptively large, mountain, with super-challenging terrain, but also something for everyone. I hopped on the Exhibition lift, which takes you around two thirds of the way up the mountain. It was a looong way up. From there you catch the Loge Peak lift to the near top. Conditions that day were pretty firm. The groomers were hard but carveable. The bumps had soft snow on them and looked nice from the lift, but were pretty icy underneath. Some of the black runs toward the bottom of the mountain had thin cover. I made the mistake of going down Lower Stein, and was surrounded by exposed rocks. Unfortunately, I just missed the free mountain tours that they give two times a day.
There was great and humbling terrain all over, with really big vertical on advanced trails. Given the snow conditions, I avoided the double-black terrain that drops off to skiers right after coming off the Loge Peak lift.
Beverege selection at on-mountain Merry Go Round cafeteria. The on-mountain food quality was excellent, though pricy
After lunch, I got curious and decided to take a look at the snowcat that takes you a short way up Highland Bowl to the beginning of the boot trail. I really had no intention of going to the Bowl that day, since it was my first day at altitude and I didn't have anything to carry my skis yet, but when I rounded the bend and approached the snow cat, there was one more spot left, so I tentatively hopped in, not really knowing what to expect. The snowcat takes you up a little way, but there is a long hike up to the top of the Bowl. I put my skis over my shoulder and walked for a little bit. Not wanting to get in over my head on the first day, I decided to cut the walk short and drop in to the bowl. Holy crap was it steep! Probably the steepest slope I have ever skied. The snow was pretty good and I made my way down slowly, turn by turn. At the bottom of the bowl, the terrain funnels out to an interesting area with bumps, trees, and several ways down. That eventually leads to a cat track that goes to the Deep Temerity lift, which goes back up to the top, right near the top of the Loge Peak lift. I definitely planned on coming back to Highland Bowl.
The next day, my alarm didn't go off, so I woke up at 7:30 in a panic, since I was supposed to be at Ajax by 8:00 with my boots on for first tracks. I got dressed in 2 minutes and caught the shuttle. Fortunately I had time, since 8:00 really means 8:15. It had snowed several inches over night, so I was excited. My group consisted of me, a ski instructor, and a nice Brazilian couple. Since the ski patrol hasn't cleared all trails and snow cats are still grooming at that hour, you're limited to a pre-determined run down a groomer. Nevertheless, with 4-5 inches of fresh on top of corduroy, it was a fun, fast ride down over 3,000 feet vertical. I highly recommend first tracks, and even kids are allowed. You have to be a competent, though not expert, skier. Aspen says level 6 and above. The rest of the day I explored Ajax and enjoyed the fresh snow on super tired legs. Unfortunately, the new snow was deep enough to disguise the frozen moguls, but not enough to really cover them. My worst moment of the day was when I was zipping down a groomer and strayed to the side of the trail and hit an unseen mogul land mine. I did a complete yard sale, though no harm done. Many of the single black diamond trails were similarly cloaked firm "bumpfields," with firm moguls lurking just under a nice, fluffy disguise.
Ajax: Gondola from (I think) Ajax Express chair
Ajax: I think this is from the Gents Ridge chair
There is some great, advanced terrain to the skiers right off of the Gents Ridge chair, though it ends in a long traverse.
In the afternoon, my legs and lungs were shot and I was beginning to make stupid mistakes, so I decided to check out the mellower Buttermilk mountain. I didn't have much time to explore, but Buttermilk turned out to be a really pleasant mountain, with no crowds. Although it was cloudy, I imagine the views toward Highlands are spectacular on a clear day. On the few trails I tried, even groomed ones, there were still fresh tracks at nearly 4:00.
Deep snow in glades between trails at Buttermilk at 3:30pm
X Games Superpipe under construction at Buttermilk
The next two days I skied at Highlands. I had planned on skiing Snowmass the last day, but decided to go back to Highlands after I realized that I had left some clothing at the mid-mountain restaurant after closing hours. That was probably a good decision, since there was a full-blown snowstorm on Sunday, and I was told that Snowmass is not the place to go in high winds. As it was, disorienting whiteout conditions prevailed at Highlands for portions of the day on Sunday, though the snow was coming down hard.
Saturday was a perfect bluebird day, and my tired legs explored more of the mountain, including more of the expert terrain (Soddbuster, Boomerang, and The Wall) and the Bowl again. I didn't have time to hike all the way up the bowl because I was invited to lunch (apres really) at the on-mountain Cloud 9 Bistro (an insane party scene, by the way, with dancing on chairs, dollar bills flying, champagne spraying, and shirts off), but I hiked most of the way up. If anything, where I dropped in looked even steeper than the day before, and I ended up traversing back to a slightly less scary line. Since the weather was perfect and there was fresh snow, there was a small line for the snowcat, but I got on the second one. In fact, that was the only line I waited in in four days of skiing at Aspen. I could actually count on one hand the number of times I actually shared a chairlift with anyone else. Next time I come back to Aspen I will definitely allot enough time to climb all the way up the Bowl. I was pleasantly surprised that the altitude did not trouble me terribly.
Rather than continue to write, I'll end with some photos of the last two days at Higlands, the first blue bird, the second whiteout.
Packed snowcat to Highland Bowl
Looking across Highland Bowl from part of the hiking trail. Note the gray craters from avi control explosives.
Getting up there
One of the named drop-in points on the bowl
Looking straight down the bowl from the top. Trust me, the photo doesn't do the angle justice
Looking back up at the bowl. It's much bigger than it looks here! The terrain below this point was also fun. It's still a long way down to the base.
Trees and advanced terrain from the Deep Temerity lift
Last, magical run down at dusk, after crazy lunch at Cloud 9 Bistro
Fresh tracks on groomers during Sunday's storm
Clearing whiteout conditions, top of Cloud 9 lift. Was very disorienting when visibility was zero.
Short glade, I think adjacent to The Wall.
Maroon Bells from Highland Ski Patrol shack
Line for snowcat on Saturday, about two cats long. The other time I was there was no line.
Snowcat track from waiting area.
View out from ridge of Highland Bowl
Beautiful Aspen glade, I think off of Boomerang
Edited by ADKS - 1/17/14 at 6:35am