I just returned from one of the best ski trips in the last several years. We live in Phoenix and I took my two teenage sons (19 and 16) on a 4 day 5 resort ski safari. Unbelievably, we made the trip for under $900 for the three of us (excluding food-we would have to eat even if we stayed at home)!
We started our trek at 4AM on Friday heading for Durango. We arrived at Purgatory by 12:30 and were able to ski the entire afternoon session (lift tickets, $45, $35, $35). Durango is always fun but the sun had beaten up the snow a little bit. Still, we found good snow on Styx (trees shaded it), Paul’s Park and the trees on the west side of Snag.
Once finished, we drove up US 550 north to Grand Junction through Ouray, Silverton, and Montrose. Navigating the mountain pass to Silverton at 11000 feet with no guardrail and a 400-foot drop was a little too much like Lord of the Rings. Not surprisingly, this leg of our trip took longer than expected at 5 hours.
Our destination for Friday night was Hostel Colorado (not the famous Hotel Colorado were Teddy Roosevelt stayed, but Hostel Colorado, Glenwood Springs lowest price lodging with a roof.) in Glenwood Springs, 30 miles outside of Aspen. We chose this lodging for the price $15/night/person. They gave us a private room that actually had five bunks and a common bathroom downstairs. For those of you who don’t know Hostel Colorado, it is in downtown Glenwood Springs on the right hand side of hwy 82 as you are traveling towards Aspen. We had no problem finding parking right in front of the hostel.
Our room was clean but very small. Our floor space was confined to two feet in between two sets of bunk beds so we had to change clothes in our beds. No TV but we just went to sleep once we came back to the hostel at night. The bathroom was downstairs but also very clean.
Saturday morning we headed to Snowmass. I had been there 6 years ago but my boys have never been to Aspen-Snowmass before. We found some long lift lines; especially at the Village Express (20 minutes) so we took the Elk Camp Gondola to Alpine Springs to Sheer Bliss to the Cirque Poma lift. The boys hit the terrain park over by Elk Camp a few times and I warmed up on the groomers. No question that Snowmass can cut and groom cruising trails better than anyone.
Once up on the plateau where the Cirque lift starts I was surprised at how long the line was for the quality of conditions (20 minutes). The cirque headwall was barely covered but AMF and Gowdy’s were OK. My boys slid in to the left to avoid the Cornice but I saw only mangled limbs in my future if I had followed them down the slope. Instead, I hiked up to AMF. I tried to ski it 6 years ago, but I fell after my first turn on the steep face and did not stop until the bottom. This time I was determined not to let the mountain win. Unfortunately, when I got to the spot where I fell before (top of the headwall) I froze. Thanks to the nice girl who talked me down those twenty feet until the trail opened up. Thought I did not “ski” AMF (it skied me) I did make it down without falling. I never would have forgiven myself if I had bailed, as I was tempted to do.
Hanging Valley looking left from High Alpine Lift
The trees below the upper face of the cirque and below the Hanging Valley Glades held excellent boot deep dry soft snow. I could have skied there all day but I needed to explore a little more. I finished the day in the trees east of the Big Burn. This snow was also good, but not like the trees I just described higher up the mountain.
I forgot to mention above about our difficulty with demo equipment. My skis and my son’s skis are old. We often rent from the demo shop to get fatter skis than we own. I like the Volkl Mantra and my son gets the K2 Public Enemies. Our problem stemmed from renting and paying for the skis online through Breeze ski rental. Paying for the skis online saved $40 for two days for two sets of skis. The detail that escaped us was the fact that the Breeze shop at Snowmass no longer exists. Aspen Sports serves as their affiliate (turns out they actually bought Breeze) which is subtly documented on Breeze’s website. We spent 40 minutes looking for Breeze until we realized that Aspen Sports was the surrogate. When we finally rectified our mistake we lost another half hour trying to find our reservation in their computer. After that, everything went well and the skis were solid. Bottom Line, if you want demos at Snowmass, skip the online registration and do everything in person.
Saturday night we had dinner at Boogie’s in Aspen. I had heard good things about the restaurant so I felt they deserved a try. What a mistake. Our food was mediocre and when they left tomatoes on my sandwich they argued with me about my request. At least it saved me a few calories.
Sunday was our day to try Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands. The boys wanted to try the terrain park and I was content to use the hill to warm-up for Highlands. Buttermilk has three parks, small, medium and large. I am too old and fearful for the big park but the small park was just right for me. I reached the small park by skiing lookers right down to West Buttermilk and taking that lift to the top (slightly higher than the Summit express) and going lookers right off the top. What helped me were the multiple small jumps to practice getting air in a rapid-fire succession. As expected, my kids loved the big park though even they admitted that the super pipe humbled them.
After a few runs through the pediatric terrain park, I ventured east to Tiehack. The view to skiers’ right descending Tiehack parkway is spectacular. I found the real treat on this side of the mountain in the trees of Timber Doodle Glade. The snow was cold, soft and boot deep. Though marked black on the trail map, this run skis as a blue to double blue. The open spacing of the trees invites a little speed to spice up the run. Overall, I found this run much more fun than expected.
At 11:00 AM we drove to Aspen Highlands. These two areas are close enough to ski in one day if so desired; but Highlands is definitely good enough to deserve a full day without distraction. Be warned, parking at Highlands costs $15. I believe you can take the shuttle from Buttermilk and park for free.
Aspen Highlands has far fewer skiers than Snowmass and the village at Highlands is far nicer than I expected. The layout minimizes walking. Since it was already 11:00AM we went right to the top. The terrain we saw to lookers left off of the Exhibition lift was enticing, nice steep lines through the trees. We hit this terrain later in the day. The runs to lookers left off of the Loge Peak lift provided great turns.
Kessler’s from Deep Temerity Lift
Same run looking directly across the hill
These runs face east and the morning sun warmed the snow just enough to take the edge off of the bumps. St Moritz is the easiest and Kessler’s runs right under the Deep Temerity lift. The terrain looks more intimidating than it really is due to the catwalk from which the headwall descends. After the headwall the pitch eases. The snow on the bottom half of these runs was a little heavy in the 50 degree sunshine.
Temerity and Canopy Cruiser descend the east face of Highlands from a different perspective than the runs described above. They course through the forest, which preserves the quality of the snow. Access these runs from the trail to Highland bowl straight ahead off the Loge Peak lift.
After lunch we hit the west facing slopes of Olympic Bowl. No Name has the best trees, Deception has a steep headwall and Aerobie has trees and a slightly milder pitch. Lower Steins, farther down the mountain had monster bumps but be prepared for an uphill catwalk at the end.
We finished the day with the great lines to the left off the Exhibition chair. Sherwood Forest, Bob’s Glade and Upper Stein provided a great finish to the day. The bumps on these runs are smaller and more conducive to closing the day.
Overall, Highlands has great terrain. The trail map shows very few single black runs and quite a few double black runs. Still, many of the double blacks are negotiable by solid single black skiers. Astute readers will notice the absence of any mention of Highland Bowl. Sadly, I could not talk my sons into hiking the bowl. The snow cat was not running and we were short on time so it was hard to make a case for the hike. Still, in retrospect I wish we had made time for the trek.
Sunday night we stayed in Glenwood Springs for dinner. The boys wanted Mexican for dinner and we found a great restaurant across the street from Hotel Colorado. Fiesta Guadalajara gets my vote for best Mexican in Colorado. Try the shrimp tacos, unbelievable.
After dinner we went to the movies at the Springs Theatre and went to bed early. No TV or other distractions at the hostel sure help to get a good night’s sleep. I have never finished a ski vacation so well rested.
Monday morning we set out for Sunlight Mountain, 9 miles outside of Glenwood Springs. Travel on state hwy 82 towards Aspen and look for signs on the right on the outskirts of town. The base sits around 8000 feet and the mountain rises 2000 feet. Though we had rain in Glenwood Springs, Sunlight was having a powder day. We skied from 9AM until noon. Sunlight naturally divides into two halves from the summit. Skiers right held better snow and Gibson’s Glades (all the way out the ridge) felt like backcountry due to its remote location. The west side of the mountain was less appealing than the east. The snow felt heavy and the glades were a little tight and had too much underbrush. Overall, Sunlight deserves a day, especially if they have fresh snow, but probably not much more. I will admit that the park looked enticing but the snowstorm kept most features closed.
We then drove back to Phoenix through Moab Utah and arrived home by 10:30.
Our next ski safari, Durango, Silverton, Wolf Creek.