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The New Aspen

The New Aspen

Features
By Jay Cowan
posted: 08/15/2001

Last winter I skied some whippy new terrain on Aspen Mountain. The Aspen Skiing Company hadn't opened any new runs, rather I was led to a place I'd never been before, schooled on a mountain I've called home since Lyndon Johnson was president and The Age of Aquarius ruled the radio. I've rummaged around a lot of hidden stashes, mine dumps, tree shots and OB routes on these slopes and I should know them all by now. But for a mountain that seems, on its surface, fairly small, it is perhaps the biggest little mountain in the world, and has a perennial power to surprise. Much like the namesake town below it.

It's a group of young local skiers who guide me to a new off-piste route-a silky sortie along a power line to a series of quirky powder glades beginning with one called Postage Stamp. I stop in a thick aspen grove, listening to distant laughter and trees creaking with deep snow, and put on a big goofy grin about getting to do something new and fresh right in my own backyard.

"You having a stroke?" one of my friends asks. I don't feel like explaining that it feels good to be jogged out of my home-snow complacency, so I just wave at him to go ahead and I follow, still smiling.

And now the Aspen Skiing Company (SkiCo) is looking to youth to lead it out of the wilderness of complacency and sagging skier numbers into a more prosperous future. Thus it was on April Fools' Day, of all days, last season that the resort's notorious anti-snowboarding walls came tumbling down on Aspen Mountain, to great fanfare, if not the actual trumpets of Jericho.

Except for a few early- and late-season weeks, SkiCo had never allowed boarding on Aspen Mountain, though it had promoted it at Aspen's other three mountains: Buttermilk, Highlands and Snowmass. In the end, however, management felt it wasn't getting its pro-boarding message across. Research suggested substantial numbers of potential visitors thought there was no boarding allowed at any of the Aspen mountains, and, consequently, they were taking their ski-vacation budgets elsewhere.

Because it's Aspen and therefore good news copy, on April 1 the town is jammed with more satellite uplinks than after Ivana Trump spied Donald's girlfriend during a family ski vacation. SkiCo decides to make the most of the opportunity. Instead of fighting the media, they go big and throw a coming-out party. The base of Aspen Mountain becomes a World Cup-style circus of manufacturers tents, skiers, boarders and spectators.

There are aerial competitions and live music performances for 12 days. You can smell the suntan lotion and feel the energy as thousands celebrate the annual Spring Jam that has been moved into town from Snowmass. And now for the next two seasons, SkiCo will support its new youth strategy by hosting the ESPN Winter X-Games, a huge coup for a resort better known for sable furs than a young hip-hop sensibility.

"Aspen's one of the great places in the world for younger people to come," says John Norton, SkiCo's chief operating officer. "And our message of no snowboarding on Aspen Mountain was an anti-youth message that was a barrier to a lot of kids coming here."

Pat O'Donnell, SkiCo's chief executive officer, views the end of the boarder ban as a potential sea-change for Aspen, reviving it from a kind of upscale languor and turning it back into the vibrant, youthful destination it once was. "It's going to change the mix on Aspen Mountain," O'Donnell says, "and it may change the base and culture of the town itself. Give it more of a mixed flavor. It will be an interesting evolution to watch."

Indeed. Aspen, like a brilliant but self-possessed celebrity, is subject to periodic identity crises and invests lots of anxious time examining its inner self. And this applies to the entire Roaring Fork Valley, where Aspen exerts a far-flung influence on the economy and the lifestyle. In the end, Aspen is the engine that drives one of the most fascinating valleys on earth, and it's well wortwhatever attentions it demands.

There is more to do in this shining mountain town of 6,000 than it's possible to articulate without sounding pretentious. Unbelievable access to some of the world's great luminaries and artists for speeches, readings and concerts has allowed me to hear Buckminster Fuller, Stephen Hawking and Bill Clinton speak, listen to musicians from BB King to Yo Yo Ma, ogle art by de Kooning and Hockney, and enjoy countless BIFs (Baileys with an Irish whiskey "floater") with Hunter Thompson. Aspen has been acutely fortunate with the people who have chosen to visit or live here and enrich the day-to-day lives of the residents. But it's not all luck. Aspen still has a beauty and energy long noted for its seductiveness to exceptional people.

With strict-to-the-point-of-insanity building codes and a relentless will toward perfection, the surface of town has aged gracefully from its mining-day origins in the 1880s. No buildings are over four stories high, the downtown power lines have been buried for years and the 30-year-old pedestrian mall is thriving. Antique street-lamps complement stately cottonwoods. The buffed, bricky, Architectural Digest look is leavened by many historic buildings, a remaining handful of lurching mining shacks and an impressive array of parks and open space. The few ski lodges left from the Fifties and Sixties, the Bauhaus temple of the Aspen Institute and the homey residential section of town with small houses and big trees complete the scene.

One of the biggest-yet often forgotten-truths about Aspen is that it's surrounded by some of the planet's best skiing, period. Four ski mountains ramble across the valley. Aspen Mountain is a steep and quirky 673-acre playground. Push Aspen Mountain's 3,267 vertical feet and they will push you back. Just five minutes west, across Castle Creek, lies the long, powerful ridge of Aspen Highlands. Its 714 acres offer one of the best in-bounds backcountry experiences in ski country. And with the opening of the rugged Highland Bowl, Highlands is the favorite of the local hardcore elite. Across Maroon Creek is Buttermilk, a tidy mountain that's chronically under-appreciated by tourists. And lastly, a few minutes west, comes Snowmass-at 3,010 acres, it's the valley's quiet giant. The mountain's incredibly varied terrain boasts the longest vertical in the U.S. (a full 4,406 feet). Snowmass hosted more skier visits last season (740,241) than its three other sister resorts combined, and did so with deceptive ease.

This sterling array of slopes is what has kept people from all over the world coming back since the lifts opened in 1937. It's why adventure-skiers Chris Davenport and Asia Jenkins, superstar boarder Chris Klug and speed-skiing record-holder Jeff Hamilton call this valley their home. From the beginning, people who could live and ski anywhere have chosen Aspen, and they're still doing it.

The only way to understand Aspen is to discard the tabloid dither and come see for yourself. If you'd like exposure to the real Aspen, check out its hometown hill. Not Aspen Mountain, or Highlands, but Buttermilk. Visitors think Buttermilk is for beginners or kids. But I go there, either to work on my sorry boarding skills or to do the uphill, and I see more people I know there than anywhere else. The bottom-to-top workout is assayed by dozens of people daily on cross-country gear, snowshoes and skins. It's old-school, ski-town democracy in action and shows Aspen at its best: I'll encounter anyone from the mayor to our plumber to a former U.S. Ski Team racer.

Freeskiers and boarders hang out at Buttermilk's terrain park, doing sick air and the kind of stunts we got booted off the slopes for back when I was in Aspen High School. And when the powder's good, and mothers, carpenters, doctors and realtors only have an hour they can pry loose from a weekday morning, you'll find them on the Tiehack side of Buttermilk, pounding down big-grin laps while the tourists are still waiting for the patrol on the other mountains to lift the ropes to Highland Bowl and Hanging Valley.

Either of those spots is also fine for encountering more of the same kind of "messy diversity" that Aspen has thrived on for so long. The ridge to Highland Bowl has especially become a kind of rite of passage for locals and visitors alike.

While a new village has finally blossomed at the base of the Highlands (see below), up above the skiing has also been growing. The real secret at Highlands is the impeccably groomed cruiser fare, which even with increased skier visits last winter still stayed relatively abandoned. Why? Because everyone's after the adventure terrain, epitomized by Highland Bowl.

The bowl was opened from the gate to the top of Highland Peak, at 12,382 feet, for much of last winter. It's a 30-minute march, with almost everything to your left being outrageously skiable and often pitched at 40 degrees or more. The slog to the summit quickly became almost as fashionable a workout as the Buttermilk uphill, but some days you could still be the only one there. I love the hike as much as the run, the winding white Himalayan-like ridgeline, that little tang in the high-altitude air and views covering most of the ragged sprawl of western Colorado, starting with the deeply cleft valleys of Maroon and Castle creeks, a few feet to either side of you, and stretching away across big, turbulent mountains to a blue and white infinity.

After years of skiing the bowl, legally and otherwise, last winter was the first time I did it straight from the top, right down the gut. That the resort managed to get it open was a testament to SkiCo's commitment to this kind of terrain, and the superhuman effort of the Highlands patrol, who first had to boot-pack the entire monstrously steep bowl, and then control it for slides all winter.

I'd never skied the convex center of the bowl because I'd never seen it safe enough for my tastes, especially after it was the trigger-point for a giant avalanche in 1984 that killed three patrolmen. On a hike up last winter I ran into Adair Walsh, who had been married to Chris Kessler, one of the patrollers killed in the slide. "It touches my soul every time I come here," she told me with a big smile, and I thought, once again, how devoted people who live here are to big, snowy mountains. Young or old, riding or two-planking, free-heeled or well-heeled, sometimes at great personal cost, you can see the faith in high, wild places in their eyes. And that's what really makes Aspen great.

The faith. I watched it for more than 10 years at Snowmass, teaching people to ski. These weren't fanatics, and most of them didn't live here, but they loved the sport and they loved Snowmass. It didn't matter whether they wanted to spend the day exploring the endless variations of powder and stone in the double-blacks of Hanging Valley, or doing the dine-and-drift tour along the Snowmass' big blue boulevards-it was all propelled by wanting to be here, and not wanting to leave.

I skied beautiful, uncrowded, early-season powder all over Snowmass last year, from favorite lines on Campground to new runs on Burnt Mountain. And when I'd resurface for a while on the groomed fairways, I was continually amazed at the expanding family amenities. The mid-mountain amusement park now features snow castles, the towering halfpipe of Trenchtown, self-timed race courses and the Spider Sabich picnic center, among other delights. And down on Assay Hill is a new hit called Tube Town, where you can spin, bounce, shriek and throw up at will on a special tubing run.

Snowmass has always had the kind of family-centric orientation that complimented Aspen well, but also suffered by comparison. You came to Snowmass to revel in alpine domesticity; you went to Aspen to rock. In truth you can party hard every night of the week at Snowmass, from serious live music après at the Cirque Cafe to the piano bar lite urists are still waiting for the patrol on the other mountains to lift the ropes to Highland Bowl and Hanging Valley.

Either of those spots is also fine for encountering more of the same kind of "messy diversity" that Aspen has thrived on for so long. The ridge to Highland Bowl has especially become a kind of rite of passage for locals and visitors alike.

While a new village has finally blossomed at the base of the Highlands (see below), up above the skiing has also been growing. The real secret at Highlands is the impeccably groomed cruiser fare, which even with increased skier visits last winter still stayed relatively abandoned. Why? Because everyone's after the adventure terrain, epitomized by Highland Bowl.

The bowl was opened from the gate to the top of Highland Peak, at 12,382 feet, for much of last winter. It's a 30-minute march, with almost everything to your left being outrageously skiable and often pitched at 40 degrees or more. The slog to the summit quickly became almost as fashionable a workout as the Buttermilk uphill, but some days you could still be the only one there. I love the hike as much as the run, the winding white Himalayan-like ridgeline, that little tang in the high-altitude air and views covering most of the ragged sprawl of western Colorado, starting with the deeply cleft valleys of Maroon and Castle creeks, a few feet to either side of you, and stretching away across big, turbulent mountains to a blue and white infinity.

After years of skiing the bowl, legally and otherwise, last winter was the first time I did it straight from the top, right down the gut. That the resort managed to get it open was a testament to SkiCo's commitment to this kind of terrain, and the superhuman effort of the Highlands patrol, who first had to boot-pack the entire monstrously steep bowl, and then control it for slides all winter.

I'd never skied the convex center of the bowl because I'd never seen it safe enough for my tastes, especially after it was the trigger-point for a giant avalanche in 1984 that killed three patrolmen. On a hike up last winter I ran into Adair Walsh, who had been married to Chris Kessler, one of the patrollers killed in the slide. "It touches my soul every time I come here," she told me with a big smile, and I thought, once again, how devoted people who live here are to big, snowy mountains. Young or old, riding or two-planking, free-heeled or well-heeled, sometimes at great personal cost, you can see the faith in high, wild places in their eyes. And that's what really makes Aspen great.

The faith. I watched it for more than 10 years at Snowmass, teaching people to ski. These weren't fanatics, and most of them didn't live here, but they loved the sport and they loved Snowmass. It didn't matter whether they wanted to spend the day exploring the endless variations of powder and stone in the double-blacks of Hanging Valley, or doing the dine-and-drift tour along the Snowmass' big blue boulevards-it was all propelled by wanting to be here, and not wanting to leave.

I skied beautiful, uncrowded, early-season powder all over Snowmass last year, from favorite lines on Campground to new runs on Burnt Mountain. And when I'd resurface for a while on the groomed fairways, I was continually amazed at the expanding family amenities. The mid-mountain amusement park now features snow castles, the towering halfpipe of Trenchtown, self-timed race courses and the Spider Sabich picnic center, among other delights. And down on Assay Hill is a new hit called Tube Town, where you can spin, bounce, shriek and throw up at will on a special tubing run.

Snowmass has always had the kind of family-centric orientation that complimented Aspen well, but also suffered by comparison. You came to Snowmass to revel in alpine domesticity; you went to Aspen to rock. In truth you can party hard every night of the week at Snowmass, from serious live music après at the Cirque Cafe to the piano bar lite of the Snowmass Club, from espresso royales and clove cigarettes at the Mountain Dragon to the hardcore local scene at Zane's Tavern.

Similarly, the superb Snowmass cuisine, highlighted by the New American menu of Sage and the wild game at Krabloonik, can stand alone. But why should it, with Aspen just minutes away? That would be like visiting New York City and never leaving Brooklyn. The dining in Aspen has reached such an apogee of national distinction that it has become a battleground for star chefs, featuring Todd English's Olives restaurant at the St. Regis, Paul Wade at the Little Nell and Charles Dale of both Renaissance and Rustique. If someone claims there's better dining in a town this size anywhere else in the country, he's lying. And the quality holds true for the roast beef subs at Johnny McGuire's as well as the caviar- and-truffle blins in the five-stars.

Aspen has been a social buzzsaw since way before local Glenn Frey of the Eagles wrote Party Town about it, and is still unmatched in the category. Whether it's for occasions such as New Year's or Winterskol, when Aspen turns into an alpine Mardi Gras, or just a night of chasing live music from Shooters to the Double Diamond, Aspen cooks on all burners all the time. The J Bar, the Mother Lode and Cooper Street rule a roster of legendary watering holes, and the Ajax Tavern, the Tippler and the Cantina will après you right into the hospital if you let them. You have to figure any ski resort that still has more bars than galleries is doing something right.

Worth magazine recently ranked Aspen as No. 3 on the list of America's wealthiest towns, presenting Aspen's $2.3 million median home price as supporting evidence. It's popular to dismiss anyone who lives in Aspen as too rich to be real, but it's simply not true. The valley has made meaningful inroads into providing subsidized housing, and many longtime locals are still members of the extended community, even if they've been extended down to Carbondale (30 miles) or Glenwood Springs (40 miles). I live in a neighborhood 20 minutes out of town with ranchers, store owners, artists, adventure skiers and the county sheriff, in a mix that hasn't changed dramatically in years.

What all this means is an extraordinary community where people care passionately about almost everything-a commitment that is, perhaps, not entirely healthy. When SkiCo announced that the boarding ban would be lifted for the end of last season and forever thereafter, the always inflamed and divided local citizenry responded with a great din.

Boarders felt like it was about time, and didn't hesitate to say so. April 1, 2001, dawned as a day of celebration for them, and many skiers were on their side. Photographer and Aspen native Greg Pochmann told me that morning, "This is the most spirit and energy, the most alive I've seen this mountain in years."

But there was also resistance, heated at times. Some worried that the snowboarder penchant for side-slipping steep pitches down to the rocks would treat Aspen Mountain poorly. Others were concerned about safety. "I've already had words with one of the little m--- f---s in Spar," scowled former U.S. Ski Team member Jerry Shimer, another Aspen native. "He just cut me off cold and never looked back."

Most locals believe SkiCo's reversal on the boarding ban is strictly a matter of business. And the question remains: Will it work to stem the slide in skier days at the four SkiCo areas, down by nearly 200,000 during the last four years? Debate centers on the cause of the slippage: a slumping ski industry, fickle snow conditions, a slowing world economy, the changing interests of vacationers; pick one or all.

Aspen also faces more localized issues. There's the chronic concern about Aspen's affordability. Also, accessibility can be difficult and expensive, even though there are three airports within two hours of town. Dwindling bed space (down 20 percent since 1995-96), has bothered SkiCo for years (fewe

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