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The Faces of Aspen

Features
posted: 11/25/2002

It's a Thursday night in March; it's snowing, and the buzz at the J-Bar in downtown Aspen is good. A pair of attractive, long-haired blondes with ruddy, sunburned faces tend bar. An Ivana-esque woman in a fat fur coat stands next to a man wearing a shearling man-fur and shiny cowboy boots. A pair of hippie chicks are working the room, selling prayer flags and wind chimes for charity while guys in flannel shirts and Carhartts sit at the bar talking about their ski day, their Arc'Teryx jackets draped over barstools. It's an energetic, beautiful hodgepodge and, in a way, it reflects the quirky conundrum Aspen has become. Ever since 10th Mountain troops slurped Jim Beam-spiked milkshakes here a half century ago, the J-Bar has been a down-to-earth skier's bar. Yet today it's on the ground floor of a $400-a-night hotel.

Known for money, extravagance, movie stars, flamboyant parties, two-million-dollar Victorians, and Hunter S. Thompson, Aspen the ski town can drown in its own mystique. But looking around this bar, I see many more down vests than furs, a diversity that's as underappreciated as the ski mountains that flank this town. To understand Aspen, you need to understand the people who live and ski here. With that in mind, I decided to wrangle three men into showing me the mountains-Snowmass, Ajax, and Highlands.

Snowmass: the Snowboarder
It's a cold, clear morning, and I'm chasing a snowboarder down one of Snowmass' perfectly fluted superhighways. He tacks across the slope into a patch of shady untracked near the tree line, and I scrub some speed to avoid his board's misty wake. The run, Sneaky's, off the Big Burn lift, is buffed and fast and wide-just what you'd expect at Snowmass.

On the next run, he slips into a narrow tree cut, which immediately drops and rolls straight down the fall line like a fat-tire singletrack. Turning is not an option, so I suck up the whoop-de-do's with my knees and hang on until the plummeting trail dumps us back onto the main run.

"That's called Pat's Plunge," he says. "It's a shortcut, not on the trail map. They made it because I don't like the traverse on my board." It's good to be the CEO.

Pat O'Donnell is 63 and has been the CEO of Aspen Skiing Company since 1996, but he still dreams of being featured in TransWorld Snowboarding. On the day last year when the snowboarding ban was finally lifted at Aspen Mountain, O'Donnell stood at the bottom of the Silver Queen gondola in a Burton T-shirt with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, as anxious as any of Aspen's long-suffering riders to hit Ajax's steeps and gullies. He's also generally considered to be the mastermind behind what a lot of people are calling the "new old Aspen," an Aspen that is welcoming to young people-maybe even grungy, broke young people. He even brought the X Games to Buttermilk last year, transforming Aspen's mild-mannered learning hill into a venue for the pierced, studded extreme crowd.

"It's a weird place," he says, referring to the juxtaposition between Aspen's reputation as a playground for the rich, and the reality. "When you think of coming to Aspen, you might think, oh, my God, I need a new ski outfit. It's like going to the White House-that's what the image is. But you can count the movie stars on one hand." He points over toward the lift maze at the Elk Camp high-speed quad and the rows of wide, velvety runs that stripe the fat hill behind it. "And look, it's 11 a.m., and there's not one person in line. The image of Aspen being exclusive is self-perpetuating."

That O'Donnell is an intense, businesslike CEO is obvious when he talks about things like "fulfilling the demographic," "repositioning the brand," and even his commitment to environmental stewardship. But on the slopes, he's a Patagonia-wearing snowboarder who exudes energy and mellowness at the same time. His enthusiasm is contagious as he points out skiable lines from the lift. His is a passion thattems from a lifelong devotion to the mountains. In the late '60s, O'Donnell spent several years climbing in Yosemite. He then built and opened Kirkwood ski area in Tahoe. In 1979, he left the ski industry, and soon after started running the Yosemite National Institute, an environmental-education foundation in San Francisco.

He switched gears again when his old climbing buddy Yvon Chouinard came knocking, asking O'Donnell to serve as president of Patagonia. Six years later, as if he hadn't worked at enough cool places, he left Patagonia to become president of Whistler. But all these stints as CEO and president never got in the way of adventure. "I believe in time off," he says. "I climbed Denali three times and sailed from San Francisco to South America and back on a 37-foot boat." He also climbed Anapurna ("although I wasn't on the summit team") and solo trekked the 225-mile John Muir Trail through the Sierras-three times.

O'Donnell is on Snowmass every morning-often hiking up on snowshoes before the lifts open. As a snowboarder, he likes this mountain's size and openness. It's easy to understand how it gets the "Slowmass" rap though: Its signature runs are those bloated groomers we've been cruising this morning, and viewed from the bottom, the mountain seems to move away from you, not upward.

But like a smiling snowboarder who turns out to be the CEO, Snowmass has another side. Pat has to get back to work, so he points me in the direction of the Cirque and Hanging Valley areas. "The terrain up there is as steep and extreme as you'll find anywhere," he says. "The difference is that hardly anyone knows about it."

Three lifts and five minutes of walking and staring at the hulking Elk Mountains across the valley deposit me at the far end of the arching Cirque wall. The precipice is rock-strewn and hand-on-hill steep, with snow that is bulging and soft. Two skiers have traversed a huge rock cornice and are piecing together lines through the crags. One catches an edge during a hop-turn and rag-dolls 30 feet. I opt for the rounded belly of the wall and dive in. Maybe five turns bring me to a thin band of trees, but just on the other side, there's another steep bowl, this one much longer and full of downy thigh-deep powder. It hasn't snowed in days, but there are still more patches of untracked than tracked. This is the place.

When I pop out of the trees onto the corduroy, it's like I've come through the looking glass. On the other side of the copse, some of Aspen's strongest local skiers are scouting new lines through cliffs and rock bands; on this side, a family in matching outfits is having a blast making a train with their poles as they try to keep their speed up on the flats.

Ajax: the Freerider
Kiffor Berg, 25, with short, sandy blond hair and freckles, looks more all-American boy than dirt-bag rock-star skier-until he blasts through a tight clump of trees as if it weren't there. He makes exactly the same huge, powerful turns on every run, whether bulletproof bumps on International or soft corn in Walsh's. A member of Aspen's newly created freeride team, Berg skis all of Aspen's mountains-Snowmass on powder days, Highlands for the bowl, and Ajax for the bumps, trees, and backcountry gates. "It's amazing to think of the choices you have when you wake up in the morning," he says.

Choices are something Berg seems to have down. A high school track star back home in Wisconsin, he decided to come to CU-Boulder for college instead of pursuing pole vaulting at some prestigious Midwestern school. Aspen, where his dad lived, was a quick weekend trip from Boulder. After college, he moved to Aspen and now gets paid to hurl himself over rock bands in big mountain competitions and off kickers in big air comps. He's living the ultimate Aspen life-sponsored skier by day, waiter and bartender at the trendy Matsuhisa sushi restaurant by night.

We've hit Ajax on a strange day: It's bluebird, but 50-mile-per-hour winds have closed the gondola. "I like to ski here when it's cloudy or snowy because the mountain is full of trees," Berg says. To prove his point, we head for the Face of Bell, which has evergreens so evenly spaced, it could be an orchard. Even though the snow is hard, the pitch is just right, and the bumps, although firm, are perfectly rounded, as if made by a machine. But this is Aspen Mountain-a complete lack of green-circle runs means lots of great skiers like Berg to carve out cookie-cutter moguls.

"This mountain is the kind of place that gets better if you spend the time to get to know it," Berg says. He leads me over to the Back of Bell, where he drops in and disappears over the lip of the fall-away steep run. The SnoCone-like corn is slick and fast underfoot and great for the ego. Protected from the wind on this side, we blast over mini cornices, through slushy moguls, and in and out of thick stands of trees that seem to hang in midair on the steeps. The slightly different aspects of the slopes make each run a surprise.

This being Aspen, the eccentricities don't stop with the terrain. At one point, Berg asks if I've ever seen the mountain's shrines. "The best one is right here," he says as he ducks into the forest and leads to a small bench surrounded by album covers, flowers, photos, and poetry. "I was a big John Denver fan," he says as we stare at the jacket for "Poems and Prayers and Promises." I look over and see that he is serious.

As we slide back onto the cat track, we nearly collide with a woman in a white fur-trimmed hat, silver stretch pants, and coordinating skis and boots. Berg laughs. "I used to think Aspen was all about fur coats and Gucci, but now that I live here, I barely see that stuff." Still, that stuff is here. It's part of what makes Aspen Aspen. But what makes this juxtaposition different from my reentry to the groomers at Snowmass is that Miss Sparkly here is a surprisingly capable skier. The quirky, demanding mountain that rises straight out of town doesn't care what label is inside your parka.

Highlands: The Patroller
Each November, rigorous slide control of Highland Bowl starts with boot-packing and requires hiking to the 12,500-foot peak as many as 17 times a day. "It's like being on a Stairmaster for seven hours straight," says patrol director Mac Smith, 50, his eyes glinting and his bristly, walruslike mustache forming a slight grimace.

"You couldn't whip people to do this job; it has to come from a true passion," Smith says. What he means by "this job" is the labor of love it takes to make some of the steepest and most avalanche-prone inbounds terrain in Colorado skiable. That Highland Bowl is open at all reflects the patrol's teamwork, but it is also testament to Smith's lifelong dedication to Highlands.

Smith grew up just down the valley in Basalt, where his parents owned a guest ranch. During high school, he admits he couldn't resist poaching some of the then-illicit extreme terrain he now manages. He joined the patrol 30 years ago and has been steadily opening new terrain ever since-Steeplechase, Oly Bowl, Temerity, the Y-Zones. This season, the plan is to open the entire Bowl-a realization of his dream. "I'd always hoped we'd get this done while I could still ski it top-to-bottom without stopping," he says. "We've been waiting to get this place open all our lives."

My eyes follow the winding white ridgeline up to the peak, which comes into view through a break in the clouds. Another patroller, in leather tele boots, icicles dripping from his gray hair, says, "It's a spiritual place up there, unlike anywhere else."

That's my cue. I slip through a gate and start to hike. After about 10 minutes of humping, the cat track narrows to a boot-pack trail. "Don't look while walking," I tell myself, fearful that a glimpse at the avalanche paths to my left or the rocky drop-offs to my right wit's bluebird, but 50-mile-per-hour winds have closed the gondola. "I like to ski here when it's cloudy or snowy because the mountain is full of trees," Berg says. To prove his point, we head for the Face of Bell, which has evergreens so evenly spaced, it could be an orchard. Even though the snow is hard, the pitch is just right, and the bumps, although firm, are perfectly rounded, as if made by a machine. But this is Aspen Mountain-a complete lack of green-circle runs means lots of great skiers like Berg to carve out cookie-cutter moguls.

"This mountain is the kind of place that gets better if you spend the time to get to know it," Berg says. He leads me over to the Back of Bell, where he drops in and disappears over the lip of the fall-away steep run. The SnoCone-like corn is slick and fast underfoot and great for the ego. Protected from the wind on this side, we blast over mini cornices, through slushy moguls, and in and out of thick stands of trees that seem to hang in midair on the steeps. The slightly different aspects of the slopes make each run a surprise.

This being Aspen, the eccentricities don't stop with the terrain. At one point, Berg asks if I've ever seen the mountain's shrines. "The best one is right here," he says as he ducks into the forest and leads to a small bench surrounded by album covers, flowers, photos, and poetry. "I was a big John Denver fan," he says as we stare at the jacket for "Poems and Prayers and Promises." I look over and see that he is serious.

As we slide back onto the cat track, we nearly collide with a woman in a white fur-trimmed hat, silver stretch pants, and coordinating skis and boots. Berg laughs. "I used to think Aspen was all about fur coats and Gucci, but now that I live here, I barely see that stuff." Still, that stuff is here. It's part of what makes Aspen Aspen. But what makes this juxtaposition different from my reentry to the groomers at Snowmass is that Miss Sparkly here is a surprisingly capable skier. The quirky, demanding mountain that rises straight out of town doesn't care what label is inside your parka.

Highlands: The Patroller
Each November, rigorous slide control of Highland Bowl starts with boot-packing and requires hiking to the 12,500-foot peak as many as 17 times a day. "It's like being on a Stairmaster for seven hours straight," says patrol director Mac Smith, 50, his eyes glinting and his bristly, walruslike mustache forming a slight grimace.

"You couldn't whip people to do this job; it has to come from a true passion," Smith says. What he means by "this job" is the labor of love it takes to make some of the steepest and most avalanche-prone inbounds terrain in Colorado skiable. That Highland Bowl is open at all reflects the patrol's teamwork, but it is also testament to Smith's lifelong dedication to Highlands.

Smith grew up just down the valley in Basalt, where his parents owned a guest ranch. During high school, he admits he couldn't resist poaching some of the then-illicit extreme terrain he now manages. He joined the patrol 30 years ago and has been steadily opening new terrain ever since-Steeplechase, Oly Bowl, Temerity, the Y-Zones. This season, the plan is to open the entire Bowl-a realization of his dream. "I'd always hoped we'd get this done while I could still ski it top-to-bottom without stopping," he says. "We've been waiting to get this place open all our lives."

My eyes follow the winding white ridgeline up to the peak, which comes into view through a break in the clouds. Another patroller, in leather tele boots, icicles dripping from his gray hair, says, "It's a spiritual place up there, unlike anywhere else."

That's my cue. I slip through a gate and start to hike. After about 10 minutes of humping, the cat track narrows to a boot-pack trail. "Don't look while walking," I tell myself, fearful that a glimpse at the avalanche paths to my left or the rocky drop-offs to my right will make me swirl with vertigo. Slowly, 10 minutes become 30, 40, and finally I scramble up the last short pitch to the summit.

Smith says he loves coming up here because there's a positive, communal energy. "Everyone is sharing the experience, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and looking forward to the adventure," he says. I take in the view-with the Maroon Bells serving as a gateway to the vastness-and a flutter moves up from my stomach as I get ready to ski the 45-degree slope.

After two, maybe three turns, the butterflies vanish. Nobody's chosen this route, called Be-One, except me and a skinny telemarker. The run is so steep that my uphill pole gets caught up on the hill, but the snow is smooth and creamy, and I pick up speed as my skis carve larger and more confident arcs over the near-vertical plane. I am at once elated and completely blank, and it's like time stops, or I wish it did, because all of a sudden I am slowing up near a sparse glade.

After the two-mile traverse deposits me back on the main run, I wind my way down to the bottom, where I ski up to the Ritz Carlton Club, part of Highlands' swank new base village. It's perhaps Aspen's most jarring juxtaposition yet. But although this grand construction project threatens to alter Highlands' disposition as a pure hardcore local's mountain, with lines like the one I just skied, this place, like Smith, will always be about the skiing.

The Jerome Bar: The Hodgepodge
The din at the J-Bar continues to rise as more and more red-faced people pile in and shake the snow off their hair. As I suck down my mogul-sized margarita, the hippies and socialites, the frat boys and stockbrokers mingle and mix. It's a surprisingly agreeable collision of disparate worlds. It occurs to me that here in Aspen, the individual parts are greater than the sum of the stereotyped, misunderstood whole.

At the end of the bar, a striking middle-aged woman in a tight ski sweater, frosty lipstick, and sparkling gold earrings is hitting on a young ski bum with sleepy eyes almost hidden by long strands of sun-streaked hair. Before long, they are laughing like old friends, and he waves over his buddies. She buys them all a round.

INSIDE ASPEN,CO

Getting there: Aspen is 220 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Highway 82. More than 150 flights arrive at local Sardy Field weekly, including nonstops from major cities on America West, Northwest, and United.

Hunger: Directly across from the gondola in Aspen, you'll find Café Ink! (the best coffee) and The Big Wrap (healthy wrapwiches stuffed with, say, pesto chicken and pumpkin seeds). At Highlands, Cloud 9 serves hearty prix fixe meals (hiking the Bowl after lunch is not recommended). For dinner, you've got scores of options. Blue Maize (970-925-6698) is a festive Mexican place specializing in homemade sangria and elk fajitas; Elevation (970-544-5166) has a trendy, crowded bar that serves a mean Cosmo.

Thirst: Did we say options? In addition to the Hotel Jerome's classic bar, try Eric's for 15 beers on tap (it's no-smoking, but there's a cigar bar attached), the Double Diamond for live bands, and Cooper Street Pier, which one local called, "the last dying gasp of '70s dirtbag Aspen." Then there's Shooters, McStorlie's Pub, Bentley's, Club Chelsea...

Slumber: "Splurging" is a relative term here, but if you want to go big, the behemoth St. Regis sits partway up Ajax's slopes, has huge rooms, and its halls are decked with cool Western art ($325-$1,150; stregisaspen.com). The hip, newly remodeled Sky Hotel is spitting distance to the gondola ($175-$625; theskyhotel.com). To go budget, reserve a room at the European-style Innsbruck Inn, which serves full, complimentary breakfasts and après-ski libations ($185-$270; preferredlodging.com).

t will make me swirl with vertigo. Slowly, 10 minutes become 30, 40, and finally I scramble up the last short pitch to tthe summit.

Smith says he loves coming up here because there's a positive, communal energy. "Everyone is sharing the experience, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and looking forward to the adventure," he says. I take in the view-with the Maroon Bells serving as a gateway to the vastness-and a flutter moves up from my stomach as I get ready to ski the 45-degree slope.

After two, maybe three turns, the butterflies vanish. Nobody's chosen this route, called Be-One, except me and a skinny telemarker. The run is so steep that my uphill pole gets caught up on the hill, but the snow is smooth and creamy, and I pick up speed as my skis carve larger and more confident arcs over the near-vertical plane. I am at once elated and completely blank, and it's like time stops, or I wish it did, because all of a sudden I am slowing up near a sparse glade.

After the two-mile traverse deposits me back on the main run, I wind my way down to the bottom, where I ski up to the Ritz Carlton Club, part of Highlands' swank new base village. It's perhaps Aspen's most jarring juxtaposition yet. But although this grand construction project threatens to alter Highlands' disposition as a pure hardcore local's mountain, with lines like the one I just skied, this place, like Smith, will always be about the skiing.

The Jerome Bar: The Hodgepodge
The din at the J-Bar continues to rise as more and more red-faced people pile in and shake the snow off their hair. As I suck down my mogul-sized margarita, the hippies and socialites, the frat boys and stockbrokers mingle and mix. It's a surprisingly agreeable collision of disparate worlds. It occurs to me that here in Aspen, the individual parts are greater than the sum of the stereotyped, misunderstood whole.

At the end of the bar, a striking middle-aged woman in a tight ski sweater, frosty lipstick, and sparkling gold earrings is hitting on a young ski bum with sleepy eyes almost hidden by long strands of sun-streaked hair. Before long, they are laughing like old friends, and he waves over his buddies. She buys them all a round.

INSIDE ASPEN,CO

Getting there: Aspen is 220 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Highway 82. More than 150 flights arrive at local Sardy Field weekly, including nonstops from major cities on America West, Northwest, and United.

Hunger: Directly across from the gondola in Aspen, you'll find Café Ink! (the best coffee) and The Big Wrap (healthy wrapwiches stuffed with, say, pesto chicken and pumpkin seeds). At Highlands, Cloud 9 serves hearty prix fixe meals (hiking the Bowl after lunch is not recommended). For dinner, you've got scores of options. Blue Maize (970-925-6698) is a festive Mexican place specializing in homemade sangria and elk fajitas; Elevation (970-544-5166) has a trendy, crowded bar that serves a mean Cosmo.

Thirst: Did we say options? In addition to the Hotel Jerome's classic bar, try Eric's for 15 beers on tap (it's no-smoking, but there's a cigar bar attached), the Double Diamond for live bands, and Cooper Street Pier, which one local called, "the last dying gasp of '70s dirtbag Aspen." Then there's Shooters, McStorlie's Pub, Bentley's, Club Chelsea...

Slumber: "Splurging" is a relative term here, but if you want to go big, the behemoth St. Regis sits partway up Ajax's slopes, has huge rooms, and its halls are decked with cool Western art ($325-$1,150; stregisaspen.com). The hip, newly remodeled Sky Hotel is spitting distance to the gondola ($175-$625; theskyhotel.com). To go budget, reserve a room at the European-style Innsbruck Inn, which serves full, complimentary breakfasts and après-ski libations ($185-$270; preferredlodging.com).

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