Like champagne and caviar, New Year's Eve and Aspen, Colo., were made for each other. Aspen has always loved an occasion-any occasion-to party, and no town its size does it better. Winterskol rocks, the Fourth of July can resemble Beirut, gun-powder smoke and all, and New Year's Eve and its A-List parties annually draws a Who's Who to town. These three holidays constitute the grand slam of Aspen celebrations. To local residents, however, all three events are known by the same name: Amateur Night.
For all of its hard-won reputation for hardcore partying (local Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, once wrote a song about it called, naturally, "Party Town"), Aspen has no respect for jet-in, carpetbag partiers. Odd as it may seem, true Aspenites play it low-key during the big-name holidays, turning the town over to the amateurs.
I learned this the hard way, of course, during my senior year at Aspen High School in the Seventies. Several of us and our girlfriends made reservations at the best restaurant in town, got all dressed up and called for a Rolls Royce cab. In a really brainless early spasm of Aspen glitz-mongering, someone opened up a cab company with a fleet consisting only of Rolls Royces and Bentleys, none of which survived the season on Aspen's slick roads. We did our part to thin them out when one of our crew thought we had stopped at the restaurant and opened the cab door. But we were still rolling, and the door hooked on a parked car and flattened against the side of the Rolls, greatly increasing the cost of the evening and instantly diminishing our standing with the ladies.
After that I traveled New Year's Eve on foot for a while, watching the dazzling fireworks from Wagner Park or up on Red Mountain. Then, as I matured, my friends and I started traveling farther afield on New Year's Eve, away from town-on moonlit ski tours up Hunter Creek and on the cold, white hills of Wildcat. We weren't always able to see the fireworks, but we sometimes had a full moon, and one time we enjoyed a private light show that strongly resembled a UFO.
When these New Year's Eve excursions weren't enough, we started taking trips to the then little-known 10th Mountain Hut System, where cabins like Margie's and Estin were surrounded by untracked powder and beyond sight of any lights at all. Sometimes we took our own fireworks, and sometimes headlamps and starlight were enough as we floated down ghostly slopes on pure faith and adrenaline.
It was only when I started ski instructing that I slowly came back to Aspen civilization for New Year's. Torchlight descents of Snowmass and Aspen mountains taught me a new kind of celebration: skiing fast while a sputtering torch melted my jacket.
I often was invited by clients and friends to lavish New Year's Eve parties that were becoming, for many, an annual confirmation of your social pecking order. I got to dine with celebrities and drink from champagne bottles that cost as much as my rent. It was heady, but it took two days to recuperate.
So I finally became a true professional (and a true Aspenite) and started staying home on the big night and skiing first chair on New Year's Day. The Christmas holidays are crowded and crazed on the local slopes, but New Year's Day is different.
Between hangovers and football games, the slopes are deserted. It's like an annual gift for locals: the chance to ski on a holiday in the mountains we call home and know most of the people riding the lifts. For a few hours once a year, Aspen still feels like the small town it once was. Only a carpetbagging amateur would pass on a chance like that.