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Untracked Line: Aspen Expeditions, CO

How to ditch the fur coats at Aspen.
posted: 07/20/2009
Aspen Expeditions.jpg

Aspen Expeditions
Head out of the gates from any of Aspen's four mountains and you end up in some of the state's-even the world's-finest backcountry skiing, a huge spread of easy-turning bowls, hairy chutes, and everything in between. It's serious, slide-prone stuff, though; you'll need a guide. Enter Aspen Expeditions, the only off-piste operation with exclusive guiding privileges in the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest that surrounds Aspen.
AE's game plan is simple: Ride the lifts and then hike and traverse to the day's best-and safest-terrain. Depending on conditions and the group's skill level, tours may includethe rolling, wide-open faces off the back side of Aspen Mountain or the shorter, steeper (30- to 45-degree) stashes off Baldy Mountain. Our advice: Ask your guides to take you past Highland's Ridge, above Aspen Highlands, for 4,000-foot-long runs through open bowls and tiered glades. You'll quickly forget that the sushi and Botox are just a few miles away.

SNOWPACK
The combination of long intervals between storms; sunny days; clear, cold nights; and sporadic big dumps make for a notoriously shallow and unstable continental snowpack. The upside? Northern aspects can stay fresh and powdery long after the weather leaves town. Even so, if serious steeps are your thing, wait until spring, when conditions stabilize.

TERRAIN HIGHLIGHTS
Keep hiking and traversing past Highland Bowl-some of the country's best inbounds skiing-and the terrain gets even better. The ridge is narrow, with sheer drop-offs on either side, but the rewards are immense: The undulating and gladed Five Fingers chutes lead you into the Castle Creek drainage. There's also the K-Chutes, a series of wide, 25- to 45-degree northeast-facing gullies.

WEATHER
If Utah is getting hammered, there's a good chance Aspen will be up next. In between storms, cold temperatures and wind-loading can preserve-and amplify, and unsettle-a nine-inch dump. That said, the best combination of sun and storms is usually in March.

THE GUIDES
Owner Dick Jackson, 55, and fellow lead guide Amos Whiting, both IFMGA/AMGA-certified, guide most days. Another half-dozen guides, all AMGA or Level III Avalanche-certified, fill in as needed.

THE LODGE
All of Aspen is your bedroll. Best deal? A bunk in a shared room and hearty homemade breakfast at the historic Little Red Ski Haus ($60; littleredskihaus.com). Rooms at the St. Regis (stregis.com) have down duvets, plasma-screen TVs, and in-room Jacuzzis-but they aren't cheap. Doubles start at around $500.

THE CHOW
AE is a bring-your-own-lunch operation. There's a grocery store (City Market) next door to the office, and World Link Cafe, around the corner, for bagel sandwiches and thick java. For dinner, Mezzaluna has everything from wood-fired pizzas to affordable entrees like penne with rock shrimp.

BANG FOR BUCK
Depending on what and where you choose to ski, you might fit in only one monster run. But how else are you (safely) going to get 4,000 feet of Colorado powder turns-and photos of you and your buddies on a knife ridge in front of the Maroon Bells?

MUST-KNOW
Because you can access some of the best terrain by simply boot-packing or traversing, you don't need an alpine-touring or tele setup. However, Jackson also runs day outings-and multi-day hut tours-that involve skinning, and his shop has a full rental fleet of AT and backcountry gear.

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