TRAVEL USA – A Little Place Called Aspen

October 27th, 2010

The hike to the top of Highlands Bowl. Image:: Aspen

Skiing Colorado | Tess Cook

The first time I hiked the Highlands Bowl at Aspen Highlands we started too early in the morning to catch the snow cat. Highlands Bowl aficionados will know the modified snow cat – which sports a large people carrier to convey enthusiasts to the low side of the infamous Bowl – doesn’t get you that far if you’re planning to go all the way to the top, but it helps and most hikers seem willing to wait until it begins operations at 10am, meaning we had the path to ourselves.

Highlands Bowl is good for laying bare your fitness level. Smokers beware, the combination of thin air and steep climb is punishing on the lungs. But the leg burn and the fear of pitching sideways off the spine-thin ridge – falling into the Bowl would be ok but the backside is sheer wilderness – is all made redundant when you reach the summit.

You come over the last rise, thinking it’s another trick and you’ve still got more plodding to do and suddenly the ridge widens to a platform, bedecked with Nepalese peace flags, you lift you head and there, stretching south and north, west and east, are the Colorado Peaks; a view so spectacular you may go a lifetime without experiencing anything better.

On this particular Colorado bluebird morning we had the summit almost to ourselves, a particularly gun-ho ski patroller had charged past us as we floundered on the track and was relaxing with a thermos when we stumbled over the last rise. Somehow though his presence, this genuine mountain man enjoying his morning cup-o-joe in his ‘office’, just added to the moment.

A moment like that is worth savouring but if anything can tear you away from contemplating the world opening out around you it’s the powder-filled bowl opening out beneath you. With perfect timing, we’d managed to catch the first bluebird morning following a two-day storm – ski nirvana – and we had it all to ourselves.

We hugged the left line, earning turn after floating turn of perfect knee-deep powder, the kind that has you thinking you’ve lost contact with solid earth and are indeed flying, so little resistance is there. Such perfect, dry, untouched freshies can’t but make you smile, and make you feel your skiing is just that little bit better than it is, executing each graceful transition I began imagining myself a the star in the next Warren Miller, a pony-tailed powderhound bounding into shot with a powder trail streaming behind me.

The tree line came up all too fast but there was nothing disappointing in the glades. Being 3559m at the summit the Highlands bowl is more than long enough to make the 45 minute hike worthwhile, indeed it took us near on 45 minutes to get down and there was plenty of grin-educing powder stashes on the way. Back in the resort proper there was more tree skiing to be had and we finally fetched up at the base not long after 10am feeling as though we’d skied for a solid day.

The 4pm leg shakes at 10am can only mean a serious hot chocolate break, necessary because the Bowl is by no means the only challenge at Highlands and we had plenty more skiing to be doing.

The Silver Queen Gondola rises out of the town of Aspen. Image:: Charlie O’Brien

The Power of Four

Similarly, Highlands is by no means the only mountain to be done at Aspen, though with 36% percent of it classified as expert it’s top of the list for the kind of satisfying skiing that sees you finish the day feeling like you’ve accomplished something worth bragging about. That’s not to discredit Aspen Mountain, which is a green-run free zone famous for bumps and tree skiing.

We stayed in Aspen, just a few blocks from the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain so the chutes of Ruthie’s chairlift became our morning wakeup run. If a measure of a ski resort is how often it offers the quandary of retuning to the epic run you just tried or testing a new, potentially epic run somewhere else then Aspen Mountain is a world leader.

On day four, when suppressed jet lag and various hiking efforts caught up on us we dropped by Buttermilk, home of the Winter X Games to cruise through the turbo-charged terrain parks. A run through the super-pipe quickly brought back my vertigo – it’s very discombobulating, all the going skywards, then downwards, then skywards again – and the day ended early when more-enthusiasm-than-skill-Jack snapped his binding toe piece attempting a wall ride.

After a few days without snowfalls Snowmass, with it’s impeccable grooming, proved itself the place to be. Leaving fat skis behind in favour of some carvers we bussed it over to the resort village to leave some railway tracks in the super-wide rollers. Snowmass is the furthest of the four mountains from Aspen, but as a self-contained resort in itself it’s the perfect family location. The famous Aspen Treehouse ski school sits proudly at the base, a veritable wonderland of indoor and outdoor theme adventures so enticing I almost wished I could go back to Mighty Mites.

Standing on top of the world, the view from Aspen Mountain. Image:: Aspen

A little taste of luxury

Aspen is synonymous with luxury skiing, having grown up on the Aspen myth, through my parents’ stories of late eighties hedonistic ski trips, I’d always hankered for my own taste of the good life. And while I might not yet be in the penthouse at the famous Little Nell I found plenty of luxury going around Aspen to sample.

We quickly discovered you don’t have to be staying at the slope side Sky Hotel to be served après in its outdoor spa, BYO swimmers and assume a position of extreme relaxation in one of the deliciously warm pools and have the waiters bring you towering cocktail creations.

If you want to sample the tuna niçoise at Ajax Tavern, just arrive early – the restaurant doesn’t take bookings for lunch so arrive on the dot of 11:30am, as we did, and score a table. We spent a satisfying lunch hour watching the parade of fur and diamonds, and absurdly groomed poodles, that constitute the Aspen lunch crowd. The food was pretty satisfying too!

Then for a change of pace, and scene, après at Hotel Jerome. A bastion of old-world glamour the Hotel Jerome has been an Aspen establishment since 1889 and the opulent-saloon vibe of the J Bar made us feel a strange hankering for rich velvet furnishings. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t feel silly ordering single malt scotch to swill in a balloon glass, but it’s not pretentious, people there are still having fun!

Indeed in Aspen you can’t avoid the little touches that make for a luxury ski holiday. hands free ticketing gates, which as a mitten wearer I just love, armies of friendly guest services folk ready to help with anything and everything and – this is my personal favourite – the free drinks! Coffees handed out at the gondola in the morning, cider on the hill at afternoon tea and oreo cookies everywhere. Yes please.

Aspen Easy 11
1. Vertical Rise 1373m (Snowmass)
2. Inbound terrain 2146ha over four resorts
3. Expert terrain Extensive
4. Parks and pipes Snowmass – 3 parks & 2 pipes. Buttermilk – 2 parks, including a superpipe and the X Games slopestyle course
5. Skier/terrain ratio (daily average) 6.3 people per ha (averaged across all 4 resorts)
6. On mountain accommodation? Yes, at Snowmass, Aspen and Aspen Highlands
7. Vibe Snow deluxe
8. Best for Anyone and everyone should experience Aspen at least once
9. Not for Those on a budget
10. Top tip Hike Highlands Bowl early to beat the crowds
11. Fun Fact Aspen Mountain plays host to a collection of shrines to iconic celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. The Elvis shrine began as a way-marker in the trees to help people find their way back to the lift. Fans have added paraphernalia over the years and now the shrines, which are hidden deep in the trees, are a pilgrimage point.

All Aspen’s essential stats and facts can be found here

Peace flags and a ski patroller at the top of Highlands Bowl. Image:: Charlie O’Brien

Will- Aspen Highlands – A little bit of pow at Aspen Highlands. Image:: Charlie O’Brien

Fresh tracks at Aspen Mountain. Image:: Charlie O’Brien