It’s So Good To Be Back At Aspen Snowmass

Australia’s outgoing travel bans lifted in time to let those who could get back at it late last northern winter, including our roving correspondent Kirk Owers who hit up Aspen Snowmass in February.

Absence makes the heart beats faster – especially if you’re skiing Aspen Snowmass next winter.  

Ajax Mountain still rules after  75 years © Garrett Brown/Aspen Snowmass

The pandemic has changed a lot of things but the sky is still blue 300 days a year in Colorado and the snow stills smothers the Rocky Mountains winter long. There is still waist-deep powder to decimate, cornices and couloirs to shred, backcountry bowls to explore. The early morning groomers are still eye-wateringly fast. Pine forests and aspen glades remain magical and untracked if you know where you’re going. There are more jumps, half pipes and rails than you remembered. The beer still tastes better at elevation and, while most things remain overpriced, you’re in the mountains. Skiing and snowboarding again.

It feels so good to be back!

This was my first trip to Aspen Snowmass and I packed big expectations. I’d heard all about the celebrity parties, designer labels, billionaire abodes and Hollywood A-listers. I knew that Jack Nicolson kept a place nearby and that the Kardashians use Aspen to backdrop countless duck-lipped selfies. What I didn’t realise is that behind all the moneyed glamour lies a proper hard core ski hill. And that many Aussies come here every winter, not to spot celebrities or drink overpriced bubbly, but to ski their butts off. 

Aspen’s four separate resorts – Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Buttermilk, and Highlands – each have their unique attractions and all are bundled on the one pass giving you over five thousand acres of skiable terrain. For great 4 mountain pass deals see the box up at bottom. 

Aspen Gondola
The iconi Aspen Gondola rises straight out of town to the top of Ajax © Garrett Brown/Aspen Snowmass

Ajax, as the original resort is also known, banks steeply away from the township in an intimidating slant for learners. In fact there are no learners at Aspen Mountain because there are no green runs. When the founders built the first lifts here 75 years ago they were more concerned about speed than safety. Not that much has changed.

“The locals like to ski fast in the morning. It can feel like you’re driving a rickshaw on an autobahn”

says our guide after we’re passed by a bulleting race pack. It’s February and the Winter Olympics are in full swing. Everyone wants to ski fast and tight like GS gold medalist Marco Odermatt and the banked steeps above Aspen offer a perfect race track. It hasn’t snowed for over a fortnight but consistent freezing temperatures have ensured the snowpack remains thick and ice-free. Hero snow they call it – it’s hard and fast but malleable enough to grip an edge.

Our ski guide happens to be a former journo who also jobs as an art installer. He came to Aspen from Boston for the skiing and twenty years later the skiing is why he remains. Like many core locals he couldn’t care less about celebs or designer bling. The local mind set seems to be about using some of the wealth that pours into Aspen for projects that benefit the community or the environment. Aspen runs mainly on green energy and has been focused on sustainability issues and environmental activism for many years, I’m told.  

As much as I’m enjoying these unexpectedly serious chair-lift conversations I’m also up for some unsustainable hedonism. I want to see what the après scene is like in America’s ritziest ski town and I’m not disappointed. Somehow we get invited to a party at the Aspen Art Museum as the sun sets on another big day of shredding. It’s the opening night of an Andy Warhol exhibition and we wander the double story gallery in our ski gear and gawp at the famous pop art prints and installations. Then it’s upstairs for cocktails, a DJ and an opportunity to meet some friendly locals.

Jack Nicolson doesn’t show but it’s still a good night. 

The pandemic may have clipped the wings of carefree public partying in ski towns but I get the feeling that there’s some pretty awesome private parties happening in Aspen when I’m there. I can just sense it.

Our group is staying up the road at Snowmass village – which has plenty of great restaurants and shops but no real nightlife. Given the village sits at 2,777 metres above sea level earlyish nights and moderation with the booze is probably a blessing.

View up at Snowmass © Garrett Brown/Aspen Snowmass

           

Snowmass isn’t an old mining town – like Aspen, Telluride, Breckenridge etc – it’s a purpose built ski village. What it lacks in history and charm it makes up for in convenience.  The vast majority of accommodation at Snowmass is ski in/ski out. There are enough shops, restaurants and après bars to keep you sated and entertained but the focus is very much on the killer terrain.

Snowmass is by far the biggest and best resort on the Aspen ticket with a playground of 3,339 acres to explore, not including the many excellent backcountry opportunities. 

Gun skiers love Snowmass’ steeps, but it’s also well suited to families. There are plenty of green and blue runs and a great ski school with friendly instructors who love “ozzies”. The groomed trails are so wide you feel like you’re on a LA freeway.  I even saw a dad skiing with his toddler tethered via some sort of guide rope. He looked like he was flying a kite. More conventional parents can leave their offspring at Treehouse Kid’s Adventure Centre. Ice-skating and tubing are also available. If your kids aren’t extremely excited to be going on a holiday to Aspen Snowmass you’re well within your rights to leave them behind.  

The introduction of the Ikon pass has reportedly made many big resorts such as Aspen Snowmass busier than many locals would like. So maybe I’m just lucky to visit not long after Australia opened up to the world, because I barely see a lift que of any substance for my entire stay.

Generally speaking Colorado’s ski resorts get less busy the further you are from Denver. Flying into Aspen the airport just out of town. A reliable shuttle bus service regularly laps the resorts and it runs till late at night.   

Aspen averages over seven metres of snow a season and it is famously dry and light. We don’t get a big dump during our stay, but one morning we wake to unexpected flurries. The clouds hang low and it’s hard to see much until we bust through the mist into a world of buttery yellow light. The groomers have done an immaculate job overnight and the mountain gods have sprinkled 10-15cm of icing sugar on top of the corduroy. There’s no one around. You can go crazy fast, jam a turn and release a shower of diamond sparks. It really does feel like hero snow. 

It is the best day of snowboarding I’ve had in years, but it presents a dilemma. We have a lunch booking at the highly recommended Alpin Room. I can blow it off and continue riding on an empty stomach, or I can wine and dine at one of the fanciest mountain restaurants in Aspen. Of course I choose both. Our roadie is ending. It’s time to cram! 

Taking the kids can be cheaper than you think © Garrett Brown/Aspen Snowmass

Aspen Snowmass 2022 – 2023 Specials

SKI10 10 days 4 Mountain Pass

Adults AUD 899*  Child/Teen (7-17) & Senior (65+) AUD653*

SKI30 Unlimited 30 Consecutive Day Pass  

Adults AUD 1033* Child/Teen (7-17) & Senior (65+) AUD 720*

Includes 2 days of skiing in Thredbo*

10% Discount Aspen Snowmass on-mountain restaurants

Save 25-30% on accommodation/get free nights

*Only in conjunction with 7 nights at participating Aspen Alliance properties  Lifts book by 31/8/22; Accommodation book by dates/conditions apply; based on AUD rate as of 20/4/22

For latest details/bookings check www.travelplan.com.au

Colorado info https://www.colorado.com

Resort info https://www.aspensnowmass.com

Pampered American skiers don’t come across many pomas – watch them struggle at the top of Snowmass © Garrett Brown/Aspen Snowmass