Fear and loathing in Aspen

If anything can put the fear into you in Aspen, it's the thin and slippery ridge line you have to hike along for 45 minutes to get into Highland Bowl. At 3774 metres, the altitude squeezes your lungs and the skis strapped to your back gnaw into your shoulder blades as your legs burn with the uphill trudge.

It's all for the joy of skiing down untracked 42-degree slopes, the same slopes that avalanched in 1984, killing three ski patrollers.

Now, it's the place of legends. Veteran ski filmmaker Warren Miller has filmed here and if you bag the Bowl the bragging rights are deservedly yours.

I've got the fear in me.

But it's not from Highland Bowl. I'm on the 2pm shuttle bus back to town after a few runs on the wide and uncrowded groomed slopes that are everywhere among the aspen and that provide this well-rounded resort with a counterbalance to the back-country bejesus experience of the Bowl. The granny next to me in the bus is giving me a tongue lashing. "You should be out there skiing, it's no excuse that your legs are aching on a bluesky day."

I tell her I trained to get fit for the ski trip but I'm done for the day and a beer beckons at Hotel Jerome.

"Well, you're not training right. You should be running up hills," she says. "Hills are the thing."

I guess she's in her 70s. She calms down a little and reveals she has just finished a three-week backpacking and snowboarding trip to Alaska. "I snowboarded every day. And I fell in love for two days," she says.

Now, she's couch surfing in Aspen, staying with different people every few nights and cooking a meal or two for them in return for a free place to sleep.


As I ponder her as a house guest, I arrive atmy bus stop and wander off towards Hotel Jerome with a sense that this ski-bum hippie granny is staring at me from the bus window thinking: "Now there's a dude who needs to toughen up."

But I have excuses.

Whether you're in Highland Bowl or not, Aspen is a high resort and altitude sickness can slow you down. About 15 per cent of visitors to Aspen get symptoms of altitude sickness for 24 to 36 hours, according to an information booklet next to the Bible in my hotel room.

"Here, some 8000 feet high, the air is thinner and there is less oxygen available," the booklet says. "You may be breathing deeper or faster and feel a bit short of breath at times. Symptoms include feeling tired, headache and nausea. If symptoms persist, go to a doctor. Keep hydrated, avoid tobacco and alcohol."

Hotel Jerome's J-Bar has the feeling of a Wild West saloon. There's a big mirror behind the bar and hundreds of bottles of spirits but I've settled for the beer. It's quiet in the afternoon, just a few men watching ice hockey on the wide-screen televisions and eating nachos with guacamole.

The hotel was built in 1889 and, like a lot of Aspen, has Victorian-era charm that is a reminder of the town's silver-mining origins. These days Aspen is a trendy blend of boutiques, outdoors shops, bars, restaurants and nightspots bound together with cultural, culinary and fashion aplomb.

I head for the Explore Booksellers, another Victorian-era building filled with books in many rooms and an upstairs cafe. The bookstore (explorebooksellers.com) is an Aspen icon, like Hotel Jerome, and a gathering place for authors. As I cross an icy road there's a big old Cadillac coming along, looking like it's ready to slew out of control. For a moment I imagine Hunter S. Thompson behind the wheel. It's the sort of car the gonzo journalist might have driven in his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

But I know it isn't Thompson. The writer shot himself at his home atWoody Creek, just outside Aspen, in 2005. He was an Aspen stirrer. In 1969 he backed Joe Edwards in the mayoral election on a "freak power" platform that tried to gain the support of the area's drop-outs, hippies and freaks. Edwards lost (just) but then Thompson stood for election on a similar freak platform to become the town's sheriff. He shaved off his hair during the campaign and called the conservative candidate with a crew cut "my long-haired opponent". He lost.

Not far from Explore Booksellers the slopes of Aspen Mountain rise from the town. The Silver Queen Gondola that accesses the mostly blackdiamond terrain is within walking distance of a lot of the town's accommodation.

It's common to see boot-clad skiers in the streets with skis over shoulders and others with snowboards underarm. Aspen resisted snowboards for a long time but finally allowed them on the slopes in 2000, one of the last major resorts to permit them.

As I ride up the gondola there's a local in the cabin, so I ask about the town's celebrity factor. It seems every star that has ever been to Hollywood has been to Aspen. The local says the stars prefer to stay low-key and once again I hear the story that Jack Nicholson often rides this gondola but fellow passengers never know it's him because he is hidden under a beanie and behind goggles.

"They don't like to be seen or photographed, except for a few, like Mariah Carey who will have her skivvy zip right down, even if it's minus seven degrees," I'm told. "Sometimes the mountain staff get out with water pistols to spray the cameras to try to stop the paparazzi."

The paparazzi must have some good skiers in its ranks because all of Aspen Mountain is challenging skiing. Resort statistics show there is zero terrain for beginners. However, there is terrain for all abilities when you calculate that Aspen comprises four ski areas: Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass. (A shuttle bus is required to reach the latter three.)

Between them, the four offer easy groomed runs, wide intermediate highways, challenging options among the trees, steeps, chutes and backcountry experiences such as Highland Bowl.

Aspen has introduced hands-free lift access at all four mountains this season with a plastic lift card that has a chip inside and automatically opens lift gates as you approach.

But the major development over the past few years has been at Snowmass, where the village has been rebuilt with new accommodation, hotels, restaurants and the Treehouse Kids' Adventure Centre, where Aspen's children's skischool program is based.

Snowmass now provides a worthy alternate accommodation base to Aspen township but as I'm browsing the shops, I think I spot the granny. This calls for evasive action - perhaps a bracing stroll up Highland Bowl.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Skimax.

Getting there United Airlines has a fare for about $1420, flying from Sydney to Aspen via Los Angeles (Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney). Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure on the secure website https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Staying there Skimax has a deal at the mid-range Limelight Lodge from $1925 a person for seven nights twin share and a six-day lift pass valid for travel between March 12 and April 11. See www.skimax.com.au.
Skiing there Aspen comprises four ski mountains: Aspen Mountain (easiest terrain: 0%; more difficult:48%;most difficult: 26%; expert: 26%); Aspen Highlands (18%, 30%, 16%, 36%); Buttermilk (35%, 39%, 26%, 0%); and Snowmass (6%, 50%, 12%, 32%). Free buses connect mountains. Greatest distance between mountains is 14.4 kilometres from Aspen to Snowmass. Total terrain: 2145 hectares.
Affordable Aspen There are affordable options in this town with an expensive reputation. Bars: Little Annie's, Zane's, Double Dog, Bentley's. Lively happy hours: Mezzaluna, Buenos Aires Fusion.
Eating: Johnny McGuire's, the BigWrap. Bar menus at fine dining restaurants are good value, with the same food that is served at tables but less expensive and slightly smaller portions. For more information see aspensnowmass.com.