There are moments when reality is better than what you imagined. Standing on the top of a remote ridgeline high up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with untouched, knee-deep powder in front of me, I realise this is one of them. Our group of 12 privileged skiers has just disembarked from The Little Nell's Powder Cat – a giant bright yellow tractor-like vehicle that traverses the snow on two large tracks. We are standing at the top of Richmond Ridge on the back side of Aspen Mountain. Below us is the most picturesque alpine valley. There are no buildings, no developments, no official ski runs and no other people – it is just glorious nature.
"This is my job each Friday," says Simon Chen, managing director of luxury Aspen resort The Little Nell, smiling broadly.
Chen, a 45-year-old Sydney native and Randwick Ruby fan, has been running luxury hotels in the US since 2006. He has a dry sense of humour and is a complete adrenalin junkie. It was his idea to offer powder skiing to patrons of The Little Nell.
In front of us, snow-covered fir trees cluster together to break up what would be wide-open meadows in summer but now have at least a metre-deep of snow blanketing them. The air is thin and crisp in this white playground. There are no marked groomed runs here and hazards such as thinly buried rocks, tree stumps or even mine shafts aren't marked – we'll be skiing off-piste, blazing our own trails down the mountain but we must follow our guides closely on either side of their tracks to stay safe.
"You'll need to put on one of these," says guide Bob Perlmutter (or Perl) handing me a small electronic device that I wear around my neck on a lanyard and tuck under my coat. "It is used to detect your position in the incredibly unlikely event of an avalanche. It has to stay switched on."
The group divides up between more advanced and less experienced skiers. In what seems like an instant, the powder hounds take off down the mountain. I try to follow them but my clumsy legs fail in the deep snow. After only a handful of turns on fresh powder, I falter and sink deep in the snow. You have to work harder to keep your skis on top in this stuff. The advance party disappears from view.
"Dan, just wait there!" a call comes from Perl, who has been running Powder Cat skiing for over 20 years with fellow guide Murray Cunningham.
I wait while the slower group – Katie, Leigh, Kate and elite ski instructor Angus Graham – make its way to my position. It is then time to point the skis down the mountain and weave between clusters of trees. Despite the wider powder skis, it is easy to sink and fall when you are not going fast enough. It's better to get the knees pumping.
"It may look like a forest ahead, but we'll pop out into a meadow through there," Perl says, leading the way.
He's right; it does look like we are heading straight into trees. I manage to duck down under low branches and follow a narrow path. One fir branch brushes my helmet, which I'm glad I'm wearing, but we are soon out into a wide open area.
A short time later, we stop in a clearing and wait for the Powder Cat to pick us up.
The talk in our group turns to avalanches, which are infrequent in this area. The guides know the terrain intimately, check the conditions and take the Powder Cat tours to areas that a considered very low risk. We're in expert hands.
"I've been doing this for 20 years," Perl says. "And we've only had one person buried. Because of this locator we had him out in two minutes."
Our ride arrives, the bright yellow cat rumbling to the pick-up point and we set off to meet the more advanced skiers. It's time for another run. The cushy, leather seats and warm cabin beat a chairlift any day.
The next run down, I start to gain speed, control and confidence. I'm making turns easier in the powder. All the while Graham – a member of the Rocky Mountain Division demonstration team – is plying me with encouragement and technique tips.
"Keep turning! You can do it, Dan! Looking good! Daniel the Champion of the World!" he yells at the valley. Graham must be one of the most positive people I've ever met. But it is also smart psychology.
"About 90 per cent of skiing is psychological – believing you can do it – and 10 per cent is physical," he tells me. "That's why you hear the encouragement from instructors."
Our group complete seven runs down the mountain in total but faster teams can get up to 12. The Powder Cat rumbles to a stop and we disembark next to a small, isolated hut with a stunning view of the Elk Mountains. It's time for a buffet lunch and another treat – a sublime back massage from a man named Francisco.
"Not a bad day at the office," I say to Simon Chen after our lunch banquet. "You must look forward to Fridays?"
"Perl and Murray have the best job in Aspen," Chen says of our guides. "Everyone wants their jobs."
Being managing director of The Little Nell isn't a bad gig either. Although I can hardly keep up with the super-fast-skiing managing director down Aspen Mountain back to The Little Nell after our Powder Cat drops us back on groomed slopes, I'm very glad to be heading back there.
The Little Nell sits on what must be the most exclusive block of real estate in Aspen – right next to the main gondola that whisks you up Aspen Mountain. The ski valet has your boots warm in the change room and your skis and poles ready to go outside. When you are ready, you literally walk across to the gondola with your electronic ski pass in your pocket and climb aboard a cable car. On return, you simply ski the final run to the hotel, hand your skis to the valet and take your boots off in the warm change room. Externally, The Little Nell is somewhat understated with no regal designs on the four-storey building. Once inside, however, the chic but cosy interior of the lobby makes you feel at home in one of the most highly rated luxury hotels in North America.
Whether it is enjoying a glass of red by an enormous fireplace in the aptly named Living Room, throwing yourself at a buffet breakfast spread out as long as a cricket pitch at Element 47 restaurant (try the custom-made omelette, buttermilk pancakes and Aussie-style flat whites), or singing along to a duo in the Ajax Tavern, there are plenty of places to relax, eat, drink and be merry after a day on the slopes.
The Little Nell features 52 guest rooms (182 square metres on average), 26 more premium guest rooms, three suites and six luxury suites (380-plus square metres). My standard Town Side room has two queen-size beds and everything you'd expect of a hotel of this class. The remote-controlled stone-clad gas fireplace gives a great ambience and warmth. A luxurious bath and shower is the perfect place to loosen the muscles after a day in the slopes.
At the end of a full day, the beds are wonderfully comfortable and the feather-down pillows sink down to the perfect width to support my head. There are many small touches that help lift the Little Nell to a higher level of luxury than other top ski resort properties. A printout of the next three days' weather forecast and featured activities, with a top-brand chocolate sitting on top, is waiting for you when you return after skiing. Clothes are neatly folded and ambient music is playing through a Bose speaker system morning and night and fresh slippers laid out by the bed.
A fully serviced mini-bar with various chocolate bars, cookies, chips and other assorted snacks as well as soft drinks, sparkling water and juices is included with the price of the room.
But it is the attitude of the staff that enhances the skiing experience so much more. People are genuinely friendly – from the room cleaners through to the chefs. They are not afraid to have a chat, share a joke or offer helpful advice when needed. It's something that Simon Chen is happy to encourage.
Take Carlton McCoy; at 30, he is one of the world's youngest master sommeliers. McCoy moved from the ultra-expensive New York restaurant Per Se to Little Nell in Aspen because it has a wine legacy program.
A pre-dinner visit to the Little Nell's cellar is an eye-opener. They stock over 20,000 bottles, and McCoy shows off some of the more expensive drops.
"The Romanee-Conti is worth $US12,000 to $US15,000 ($16,760 to $21,000)," McCoy says. "We have one American customer – he wears Dockers and a T-shirt when he visits – he spent $US62,000 ($86,500) in two hours. It was four bottles of wine."
For McCoy, the difference between serving at other five-star establishments and The Little Nell is all about connecting with guests, and having a sense of humour.
"At Per Se (in New York) you were taught to put a wall up. Here everyone is taught to start a conversation with guests and have a personality."
Qantas has daily flights to Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne with connections to Aspen. Return fares from $1455 (Sydney) and $1596 (Melbourne). See www.Qantas.com.au
Accommodation at the ski-in/ski-out Little Nell starts at $720 per night for a Town View room to $5650 for a Luxury suite.
SEE + DO
Off-piste Powder Cat skiing on Fridays is $660 per person or $400 per-person to buy out the 10-seats in the oversnow vehicle. Ski hire is extra.
Chef Matt Zubrod prepares a five-course carte blanche menu at Element 47 ($135) from local fare before master sommelier Carlton McCoy matches each course ($92) with fine wine.
The writer was a guest of The Little Nell.
Winter adventures with a touch of luxury
Geronimo … ski Highland Bowl (warning expert skiers only)
To say I was scared is an understatement. This is an epic double-black-diamond ski area that starts on the rim of Highland Peak's natural bowl, with a summit of 3774 metres. Hop on the tray of a powder cat that powers up the ridge line as far as it can go. Then continue the journey up on foot, which is quite a vigorous slog in the thin air. There is a near sheer drop on my right side. The 'bowl' on my left side isn't much more inviting. Click into your skis and lean forward over the edge. There a variety of entry points into the bowl, all of them will have you going extremely fast. Once you reach the tree-line there are moguls to contend with.
1 970-920-7009, 199 Prospector Rd, Aspen, CO 81611, US, aspensnowmass.com/aspen-highlands
Dance on tables at Cloud 9
More than just a ski-in restaurant half-way up the mountain at Aspen Highlands - this is a surreal snow party. The former Highlands Ski Patrol hut has been turned into a European-style cabin with an unusual dining experience. Enjoy some delicious soup and then a spread of fondue – melt slices of cheese onto potatoes, beef and bread. All the while, the DJ is playing a heady mix of dance-friendly tracks. It might be the altitude, but people started jumping on tables and opening expensive bottles of champagne to shower over everyone nearby as if they'd just one a grand prix. Suddenly I too am standing on a table, shaking it up. Reservations are necessary.
Cloud 9 Alpine Bistro, 1 970-923-8715 (dinner) 1 970-544-3063 (lunch),76 Boomerang Rd, Aspen, CO 81611, US. aspensnowmass.com/events-and-activities/dining/on-mountain- dining/cloud-nine-alpine-bistro
Snowmobile tour to Maroon Belles from T-Lazy-7 Ranch
Slip on a helmet, après snow boots and some sunglasses and you are ready for an unforgettable adventure to one of the most beautiful mountain scenes in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. There isn't a whole lot to riding a snowmobile – throttle, brake and some leaning into corners. T-Lazy-7 Ranch offers a guided tour that sees you powering up a trail on through a beautiful valley in White River National Park. As well as climbing through the trees of foothills, you can open up the throttle on a main path. I didn't lead my group of competitive adrenaline junkies for long - my speedo hit 40m/h (64 km/h) at times but I was teased for being a slow poke and trail hog. At the Maroon-Snowmass trail head you are rewarded with a stunning view of Maroon and North Maroon Peak – better known as the Maroon Bells. On the way back, I enjoy the most scenic BBQ ever at Klondike Cabin, which is nestled on the trail. Finally, back at the ranch, we are invited to race our snowmobiles against each other – it's an outrageous rush.
T-Lazy-7 Snowmobiles, 1 970-925-4614, tlazy7.com, 3129 Maroon Creek Rd, Aspen, CO, 81611, US
Take horse-drawn sleigh to a snow feast at Pine Creek Cookhouse
It is old school and a touch romantic. Snuggle up under a blanket with someone special on a sleigh as a draft horse pulls you over the snow to Pine Creek Cookhouse, a cosy log cabin restaurant with gourmet cuisine. It sits at the base of the Elk Mountains in the Ashcroft Ski Touring cross-country area, about 17 km south of Aspen. For those feeling more vigorous, you can opt to click into some cross-country skis (or a pair of snowshoes) to rent and ski up to the restaurant and back to the ghost town of Ashcroft, where guests leave from, on a very full tummy. The stars were impressive on the clear night we dined, but not as much as the delicious food and wine here. My feast included assorted appetisers from the chef; smoked trout served with cucumber frissee salad, a beef strip loin steak for third course served with truffle mashed potato, haricot vert and roasted tomato with served with lemon Dijon steak sauce; and warm chocolate brownie with vanilla bean ice cream, whipped cream and berries for dessert. Yum.
Pine Creek Cookhouse, pinecreekcookhouse.com, 970.925.1044, 11399 Castle Creek Rd, Aspen, CO, 81611, US.
Groom the mountain
For a different perspective on the ski fields, you can spend some time with an expert that prepares them each night. Climb aboard a Prinoth Bison 350 snowcat and ride shotgun with the driver as he/she moves up and down the slopes to push the snow into place and smooth it out. It feels strange at first sitting so high up on the snow in this 9000-kilogram monster, but that just makes the view from the cabin even better. We can see right over the town of Aspen. The current warm weather doesn't help my host, Dave, who has been grooming the snow for eight years. The more snow, the easier the job is for him to create carpets of corduroy. "We always compare it to PlayStation with the joystick," he says, grinning, as he moves a control column to operate blade on front and a tiller and matt on the back.
Bookings for two through The Little Nell, 970.920.4600, www.thelittlenell.com, 675 East Durant Avenue, Aspen, CO, 816611, US.
Race your instructor
The fastest way to improve on your skis or snowboard - and enjoy yourself - is to take a lesson or, even better, hire an instructor for a private lesson or group. Under the guidance of ski instructor Angus Graham, a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America – Rocky Mountain Division demonstration team, I let my skis go and make fewer and smoother turns. Following his tracks and example, I was able to move from intermediate slopes to black diamond runs and moguls. I was also able to race him on the Aspen Mountain NASTAR course. Each skier lines up at gates on the Silver Dip Swing trail. Push off to start the clock and ski right and left between the sets of flags. Graham gave me six of 12 flags as a start. When he caught me on the tenth flag he sounded like a fighter jet going past. Humbling, but brilliant fun.
Aspen Mountain NASTAR course, on Silver Dip Swing trail, open 11 am to 3 pm. 1 970 925 1220 x3029, adults $13 for three runs; children $11. Aspen ski instructors 1 877 282 7736 www.aspensnowmass.com/ski-and-snowboard-schools/private-lessons/private-lessons