Skiing in Aspen Colorado: powder room

Aspen, Colorado, is now four distinct ski resorts, writes Robert Upe.

There's more to Aspen than celebrity and ritzy shopping. It boasts four vastly different ski areas - Aspen, Buttermilk, Highlands and Snowmass - spread out across the Rocky Mountains idolised in John Denver's songs.

From Buttermilk's bunny slopes to Highlands' terrifying hike-to terrain, we spend a day at each.

ASPEN

Terrain: 273 hectares.

Trails: 76.

Degree of difficulty: No easy way down.

Aspen is both a town and a mountain. The town, bursting with cool restaurants, hotels, shops and bars, is adjacent to the demanding ski area (sometimes called Ajax) and is accessed on the Silver Queen Gondola. This lift rises above the Roaring Fork Valley and the pretty town that grew from an 1880s silver boom.

The gondola tops out at 3418 metres, high enough to cause altitude sickness.

Advertisement

A good way to start the day is a first-tracks session with a guide that gives first dibs on the perfect intermediate corduroy slopes such as Copper. There is plenty of width in the tree-lined slopes but the pitch is constant and best enjoyed by good intermediates or better.

A curiosity on the mountain is Bobbitt's Cuttoff, a run named after John Bobbitt who infamously had his penis cut off by his abused wife. There are also memorial shrines to visit among the trees.

At the John Denver shrine (he was killed in a 1997 plane crash) there are photos of him and his record covers. Other shrines include those to Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and 9/11. When you are done with the slopes, Aspen's shops are waiting for you.

Personal stylist and shopper Melissa Temple, an Australian who lives in Aspen, helps the well-heeled find things that they want. "In a square kilometre you can find Dior, Gucci, Prada, Vuitton, Barton Perreira, Brunello Cucinelli," she says.

Among the items Temple has helped people buy are a $US2500 Globe Trotter suitcase (used by British royalty) and an Aston Martin.

There are also more humble stores. These include Kemo Sabe for cowboy boots and Stetsons, and Aspen Thrift Store for possible designer bargains.

Go-to run

Ruthie's Run was rated the best in the US by Playboy in the 1980s and it has stood the test of time. It has big wide open bowls, is always groomed and has spectacular views. For intermediates.

Accommodation

8863 pillows, many of them in hotels, none better than Little Nell.

Eat

Nobu Matsuhisa's restaurants are found around the world, including here in a historic cottage. On a standout night, its sake and yellowtail jalapeno are memorable.

For a casual cafe try Victoria's Espresso, operated by an Australian couple who turn out great coffee, and make bakery items in-house.

Also consider Hotel Jermone's J Burger and the casual Ajax Tavern by the Silver Queen Gondola. Try upmarket Element 47 at the Little Nell for a special night out where celeb sightings are said to include Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn and Kevin Costner. There's also the popcorn wagon with hot dogs and crepes open late and a favourite among barflies, if not with the celebrities.

Tip

The best apres-ski scene is at The Sky Hotel. It's funky and upmarket with couches and a fire. Beers and cocktails flow with mezze platters.

BUTTERMILK

Terrain: 190 hectares.

Trails: 44.

Degree of difficulty: Easy. A great learning ground.

The annual Winter X Games bring hardcore riders to Buttermilk each winter where they twist, turn and fly off the mountain's 6.7-metre superpipe. There's loud music and night events, but for most of the winter this is a sedate mountain. L-plate skiers and snowboarders will find it comfortable here starting at the ski hire.

The slopes are a dream. Uncrowded. Wide. Gentle. Rolling. Well-groomed. Most of it is easy but there are some harder blue and black (hardly) options, and even tree skiing.

If you are an intermediate, Buttermilk may be the place to find your ski legs again. beginners should head for Panda Hill. The next Winter X Games are scheduled for January 24-27, so if you crave quiet don't go then.

Go-to run

For more challenge try Tiehack Parkway.

Accommodation

488 pillows at Inn of Aspen, but there's not much of a village.

Eat

Atop the mountain is The Cliffhouse Mongolian grill where the cold and hungry can fill their bowls with vegetables, noodles and meat and have it all barbecued in front of them. Great views.

Tip

The Tiehack side of Buttermilk will be less skied on a powder day and you will have the run of the mountain.

HIGHLANDS

Terrain: 416 hectares.

Trails: 119.

Degree of difficulty: Tougher than constructing Ikea furniture.

This is regarded as the locals' ski area. Just about everyone who lives in Aspen is an advanced skier or snowboarder, so come here for a challenge.

Novices will find suitable terrain, but there are better options at Snowmass and Buttermilk.

The hardest stuff is in the challenging Highlands Bowl, accessed along a narrow track with drop-offs on both sides.

At the most exposed point of the climb, there is a rope to hang on to.

"It's God's own view and then you get to ski terrain that is 45-degrees steep," one guide says.

The skiing is like a backcountry experience above the treeline and conditions are variable with wind-blown snow. It's all double-black diamond.

The Deep Temerity area doesn't require a hike but also throws up double-black diamond terrain. It's punctuated by trees and there are lots of options to find your way down. It's popular on powder days.

Go-to run

Highlands Bowl.

Accommodation

734 pillows at Ritz-Carlton, which dominates the small village. Not a place for nightlife.

Eat

On-mountain European-style Cloud Nine bistro is in a small hut and is how most people would imagine a restaurant in the snow should look. After they've finished serving the fondue, stews and strudel, things can liven up with dancing on the tables.

Tip

Ask the ski patrol if you will be able to see an avalanche rescue dog demonstration.

SNOWMASS

Terrain: 1348 hectares.

Trails: 94.

Degree of difficulty: Mixed bag from tough, to cruising, to learning slopes.

If you don't have a hotel, the next best bet for a bed is at Snowmass, a village with good restaurants, bars, shops and lodging.

Ski terrain is larger than the other three mountains combined.

It has long runs, lots of intermediate skiing and is great for families. There are many kids' programs and a cowboy strumming a guitar by the fire after skiing. If you want to stay at Snowmass, try the well-priced retro Wildwood, the perfectly positioned Westin Hotel, or the apartment-style Viceroy.

Go to run

Any of the blue runs off the Big Burn lift. Cirque Headwall for double-black diamonds.

Accommodation

8772 pillows in hotels, self-catering, 95 per cent ski-in/ski out.

Eat

On-mountain Sam's Smokehouse crispy fried green tomatoes, St Louis ribs, Cajun fries.

Tip

There is lively apres-ski slopeside at the New Belgium Ranger Station: craft beers and bison nachos.

The writer was a guest of Aspen and travelled courtesy of United Airlines.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

United Airlines flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles and San Francisco, with connections to Aspen, Colorado. Phone 13 17 77 or see united.com.

STAYING THERE

Skimax has seven nights at The Little Nell from $4329 a person, twin share, including five-day ski pass. Seven nights at The Sky Hotel, including breakfast and five-day ski pass, is $1459 a person, twin share, including a six-day ski pass. Conditions apply. See skimax.com.au. Free shuttle buses connect all four mountains.

MORE INFORMATION

aspensnowmass.com.

Comments