It was a slow start to the Aspen snow season last year – less than two weeks from Christmas and most of the expert terrain wasn’t even open.
The weather in November was so warm that snow-making machines weren’t able to work their magic, so visitors to this former silver mining town – now America’s most well-heeled ski resort – were forced to wait for the real stuff to fall.
They had to bide their time watching new releases at the town’s historic 102-year-old cinema, eating at magnificent restaurants, sipping cocktails at apres-ski bars, shopping at Gucci and the like or getting lost at the Aspen Art Museum.
There’s a lot on offer here, but considering it’s the powder that brings most people – from Hollywood A-listers to Russian billionaires, as well as mere mortals – to this town in Pitkin County, Colorado, snow was on everyone’s mind. But, as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait, and it certainly delivered, nine days before Christmas. A huge snowstorm dumped almost 50 centimetres of snow over the resort’s four mountains.
And it kept falling. In just one week in mid-January, a whopping 115 centimetres fell, creating conditions skiers and snowboarders usually only dream about.
But in typical Aspen fashion, out on the slopes after the dump it felt like everyone else had missed the memo. Unlike comparable resorts in Europe such as France’s Chamonix or Italy’s Sella Ronda, you never wait more than a few minutes to get on a gondola or chairlift, and groomed runs are rarely, if ever, crowded. It’s been designed to stay that way.
Aspen locals say a handful of factors ensure the place is never overrun with tourists.
The first is the distance of the mountain from Denver. Major ski resorts in Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Copper, Vail, and Beaver Creek are all about two hours’ drive from Colorado’s capital; Aspen is about four hours.
Also, a lift pass for Aspen’s four mountains – Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk – is more expensive than any other of the state’s 26 ski resorts.
Upon waking in Aspen, visitors are spoilt for choice of terrain. The resort’s mountains offer something for skiers and snowboarders of all levels.
Its lack of green (beginner) runs makes Aspen Mountain, which the locals have dubbed Ajax, best for advanced skiers. The gondola to the top takes 14 minutes, so it’s best to make the most of the lifts at the top before skiing all the way down again.
For beginner or intermediate skiers, there are free shuttle buses to Buttermilk Mountain’s more manageable terrain. It’s less than five kilometres from Aspen village, or a 10-minute bus ride, and is a haven for families with young children.
For lovers of fresh powder, Aspen Highlands is a must. This is the mountain favoured by locals and expert skiers for its famous Highlands Bowl. It requires a hike from the chairlift, but your effort is rewarded with virgin powder and fresh tracks.
Then there’s Aspen Snowmass, which, as the name suggests is, a massive peak that offers the most varied skiing conditions of the lot. It is America’s second biggest mountain and has groomed runs for all abilities, serviced by 21 lifts.
In all, Aspen offers more than 2225 hectares of terrain that can be accessed with a single all-mountain lift pass.
While the resort has garnered a reputation for its jet-set crowd, for every mink-coat-clad, Louis-Vuitton-toting tourist, there is another daredevil skier just here for the fresh powder, vertical drops and apres-ski beer(s).
This charming town has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, but you can stay within walking distance of the village for less than $500 and eat at the bars of its glitziest restaurants for half the cost of their a la carte menus.
If you’re willing to fly rather than drive, it’s also easy to get to Aspen.
The town has its own airport and you can fly there directly from major US cities.
So don’t let the high-flying reputation put you off, for this skiers’ haven is well worth the schlep. But if you want to fit in, bring a 150-pelt chinchilla.