Thursday, January 01, 2015

Skiing in Aspen


















Bucket list? Check!!
 We celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary this past week, but our real celebration was a few weeks earlier in December when we had the most magical weekend ever skiing in Aspen, and in perfect and total honesty I must say that it was the best skiing I've ever done in my life. Sorry, Utah, but it was much better.

Folks, if you ever get the chance to go to Aspen, jump on it. It is one of the most beautiful, hospitable, and downright enjoyable places I have ever been. Totally lives up to the hype. Aspen itself began as a silver mining town (you can see the boarded-up mines on the mountains around town and ski right by some of them; there's one that's pretty easily recognizable at the top of Little Nell just after you come around Kleenex Corner) but really hit its stride after WWII, when the survivors of the 10th Mountain Division, who had trained in Colorado before going overseas to fight in the mountains of Italy, returned to Aspen and founded a ski school. Today if you go to ski Aspen you're actually going to four different resorts--what people think of as the original Aspen mountain, which rises up right over the town, is called Ajax by the locals. Three other resorts (Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass) are within 10 minutes; all four are owned by Aspen Snowmass so a lift ticket is good at any one of the resorts. Buses run between all four so you could ski Ajax in the morning, hit Highlands around lunch, and finish out the day at Snowmass.










































We chose to ski Snowmass the first day just to get a feel for the snow conditions and terrain (it's known as kind of an intermediate mountain; it is HUGE and easily has more interesting and varied intermediate terrain than anywhere I have ever skied), Ajax the second day, and Highlands the third day. Highlands is reputed to be the "locals' mountain," and I can definitely see why--its trails are much more confusing and less well-marked than the others, and it has a huge variety of really extreme terrain. Ajax was my personal favorite; there isn't a single beginner run on the entire mountain which means it's just got an incredible variety of intermediate and expert terrain. I liked it a lot more than Highlands because I found it easier to navigate, I liked the terrain better (Highlands had a lot of rollers and I'm not a fan of those; I'm still at the stage where it freaks me out when I'm flying through the air wondering if I'll fall when my skis make contact with the snow again), I really loved the gondola (I took off my boots to rub my calves every time I rode it since my muscles were getting all knotted), and I just loved the feel of the mountain and its staff.

So anyway.

We flew into Denver late Wednesday night and drove to Aspen; we arrived about 1:30 AM local, which felt like 3:30 to us! It was a great drive though--we were singing our hearts out to John Denver and Les Mis, plus we were headed to Aspen, and we were still completely giddy about that fact (we had hired babysitters so no kiddos were with us). We'd decided to stay in this little hotel/hostel combo (it has both options available) called the St. Moritz and I LOVED it! I chatted with some of the most interesting people there during breakfast and après-ski in the lobby. It was just at the base of the mountain and only a few minutes' walk to the restaurant district or the gondola.


We got up early the next day and skied Snowmass all day (exciting start to the day when I fell right on my head during the first run; it hurt SO bad and I am soooo glad I was wearing a helmet; it was easily the worst crash I'd ever had. I find that I crash much more easily on groomed runs early in the day; I always seem to catch an edge on the corduroy if I'm not really paying attention. Anyway, I hit my head and literally flew about 30 feet before I stopped skidding and was sooo dizzy tromping back uphill to retrieve my skis, both of which had come off during the crash (it was a total doozy!). I felt pretty lousy most of the day and at one point sent Neil off without me while I sat in a Starbucks at the base for 20 minutes and just drank all the water I could hold--the crash + 12.000 feet of elevation gain was not feeling so good).



After we ate lunch I felt way better and enjoyed some really awesome skiing off the Elk Camp lifts; the photo above is the view from the top {image credit}. Snowmass is famous for its wide-open runs and I LOVED how uncrowded it was! You can literally cruise back and forth all over the mountain; it's incredibly exhilarating and much more confidence-boosting than some of the really narrow slots I've skied in Utah.



Once we returned to our hotel and showered, we walked a few blocks to to Cache Cache for dinner that night, which is kind of the place to eat in Aspen. It was definitely one of the best meals I've ever had (Aspen prices are completely astronomical, but almost every place in town has a bar menu, which means you can eat more affordably. Not cheaply by any means, but more affordably). We had the smoked salmon tartare which was soooo good--really velvety salmon, great caviar, luscious avocado, and house-made potato chips--and some perfectly cooked steaks with mouth-watering roasted vegetables. Definitely the best food and best service that we saw in Aspen. The town is famous for its amazing après-ski scene and it did not disappoint!

One note in contrast with our last ski trip in upper Michigan--Aspen pretty much expects skis everywhere. All of the buses have ski racks, the hotel had ski storage running along all of the interior hallways, people were just walking around town in ski boots, etc. Definitely a skiers' town (and lots of snowboarders too, although I did kind of chuckle because it was always skiers first thing early in the morning and then the snowboarders would trickle in later. When we were lining up to catch the first lift at Highlands on opening day, it was pretty much solid skiers with nary a snowboard in sight). 


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The next day we skied Ajax; this was my absolute favorite both for skiing and for the general atmosphere. All of the mountains have "mountain ambassadors," which are locals whose job is to just make sure everyone knows where they're going and where the best skiing is for their level, and the previous day at Snowmass we'd talked to some really great ambassadors who pointed out some awesome runs. At Ajax, however, I was talking to a guy at the base for quite awhile while I waited for Neil to come back (there is literally zero parking  at the base so he'd dropped me off with all the skis and boots, then gone back to park at our hotel). We ran into him a few times on the mountain and the third time or so he said, okay, come on, we're going to ski down together and I'm going to show you all my favorite spots and tell you my favorite stories. That was by far my favorite run of the day and I LOVED skiing with him! He was so fascinating and gave me some good tips to improve my form (he sent Neil off on some crazy extreme route that Neil loved while he took me down an intermediate run that met up with Neil's path) and told me a few times that I was a much more talented skier than I'd told him I was, so I definitely liked him. :-) On the way back up in the gondola he told us lots of interesting bits, both about Aspen's history and about his (he came out in 1971 and has been there ever since).

One interesting note about skiing Aspen vs. other resorts--it is MUCH MUCH MUCH steeper than anything I've ever skied in Utah. Neil (who grew up skiing in Utah and skied a ton thanks to his dad's job as the local recreation director) noted that the intermediate runs at Aspen Snowmass are equivalent to black diamond runs anywhere else. I definitely found this to be the case; in Utah I can ski black and the occasional double black, but I didn't even try a single one of the black runs in Aspen. A lot of them were marked with their degree of incline if that gives you an idea of how intense they are! The runs are also super crazy incredibly long--it felt like 2-3 times as long as a Utah run. I read somewhere that the average time it takes to get down is about 15 minutes, which is a really long time when your quads are pretty sure that they are not meant for that kind of abuse! (The longest run at all four mountains is five miles. FIVE MILES. The other three average out at 3.5 miles which is still a really, really, really long way...especially when you've already been skiing for six hours that day!) It was pretty typical to see people flying down a slope and then just stopping to stretch out their quads...especially at the end of the day. Ajax seemed much more conducive to top-to-bottom skiing, which I personally really like, than either Snowmass or Highlands. Highlands had some incredibly boring beginner terrain that you had to ski every single time you went to the bottom; Snowmass was slightly better but still kind of blah at the base. Ajax, however, was AWESOME since there is not one single beginner run on the entire mountain, so you can ski from the tippety-top all the way to the bottom of Little Nell and it's still this huge challenging adrenaline rush the entire way. Oh my gosh, typing this makes me want to go back SO bad...it was seriously the most amazing day.

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 Another thing I REALLY loved about all the mountains--tons of hot cider and Clif bars at the top of the lifts. Well played, Aspen Snowmass, well played! As is our habit, we brought our own lunches/granola bars/water, but I loved getting that cider when I was feeling a little chilly! I also loved talking to people on the lifts--it seemed like everyone was either a) super wealthy (one sweet Austrian woman asked me about my favorite places to ski in Europe) or b) a die-hard ski bum (I talked to a really interesting girl at our hotel who goes to a different resort every year and stays for the whole season; I also talked to soooo many older men who have been meeting their friends every year for Highlands' opening day for two or three decades). Everyone was so friendly and eager to share their favorite runs or restaurants or anything that would make our stay more delightful.

After the slopes closed we walked back to our hotel (stopping to buy our traditional anniversary Christmas ornament on the way) and then drove back to pick up our skis (another cool thing--it's the kind of town where you can just leave your stuff and feel confident that it will be there when you get back. I asked one of the mountain hosts about parking and she was like, there's no parking in town, just leave your skis and then pick them up, and when I asked about theft, she looked at me and said, "This is Aspen. You don't have to worry about that."

Anyway, since we had the car, it was time for the second bucket list item! I am hugely obsessed with John Denver, and so we went over to a local park that hosts the John Denver Sanctuary (an incredibly beautiful rock garden where a river has been diverted through the garden, so you're basically walking on boulders in little streamlets all over the place--it is just the most tranquil and peaceful place you can imagine, and there are John Denver quotes engraved on rocks along your way) and John's Song Garden, which has these huge giant boulders framing the pathway, most of which have lyrics engraved on them. My dear husband was kind enough to sing along with me. :-)



After our little John Denver tour (I did suggest half-jokingly BUT ONLY HALF that we track down Starwood) we headed to dinner at Pinons. It was good, but not as good as Cache Cache had been the previous night--my favorite part of dinner was actually the breadbasket because there was this crazy delicious pumpernickel studded with dried fruit and that I MUST replicate (my scallop-stuffed ravioli in lobster marsala sauce was pretty good too, but the pork tenderloin with apricot compote was decent rather than being a standout). We walked back to our hotel and swam in the 104-degree pool which felt AMAZING on all our sore muscles.

The next morning we went to Highlands for opening day. I woke up feeling pretty crummy and not sure if I'd be able to ski, so I don't know if my general dislike of Highlands was because I didn't feel great or because it just wasn't as good as the other mountains. We were some of the very first people on the mountain and it was really fun to ski fresh tracks that were the first of the season! Like I said before, I wasn't as crazy about the terrain at Highlands, particularly since it wasn't very well-marked. It felt much trickier to me than the terrain at Ajax; the slopes were icier and rockier (lots of bare patches and I have nicks in my skis now), and there were  a lot more steep drop-offs while you were skiing this narrow little path. Lots of cat-tracks to get to different runs and I really do not love skiing on those because I'm terrified of the cliffs on each side! I also felt like it was primarily a double-black mountain and man oh man, it was just crazy steep and intimidating.

Case in point--Neil skied this, but I did not.



So the big attraction at Highlands is the bowl, which is like beyond double-black terrain and CRAZY steep--they post all of the angles and I think the steepest is 48 but they average out around 42. Neil went back and forth for most of the morning on whether he wanted to do it and finally decided to give it a go. We asked the locals & lifties and they said to plan on about 30-40 minutes to hike up to the bowl and and 30 minutes to ski back out. Later we found out that the estimation is based on the snow cat running and giving you a ride up the first third (it wasn't running) and being totally acclimated to the elevation  (Neil wasn't). We agreed that I would just stay on a particular lift that had about seven different runs and that he'd meet me there in an hourish.

Three hours later it was 15 minutes before the lifts closed and I had skied that same @$%@$ lift for the last three hours--I'd done every possible descent at least three times and I was starting to get SO worried about Neil and about what I would do when the lifts closed! I also knew it would take me at least 20 minutes to get back to the base, so I finally told the lifties that I was going to do one last run and if they saw a tall guy with a red jacket and black helmet (yeah, like 50% of everyone skiing there) to tell him I'd gone down to the base. I got on the lift and started to cry (I was the only one on the chair) and just then I saw Neil ski under me and man oh man, what a huge relief!! (then I REALLY started to sob!!). So scary for me since I knew he would never ever ever be late if he could control it and I was imagining all kinds of terrifying scenarios. As it turned out, it took him over an hour and a half to hike up because of the altitude; he said that within ten minutes he knew it was going to take him forever and he really wanted to turn around but there was literally no way to do so safely. We were both so exhausted on that last run--I think I fell once and we were stopping like every fifty feet! I remember Neil saying at one point that he knew we had to get back to the base but it didn't seem remotely possible. Man oh man, three days of skiing at 12,000 feet really wears you out!

We did finally make it back to the base, had a lackluster dinner at Jimmy's (right above Cache Cache), and then wandered around town for about an hour and a half. The snow was really starting to come down and the town was so beautiful!! Lots of beautiful and interesting shops and amazing art galleries; we spent probably half an hour examining some really beautiful pieces by Dale Chihuly. Then we saw the Hunger Games movie and then collapsed into bed.

We woke up the next morning to about 8 inches of snow--I was feeling panicky about making it to the airport, since it was snowing steadily (Aspen got 17 inches before the storm stopped!!) and so we left waaaay before we needed to. I was really feeling crummy and fell asleep about 15 minutes into our drive and proceeded to sleep the majority of the way to Denver, at which point I was freezing cold and shaking so much I couldn't sleep anymore. We hung out in the airport for like 2 hours, sat on the tarmac for an hour, flew for a couple of hours, and then fiiiiinally drove the last hour home, where I collapsed into bed and then went to the doctor the next morning to find out that I had influenza A, which was kind of a downer way to end the trip but I am SOOOOO glad it waited so long to hit!




Long story short, it was an absolutely amazing trip--the kind where you constantly feel like you need to pinch yourself because surely this is a dream!! Totally worth every minute of the extra editing hours I put in to pay for it--my only regret is that we couldn't stay for weeks. Skiing is just one of my favorite things in the entire world, and it's especially wonderful because I never learned to ski until after marrying Neil, and he has 100% taught me everything I know. Every so often during this trip I would ask him for another mini-lesson and it was so great to feel myself improving. A nice little testament to his skill was a chat I had with our mountain ambassador friend; as we were skiing down Ajax together he said, "Did you say this was your eighth day skiing, or your eighth ski trip?" and I said, nope, just my eighth day, and he said, "Wow. That's really impressive--you're a very talented skier and your husband is obviously an amazing teacher!" And I said, yep, he absolutely was, and I'm so lucky to have him in my life. And we're both crossing our fingers that we live somewhere near ski slopes once we finally finish grad school, because man oh man, there is nothing that makes me feel so free and alive and near to God as being up in the mountains sailing over the snow.

Previous anniversary ski trips:

Nub's Nob in 2012 (pregnant with Nathan!)
Solitude in 2011 


1 comment:

Ruth said...

Sounds amazing!! But those mountains look super scary to me, haha I'll stick with the beginner run at Sundance!

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