“Some place warm, a place where the beer flows like wine, where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Aspen.”
I had memorized this line long before I had any idea that I would one day live in Aspen for four years. A mountain town of about 6,000 people, Aspen is tucked away in the Elk Mountains, about four hours west of Denver. It carries the reputation of being a 1 percenter’s ski resort, and there certainly is that aspect to it. About 60 percent of Pitkin County’s residential property is owned by those wealthy enough to have a second, third, fourth or fifth home. In 2006, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz listed his Hala Ranch in Aspen for $135 million, the highest asking price ever at the time for an American home. Of the 1,600 billionaires recorded around the world in 2014, at least 50 of them owned or partly owned real estate in Aspen. Then there’s the long list of celebrities and athletes who have owned property or lived in Aspen, including Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Lance Armstrong, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Dwight Howard, etc… A playground for the rich is one description I heard thrown around a lot.
But it’s a playground for the locals, too, for the working-class undercurrent of ski instructors, waiters, bartenders, hospitality vets, journalists, caretakers, etc., who aren’t about owning a mansion on Red Mountain — though they sometimes find themselves partying in some of those mansions. They’re after a ski pass, good snow and a good time.
Because Aspen is so remote, you don’t have to deal with the Front Range crowds that you find in Breckenridge and Vail, even during the holidays. The entire time I was out there I don’t ever remember waiting much longer than a few minutes in a lift line, and most of the time there was no wait at all. The only time I really had to wait was first chairlift on a powder day, when Mother Nature had been starving the locals for snow. In that case, it’s well worth it to wait in line for first bucket, first tracks in that glorious powder.
There’s four mountains around Aspen: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass. Most locals will tell you Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands have the best terrain, particularly Aspen Highlands, which is home to Highlands Bowl: 250 acres of big-mountain skiing on a 48-degree pitch. It’s the best terrain and best snow you’ll find across all four mountains. It’s a bit of an effort to access it for the average skier, as you have to take two chairlifts and hike 782 vertical feet to get to the 12,392-foot summit, but it’s well worth it, if you’re looking for challenging terrain. Much of Highlands has a wild feel to it. Renegade is how one of the locals described it to me in the 1970s, when it was locally owned, before big money took over Aspen. Just thinking about Highlands makes me want to buy a plane ticket and head back this winter.
Aspen Mountain is the only mountain that’s walkable from the center of town, and there’s terrain that’s almost as good as any at Highlands, aside from the bowl. It’s really just a great, classic mountain, and I miss waking up and hopping on the gondola before heading into work at the newspaper. It’s also home to one of the more entertaining events in the winter: the Aspen Gay Ski Week annual downhill costume contest, where teams dress up in ridiculous costumes and ski down in formation looking to take home first place.
“Look at all the straight people,” I can remember the cross-dressed MC (pictured below in pink) telling the crowd at Aspen Mountain in 2014, “looking like Jane Goodall watching all the homos in their natural environment.”
Aspen Highlands hosts the real party, though: Highlands Closing Day, which usually falls around April. This is when the locals all dress up in costume and hit the slopes. It’s like Halloween on a mountain in the spring with lots of alcohol involved. It’s the last chance to hike the bowl, and for this reason they take it very seriously. If you’re looking for a ski trip out west, Aspen is a good option, especially if you know some locals to score you some half-price lift tickets.