Why Aspen Snowmass is one of the world’s great ski resorts

Snowmass, Aspen Snowmass, Ski holiday, skiing in Colorado

Snowmass is a great place to base yourself at Aspen Snowmass in Colorado

Nothing gets you out of a warm bed in a cold town faster than the news that it snowed, a lot, last night. Especially when you’re in one of the most popular places to ski in the world.

Waking up in Aspen one March morning, Ullr, the Norse god of snow, had obviously been in a good, or bad, mood and covered the four Aspen peaks with almost half a metre of snow.

The whole place was abuzz with energy, and anyone who wasn’t working, and some that are meant to be, headed for the hills on the free shuttles – I was one of them.

The power of four

Aspen Mountain, Colorado, ski holiday, aspen Mountain

Skiing in Aspen Mountain. Image by Jeremy Swanson

Aspen has an embarrassment of riches, with four peaks to ski or snowboard on. Three of them are clustered around the town of Aspen, and Snowmass is a 20-minute drive. The closest to town, and the one that started it all, is Aspen Mountain – referred to as Ajax by the locals. It rises like a behemoth behind the town, so close that you could be shopping at a designer boutique one minute and be on the Silver Queen Gondola a few minutes later. At the end of the day, after wearing out your legs on the array of intermediate or black runs, ski straight down to the legendary Ajax Tavern at The Little Nell – one of very few ski-in, ski-out accommodation options on the mountain. Another is the W Aspen & The Sky Residences, which opened in late August, 2019.

Aspen Highlands is favoured by locals on a powder day. It’s not the place for beginners, with no gentle green runs. The ultimate test is to do what the locals do and ‘hike the bowl’. I witness this strange phenomenon myself when at the top of the Loge lift. There was a trail of humans walking up the next ridge, looking like a platoon of ants on a mission to a group picnic. I ask my instructor what they are doing, and she explains that you do the 40-minute hike up to the Highland Bowl, then ski down the almost vertical slopes to a chairlift that brings you back up so you can hike up it all over again. Bearing in mind that the top of the bowl is at an oxygen-thinned 3,777 metres, I think they are all mad and decide to stay in the fluffy powder runs around Cloud Nine.

Buttermilk, Colorado, corduroy, Aspen Snowmass

Corduroy at Buttermilk, Aspen Snowmass

Buttermilk is the place to ease into your Aspen snow experience. Suitable for beginners, it is the lowest of the peaks at 3,017 metres, has a world-class centre for kids with a creche and snowsports school, and while it has a fantastic assortment of runs for beginners, it also has a great terrain park down the Teaser run and some excellent runs for intermediates.

Then there’s Snowmass, which is bigger than the other three combined. Snowmass has something for everyone and is also the place for those who love the convenience of ski-in, ski-out accommodation. Aspen Skiing Company has plunged significant dollars into developing the base village of Snowmass, with the jewel in the crown being the Limelight Hotel, which opened in December 2018 with an ice rink, indoor climbing wall, excellent après ski offerings and the convenience of being able to ski to the door of the ski room at the end of the day. And if you still want a dose of Aspen with its plethora of shops and restaurants, it is easily accessed by shuttle.

The Aspen way

Hotel Jerome, Aspen, Aspen town

The lobby of the Hotel Jerome in Aspen

There is one lady who played an important part in creating the Aspen of today. Elizabeth Paepcke visited what was then a fledgling ski field in a dilapidated old mining town with friends in 1939. She was taken in by the beauty of the Maroon Bells and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley and saw the potential of what the town could be. The war intervened, but eventually, her persuasive charms won over her husband Walter, and they went for a visit. Being a smart man, Walter listened to his wife, shared her enthusiasm and on his second day in town, bought a house.

This dynamic duo then set about rebuilding Aspen, and not just with bricks and mortar. They imagined it as a place where leaders, artists, musicians and thinkers could gather and create, as well as a world-class ski resort. They bought and refurbished the Hotel Jerome, which had gaping holes in the walls when they first stepped inside. They worked on getting the first ski lift up and running, established the Aspen Ski Corporation (now Aspen Skiing Company), restored the Wheeler Opera House and created the Aspen Cultural Center.

They established the Aspen Institute, the Music Festival, and in 1949, enticed such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer and Arthur Rubenstein to town for a 20-day gathering celebrating German poet and philosopher Johann von Goethe as a way of uniting the world.

Walter also started targeting businessmen by conducting executive seminars in town. Walter stated in a video interview before his death: “It’s been said that the average American businessman is so busy with the urgent he has no time for the important. … He runs a good business, but he has a little bit of trouble working out what are the important things in life, what he believes in and why he believes in them.” This way of thinking is very much evident in Aspen today, with a wonderful sense of community, enjoyment of nature and leading by example.

Aspen Skiing Company follows that lead, with a motto of ‘awaken the spirit, elevate community and honor place’ and the #giveaflake campaign encourages everyone to not just worry about things like climate change, being sustainable and tolerance, but to do something about it.

Around town

Aspen Art Museum, Colorado, Shigeru Ban, luxury snow holiday, ski usa

The Aspen Art Museum, designed by Shigeru Ban

Elizabeth and Walter would have been big fans of the Aspen Art Museum, designed by Shigeru Ban. While the Museum has been around for decades this new creation opened in 2014 and features a spectacular wooden screen up a huge staircase partially made of paper.  I can also imagine them dining at The Little Nell’s Element 47, having a tipple at Chair 9 and ducking down to the Nell’s wonderful wine cellar with its 20,000 bottles of wine. Elizabeth and Walter would be tickled pink to know that the best suite at the award-winning property, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is named after them.

I think of them when having a drink at the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome, and imagine the other people known to frequent this establishment, such as Jack Nicholson and Hunter S. Thompson, who incidentally ran for town sheriff in 1970 using the J-Bar as his headquarters. Other cool places for a drink include Bad Harriet, a speakeasy-style bar in an old newspaper building that was named after the wife of the Jerome’s original developer, and the Marble Bar at the Hyatt Residences. Add two bars at the W Aspen to the list – the WET Deck, which has a heated pool, hot tub, fire pits, full bar, dance floor and DJ booth, and 39 Degrees, which is the place to be seen for après ski.

Aspen, Marble Bar, martini, cocktails, Colorado

MIxing a martini at Marble Bar in Aspen

Then there’s the shopping, with the places to drop some dollars including Kemo Sabe where you can get your inner cowgirl on with cowboy boots or a hat, Moncler for designer snow gear, Dennis Basso for the exquisite coats, or do what the locals do and shop for second-hand gear at Susie’s Limited Consignments store, or Little Bird.

On the afternoon of March 8, International Women’s Day, I found myself on top of Aspen Mountain listening to some high achieving local women including Susan Cross, the mountain manager at Snowmass – one of very few women in the world running a ski resort. As the snow falls, and the applause dies down, I joined in a ski parade all the way down Aspen Mountain, revelling in the conditions and soaking up the view over this rather special town.

Elizabeth Paepcke would be proud.

Aspen, Colorado, Helen Hayes

The author, Helen Hayes, in Aspen

Fun facts

  • The Sun Deck atop Aspen Mountain was one of the first Leed-certified buildings in the world.
  • There are over 100 shrines hidden in trees around the four mountains, with most of them on Aspen Mountain. Look out for shrines to Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, John Denver, Elvis Presley, David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe. Do a mountain tour with an ambassador to find them.
  • John Denver lived in Aspen for many years and was inspired by the landscapes around the town. His song Rocky Mountain High is one of them. Visit the John Denver Sanctuary by the Roaring Fork River.
  • The largest silver nugget ever mined was found at Aspen’s Smuggler Mine in 1894. It weighed 840 kgs and had to be cut into three pieces to get it out.
  • When silver mining went bust, Aspen was a ghost town, dropping from 10,000 to just 750.