Home » Aspen’s Slopes Draw Skiers and Influencers to the Colorado Town

Aspen’s Slopes Draw Skiers and Influencers to the Colorado Town

by Marko Florentino
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The influencers were not in Aspen to ski. In their Barbie-pink ski suits and matching Moon Boots, they rode the Silver Queen gondola to the top of the mountain, smiling and jumping for their cameras and social media feeds. Soon they would get back on the gondola and ride down, perhaps to pose for more content with a glass of Champagne at Ajax Tavern at the resort base.

They did not care that after almost two weeks without snow in what was already a below-average year, a storm had finally come through, replenishing the mountain’s steep slopes and giving skied-out bump runs new life.

But the rest of us did.

I had come to Aspen in early February to ski Aspen Mountain’s newest terrain, an area called Hero’s that, as you look uphill, sits on the mountain’s left shoulder and offers 153 new acres of skiing, most of it rated double-black diamond. It is the first big development on the mountain since the Silver Queen gondola opened in 1986.

“There are not new ski resorts being built in North America,” said Geoff Buchheister, the chief executive of Aspen Skiing Company, over lunch at the Sundeck near the top of the mountain. “You have to innovate.”

First the snow had to fall, though. When I had skied the area with Mr. Buchheister and a group of Ski Co. execs a few days before, conditions had been, well, “sketchy.” The snow was hard and slick as we made our way through the trees to a steep, mogul-covered slope called Loushin’s that tested my resolve, and the newly sharpened edges of my skis.

But now, those hard, skied-off bumps were pillowy and the glades at the bottom offered a chance to dance through the trees. My companion and I did a few laps, skiing the Powerline chute and one called Here’s To …, both of which led to a series of glades, then hit Walsh’s, a more wide-open slope. We pretty much had the slopes to ourselves.

The expansion has been a long time coming. “When we moved here 18 years ago, they were already talking about putting in a lift,” said Pete Louras, 74, who retired to Aspen with his wife, Sam, 72, in 2005 and is a 100-days-a-year skier. This past summer, they watched from their living room as helicopters put pieces of the chairlift in place.

For decades the area had been accessible only through a backcountry gate. As far back as the 1980s, some ski patrollers were suggesting turning it into inbounds terrain, referring to it as Pandora’s, for the mythic woman who unleashed the evils of the world. The resort first put it in its 1997 master plan under that name.

Some local skiers objected, saying the area would change if it were opened as inbounds skiing. (“It has,” Mr. Buchheister said, adding that there were more people skiing it and that moguls built up faster.) There were also ownership issues, as the resort sits on a patchwork of White River National Forest, private land and mining claims. Environmental impact studies were needed.

Finally, in 2021, the expansion was approved and work began on what was still called Pandora’s: A road and trails were cut, power was brought in and the woods were thinned to create those glades.

Mr. Buchheister moved to Aspen in March of last year, lured in large part by the idea of working with James Crown, the chief executive of Henry Crown & Company, which owns, among other things, Aspen Snowmass and Alterra Mountain Company, the ski resort conglomerate and purveyor of the multimountain IKON pass. “He was a really compelling mentor,” Mr. Buchheister said.

Then, on June 25, his 70th birthday, Mr. Crown died in a crash at the Aspen Motorsports Park racetrack in nearby Woody Creek, stunning the Ski Co. and the local community.

Against that backdrop, Pandora’s became Hero’s and the slopes have been named for locals like the ski patrollers Cory Brettman, who died in an avalanche in the area, and Tim Howe, who was known as “El Avalanchero.”

The slope under the new lift is named Jim’s, for Mr. Crown.

Tucked at the end of the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen Snowmass is far enough away from major cities to not draw big weekend crowds. It accepts the IKON pass, but limits the number of days for many passholders and requires reservations. It can also be dizzyingly expensive to stay and dine in town. One night at dinner, my mediocre pork belly tacos were $38.

The resort is unusual in that it comprises four separate mountains with distinct personalities. Friendly Buttermilk has nothing but beginner slopes and terrain parks. The bruiser, Snowmass, where 40 percent of visitors ski, sprawls across 3,300 acres, with a mix of slopes and open terrain, appealing to all levels of skiers. Much smaller, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain, both with a kind of throwback simplicity, have only intermediate and expert runs.

When asked what makes Aspen different, Mr. Buchheister said, “Aspen is an experience that’s quality based. We capture the essence of skiing.”

Especially when skiing Aspen and Aspen Highlands, that feels true. There are no fancy new lifts or glitzy base lodges, just good, hard skiing.

But equally true is that, as the influencers made clear, many people come to Aspen with no intention of skiing. And why not? There’s the Aspen Art Museum with its new building by the star Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. There are stores from Gucci, Valentino, Prada and more. There’s the brainy Aspen Institute with its Bauhaus campus (and quite a good new restaurant, West End Social, at the Aspen Meadows resort). There is Veuve Clicquot Champagne at seemingly every turn, including bottles on ice in mid-mountain restaurants.

In fact, local legend has it that Cloud Nine, a seemingly unassuming restaurant on the slopes of Aspen Highlands, sells more of the stuff than any other outlet in the world, though much of it is said to be sprayed on patrons at the restaurant’s 1:30 p.m. seating, not sipped. People told me of sybaritic partying, with women taking off their layers of ski clothing and dancing in their sports bras.

I had discounted this tale until, toward the end of a snowy day at Aspen Highlands, we came upon the modest wood cabin that houses Cloud Nine. A dance remix of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” was pumping at a volume that seemed to make the whole place shake. Gliding by, I turned and looked in one of the restaurant’s picture windows, to see a woman in a black sports bra and ski pants gyrating on a table.

Though it was not originally planned with climate change in mind, Hero’s has the advantage of sitting high up on the mountain and facing north, which, Mr. Buchheister said, should help mitigate the effects of global warming, because both the altitude and the aspect mean snow will stay in place longer.

That could be a significant advantage, as climate change threatens the future of the snow sports industry. Auden Schendler, the chief of sustainability for Aspen One, the parent company of the Ski Co., said the area has lost 30 days of winter since 1980. “Spring runoff happens earlier and it happens quicker,” he said.

Mr. Schendler now rejects much of corporate environmentalism as “complicity.”

“If you made a list of all the practices of businesses trying to be sustainable, they would be the things that the fossil fuel industry would do to look like they were acting on climate change, but not disrupting the status quo,” he said.

Making that argument from a luxury ski resort where many visitors fly in on private planes, is an irony not lost on Mr. Schendler, who said that the way to cut down on private flights would be to charge a carbon tax at the airport — something he has asked the F.A.A. for permission to do. But in the meantime, “Aspen’s power is the media play. We have wealthy and influential guests who are really into skiing and the outdoors.”

One afternoon, as the ski day ended, we joined the river of people coming down Little Nell toward the bottom of the gondola, and took off our skis to the thunka-thunka beat of dance music from the patio at Ajax Tavern.

Eric Adler, 39, a restaurateur from La Jolla, Calif., and his wife, Gretchen Adler, 37, a content creator, have been coming to Aspen since 2010 and now bring their three children to ski there once or twice a year. Compared with Aspen, other ski resorts “feel like Disneyland,” Mr. Adler said, with everything built and controlled by the mountain’s developer. Aspen, he said, is “a more authentic experience, the people are real.”

In search of that authenticity, we made our way to Buck, a tiny subterranean bar on nearby Cooper Avenue, where people leave their ski gear at the top of the stairs before descending. When we’d stopped by on a previous night, we’d been warned away by a man coming up the stairs. “It’s packed and loud,” he said.

But sometimes, after a day of skiing, packed and loud is what you want. There was craft beer and an excellent margarita and on all eight televisions around the room a Phish concert was playing, which felt ski-town appropriate. And everyone kept their shirts on.

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