Barry Oliver negotiates the slopes and avoids the wildlife in the Colorado Rockies
SKIING Colorado’s Snowmass with Graeme Morris is a colourful affair. Our amiable instructor, a long way from his native NSW, is big on imagery to help us perfect our style. I have to pretend there’s a redback on the toilet seat; there are also tacks in the back of my boots, not a happy combination. Someone else has to imagine there are eggs on a low ceiling; another is carrying a football under his arm. There’s also mention of dolphins and moguls (bumps), though I’m too busy worrying about spiders to take a lot of notice.
Morris, in his 16th year here, spends the Australian winters at NSW’s Thredbo, where he has clocked up an impressive 31 seasons. ‘‘ I still don’t know what I’ll do when I grow up,’’ he says. His wife’s also a ski instructor, which is perhaps just as well for marital harmony.
Not that he’s alone here. Australian accents are as thick as the snow, among the staff as well as the skiers. Aussies are top of the heap when it comes to visitors, with Britain and, surprisingly, Brazil, vying for second spot. We’re also told the Russians are coming, though not the entire nation. A group of regulars got into trouble in France — something to do with the prostitutes they had in tow — and have apparently switched their allegiance to these snowfields.
Snowmass, 14km from the lovely old mining town of Aspen (it’s Gay Ski Week while we’re here), is one of four mountains — Buttermilk, Highlands and Aspen Mountain are the others — that can be skied on the same lift pass (there’s a free shuttle bus).
Morris loves the place and, drooling over the blue-sky view with the sun peeping through and the snow-covered Rockies marching into the distance, we can understand why. The snow’s perfect: so light and fluffy that we scoop up handfuls and blow it into the air.
More than 8m falls during an average year but this season has been particularly good (December was renamed Deepcember) and by the time of our visit in mid-January, nearly 5m has fallen. Conveniently, about 80 per cent comes at night, but we encounter our fair share on the slopes, which mostly delights us. A blizzard at the top of the mountain, though, has us scurrying for shelter in a wildlife centre. But by the afternoon, further down the mountain, with the sun out, it’s as if it’s raining tiny sparkling diamonds.
By the end of day one we’re convinced this is worth the airfares, the jet lag, the wearing airport security. And the cold: Americans still hang on to their beloved fahrenheit scale but we work out it’s about minus 12C. The stand dispensing free hot cider and muesli bars on the mountain goes some way to warming us as we explore Snowmass’s 91 trails across 1267ha (the size of 36 Disneylands, we’re told).
The area’s set for a big expansion after the local community agreed to a new base village following years of debate. The first phase has already kicked in with $US25.5 million ($28.2 million) spent on improvements, including the Treehouse Kids Adventure Centre catering for eight-week-olds and up, and a new beginners’ area (elsewhere, the little ones even have the luxury of an enclosed magic carpet to keep out the weather).
For grown-ups, an eight-person gondola takes skiers and boarders — there are three terrain parks — to mid-mountain in nine minutes. That and the six-passenger Village Express lift quickly get us up and skiing, as opposed to down and queuing. Not that there’s much waiting, but our visit coincides with Martin Luther King Day and we’ve been warned to expect an influx for this long weekend.
The new visitors appear to be armed and dangerous: occasional booms echo across the slopes, sounding as if an invasion’s imminent. But Morris assures us it’s just the ski patrol blasting loose snow to prevent avalanches. Gunner’s View run was named after the site where a canon performed the same task. After one too many near misses with skiers, it was wisely decided planting explosives by hand might be safer.
Explosions aside, Morris says Aspen is far more challenging than family-friendly Snowmass and advises me to stay put.
Not that there aren’t challenges here: 6 per cent of the mountain is rated easiest, 50 per cent more difficult, 12 per cent most difficult and 32 per cent expert (which usually means — horror — never groomed).
To many people, Aspen means expensive, and while $US10 for a ham sandwich on Snowmass Mountain is a shock, food prices generally are not excessive, especially with the Aussie dollar in reasonable shape. The 18 per cent service charge added by some restaurants is harder to swallow.
The following day I am pleased my next ski partner steers clear of black (difficult) runs and doesn’t mention spiders or even tacks in my boots. I’ve been told his name’s A. D. Fuller, which seems a bit formal, but the first thing he tells me is that everyone calls him AD. He runs a company taking care of opulent holiday homes on the mountain. Most are used only occasionally, he says. One recently changed hands for $US34.5 million, though $US11 million is more usual. Chevy Chase and Neil Diamond are among past owners.
Fuller is a mine of information on all sorts of local topics. He tells me that bears are a problem — thankfully they’re hibernating — and have discovered that houses and humans mean food. Last summer, his friend returned home to find the fridge on its side and a brown bear in his kitchen enjoying a tub of ice cream. The furry intruder scurried past him and departed through the window it had opened to get in. ‘‘ It’s a real problem,’’ he says.
We set out to find a secret shrine, said to honour Hunter S. Thompson, the writer and local who shot himself here two years ago. Shrines — decked out with pictures and wind chimes — are more prevalent on Aspen, where Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and John Denver, who lived nearby, are honoured.
Denver has two runs named in his memory at Snowmass: Whispering Jesse (one of his songs) and the better-known Rocky Mountain High. And the Rockies really are high: Snowmass’s summit is at 3813m, it has the highest point in North America accessible by lift, and even its base is at a heady 2437m. Altitude sickness can be a problem for visitors. Our secret weapon is a mini oxygen spray (‘‘not a life-saving device’’, it warns on the pack) that supplies a quick fix should we find ourselves short of breath in the thin air (we don’t). I am disappointed, though, at the absence of oxygen bars, just to say I’d been to one.
Thompson’s shrine turns out to be so secret we fail to find a trace of it, but it makes for an interesting half-hour exploring the pines and leafless aspens that fringe most runs. One trail, guarded by a cut-out donkey, is marked: ‘‘ Adults must be accompanied by a responsible child.’’
We sneak through anyway, though I’m sure the cute animals that line the track know we’re imposters. These glade runs are breathtakingly beautiful. So much so that I entirely forget about the red-backs lurking behind me. Barry Oliver was a guest of Travelplan and Aspen Skiing Company.
Snowmass’s season runs from November 22 to April 13. Look out for lateseason bargains (there will almost certainly still be plenty of snow). Australiabased Travelplan has seven nights at Snowmass’s Silvertree Hotel in March from $3860 a person; or seven nights at Hearthstone House, Aspen, from $3643 ex Sydney or Melbourne, including flights from Australia, taxes, transfers, breakfasts (plus afternoon cheese and wine at Hearthstone) and six-day lift pass. More: 1300 754 754; www.travelplan.com.au. www.aspensnowmass.com www.unitedairlines.com.au
Some days are diamonds: Plentiful snow, great scenery and easy access to the slopes make Colorado’s Snowmass the perfect family ski destination