Barry Oliver ne­go­ti­ates the slopes and avoids the wildlife in the Colorado Rock­ies

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.trav­­pen­snow­ www.unitedair­

Some days are di­a­monds: Plen­ti­ful snow, great scenery and easy ac­cess to the slopes make Colorado’s Snow­mass the per­fect fam­ily ski des­ti­na­tion

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