Soft landings in Aspen
Skiing with billionaires is as cool as it gets
At Aspen, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where billionaires make millionaires look like nobodies, it’s gauche to mention money. But after three days of sharing a chairlift with my ski instructor, we’re running low on small talk.
I mention an article that included the cost of a halfday of private lessons here — for the upcoming season, they start from $US575 ($762) — and how readers reacted strongly to the price tag. “Still not as much as Vail,” says my guy, bouncing from the chairlift as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Turns out he’s right. At Vail, 165km closer to Denver, a half-day of private tutelage next season starts from $US675.
Not that Aspen’s holidaymakers seem to care about counting pennies. And after a few days in the seductive former silver-mining town — with its heated pavements, trees decked in fairy lights and stylised aspen leaves adorning the bear-proof bins and elegant street signs — it’s easy to see why the rich and famous flock to this lowrise, ritzy playground.
What happens, however, if you’re not rich, not famous and not even that talented on the slopes? In short, what if you’re someone like me, whose skiing experience amounts to three excursions to Australasian ski fields? Is it too intimidating to join the beautiful people schussing down the resort’s four mountains?
There’s only one way to find out and that’s to get out among it. Aspen Snowmass is the biggest ski resort I’ve seen but its gear-hiring process is lightning-fast. I’m fitted for boots, skis, poles and helmet within minutes, with the skis and poles dispatched to Buttermilk, the easiest of the mountains, for pick-up the next morning.
A free shuttle runs skiers and boarders to the mountains but we take Limelight Hotel’s private shuttle to Buttermilk. After click-clacking into my skis, I let the Panda Peak chairlift scoop me up and carry me to the top of the gentle run (a giant stuffed panda also sometimes rides the lift). A knot gathers in my gut as the first dismount looms. Please, don’t let me fall flat on my face.
My prayer is answered and I glide from the chairlift as though it hasn’t been years at all.
After rediscovering my ski legs on Panda Peak, I advance up the mountain; the Summit Express lift hauls us to an elevation of almost 3000m. A forecast for “considerable cloudiness” has come to fruition but the view — across a grand landscape that’s inspired poetry, song and art — remains awe-inspiring. After conquering two more runs (Tom’s Thumb and Larkspur), we clomp into the Cliffhouse to investigate the Mongolian Grill.
For two days, Buttermilk is my playground; I graduate from easy green to intermediate blue runs. Applying the grading system that rates skiing ability from one to nine, my instructor says I’m a “soft four” (surely a euphemism for a three). Turns out I ski best when he skis in reverse keeping an eye on me. When his eye isn’t on me, I lapse into terrible left-hand turns where I drag a ski as a brake. Once formed, the habit sticks.
On day three, we switch mountains. Snowmass is the most far-flung peak from Aspen. With 241km of trails (compared to 34km at Buttermilk) and skiers milling everywhere, I feel like a country hick who’s landed in the big smoke. It’s the weekend and, with fresh snow falling overnight, locals have contracted a serious case of “powder panic”, a condition where nothing can stand between them and the soft stuff.
My instructor sends me on a run with a surprise detour between dark and mysterious pines. He warns of a tiny jump and I’m in the air and then, thump, my skis sink momentarily into powder before sheer momentum carries me forward, still upright. It feels like a revelation, an explanation for why people barrel down mountains in the name of fun.
We celebrate with a spot of tubing, collectively spinning down the slope backwards, screaming our heads off.
All this physical activity and crisp mountain air fuels a mighty appetite. We ski to the cosy mid-mountain Lynn Britt Cabin for share plates of charcuterie, pate and salmon rillettes, followed by mains of elk pappardelle, cassoulet and bison prime rib sandwich. The restaurant’s cocktail list highlights local spirits (the G & T muddles Woody Creek Gin with blackberries, ginger and lemon) while the Veuve Clicquot sold here is sipped rather than sprayed, as it is at the infamous late-lunch sitting at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro on Highlands, a much more challenging mountain.
There’s no way I can make it to Cloud Nine (revellers face a challenging downhill run upon leaving the venue) but there are plenty of other dining options around Aspen. Near the base of the Silver Queen Gondola is Ajax Tavern, the casual eatery of luxury hotel The Little Nell. Tuck into the signature double cheeseburger and a cone of truffle fries, sprinkled with Grana Padano and parsley, while casually checking for famous faces at neighbouring tables.
The hotel’s fine-diner is Element 47 (a nod to Aspen’s silver-mining past) where I make like a splashy billionaire, ordering the $US47 margarita crowned with a twist of silver leaf. The price includes a tableside cocktail-cart performance complete with dramatic liquid-nitrogen fog. Diners who appreciate good wine might score themselves an invite to the hotel’s subterranean cellar where previous visitors have scrawled on the walls. We get around and then some, dining at Matsuhisa, an outpost of Nobu’s haute-Japanese empire, and the private Caribou Club (ask your hotel concierge how to make it past the door).
But for all that, my favourite Aspen moment unfolds not in a posh restaurant but a noisy bar where a creaky cowboy is busting out old-fashioned dance moves. “Tell him you’re from Australia and you’d like to dance,” a local yells into my ear. I’m wearing chunky hiking boots so I’m hardly fleet of foot but after clomping across the room and popping the question, the cowboy twirls me around and around as though I’m as light as a snowflake.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Aspen Snowmass, Qantas, The Little Nell and Limelight Hotel.
Clockwise from main: a skier at Aspen Snowmass; Element 47 restaurant at The Little Nell; Snowmass at night; mid-mountain Lynn Britt Cabin