Soft land­ings in As­pen

Ski­ing with bil­lion­aires is as cool as it gets

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

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

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