As my wife and I shuffle in our skis toward the red “load here” line, I smile at a lift operator. She smiles back. We sit down and the chair quickly accelerates to double the speed. The temperature is a crisp minus 20 C, but the sun peaking over the mountain tops is warming the air fast.
I look up at the bluebird sky and then down at my skis, take in a deep breath that chills my nostrils and grin.
I know this view well.
Thirteen years ago, just out of university, I was that smiling lift operator on this very lift in Snowmass, Colo. I pushed buttons to make it start and stop, scanned tickets, told skiers where to line up, shoveled mountains of snow and engaged in countless six-second conversations with guests.
That year, I skied 153 days. My life was arguably better than that of those on vacation.
On powder days, I would start early, shovel as the dark surrendered to dawn, then ride lifts checking for any possible safety issues. I would tear down runs, charging through knee-deep fluffy powder before anyone was on the hill and it was considered part of my job. (If there is a heaven and I make it there, I want that to be my morning routine.) Despite barely earning minimum wage, I was living the dream.
As my legs dangle over that familiar terrain, it almost feels as if nothing has changed. In reality, everything has.
In the years that passed, I got married and had two kids. Skiing is still part of my life – my wife is a former ski instructor (our fifth date was on the slopes); our elder daughter started lessons when she was three and our two-year-old will likely start next season – but the reality is we don’t hit the hills as much as I’d like. As with most parents we spend our non-working hours shuttling kids to programs, cooking, doing laundry and cleaning unspeakable things out of the bathtub.
Last winter my wife and I decided that we needed a kid-free ski vacation and where better to go than a place I once called home?
Turns out, the Snowmass Village that we arrive at after a 10-minute drive from the airport is a vastly different place than where I used to live.
The Limelight Snowmass, where we stay for the first two nights of our trip, opened last season in what’s known as the new base village, a short gondola ride from the original base village, also called the mall.
What I remember as a large expanse of gravel and dirt behind an orange fence is now filled with hotels, restaurants, shops and activities for kids. In 2005, the year I started working at Snowmass, they broke ground on the US$600-million development. It also includes a rock climbing wall, a skating rink and a community building that hosts live music, film screenings, art installations, yoga classes and kids activities. And there are still buildings under construction.
It is hard not to draw parallels between Snowmass and my life.
I am strangely anxious for the following day. Twenty-three-year-old me could rip down any run on the mountain on my telemark skis. I knew every secret powder stash and had every turn memorized.
Thirty-six-year-old me is quite efficient at changing diapers, but has lost much in the way of skiing fitness and skill.
What will I be capable of?
In the morning, we head out for lessons. While my wife has great technique on groomed runs, she hasn’t skied much in deeper snow. So she also opted for a lesson to improve those skills.
I start slow with my instructor, Megan Ballard, who shares tips on how to keep my head level, how to change the pressure between skis and use that to slow down my transition between turns. We quickly move to moguls and then double black diamonds. By lunch, I am jumping cornices and feeling the fluffy snow fly up to my armpits as I turn through untracked powder.
Despite so many years passing, I still remember most of the mountain. Without thinking, my skis point toward the powder and my old favourite runs. “You’re crushin’ it,” Ballard says. Likely a generous description, but I take the compliment.
I can’t believe how comfortable I feel even on the challenging terrain. It’s like turning back the clock. “I still have it,” I think, cracking a smile.
For day two, we take a 20-minute bus ride to Aspen Highlands, a steep and challenging mountain where the dominant colour on the trail map is black.
I am here for one reason: To ski the Highland Bowl. When I lived in Snowmass, the Bowl was the first place we would go if it was snowing. I’ve done it dozens of times and had to see whether I still could. To get there, you take two chairlifts, a snowcat and then walk a 238-metre bootpack – a hike that takes about 40 minutes with your skis on your back. (Later, my phone says I took 4,211 steps over three kilometres and climbed 47 flights.)
Rare for the bowl, the sun is shining and the winds are calm. At the top, every square inch is covered in people celebrating the end of the hike, taking pictures and admiring the view from almost 3,780 metres. It is glorious. The ski down – on completely tracked, bumpy snow after a few days without fresh flakes – is average. But whether the snow is waist deep or chunky, few things beat the Bowl on a brilliant day.
We round off our holiday with perfect spring skiing at Aspen Mountain, also known as Ajax. For much of the day, my wife and I cruise groomers looping on the No. 3 chair – the Ajax Express. It is our third cloud-free day in a row and our only real concern is where to go for après. It is exactly what we need to reset and recharge.
I end the day with some steep bumps down the nose part of Ajax’s famous Bell Mountain. Alone, making turns, everything is just as it was 13 years ago. The run, the sky, the air, all the same. When many people think of Aspen, they think of fur, big designer sunglasses and money that flows like the salmon of Capistrano. That’s not my Aspen. Mine is right here, on a mostly empty hill where my skis are covered in snow and my heels and mind are free.
On our final morning, just before leaving for the airport, I stand in the new village at Snowmass. I watch the lifties smile and greet skiers, load kids, shovel and direct skiers where to stand. I look up the lift line to the top station and think about how I used to stand on the balcony of the gantry before the lift would open, watching the sun rise and peering down over the town, revelling in my good fortune.
Now, I look with a sense of accomplishment. Not just because I can still ski all the same runs I used to, but because of how the past 13 years have turned out. Life is far better than 23-year-old me would have imagined. I may not get to hit the slopes every day, but I occasionally still get to ski big mountains and do it with people I love – a list that keeps growing.
A quick peek into my past to realize I’m still living the dream.
Aspen doesn’t look similar to many ski towns because it wasn’t built as a ski town. The history of Aspen begins in the 1870s, when prospectors arrived looking for silver. From the cobblestone streets to the red-brick buildings, Aspen has the charm of a town locked in a previous era, with modern-day luxurious brand names such as Gucci and Rimowa displayed on window awnings.
On any given day about half of the ski resort’s guests are skiing Snowmass, about a 25-minute bus ride away. Snowmass is by far the biggest of the four mountains in Aspen (the others being Aspen Mountain or Ajax, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk), with about 1.5 times more skiable terrain than all of the other three mountains combined.
Where to stay
Limelight Snowmass: Right at the base of one gondola and a two-minute walk to the other (even in ski boots), the Limelight Snowmass, which opened in December, is in the heart of the new base village. The hotel is family friendly: It features an indoor rock-climbing wall and a skating rink right outside the front door. Rooms are modern-chic, with a slight retro feel complete with an orange Smeg mini fridge and a grey plaid sitting chair in the corner. The hotel offers complimentary ski storage, airport shuttle and a delicious buffet breakfast. Rooms during winter peak season start at US$599 a night.
Viceroy Snowmass: This luxury hotel has always been ski-in/ski-out, but it used to be disconnected from much of the rest of Snowmass until the opening of the new village. It also recently completed a multimillion dollar renovation, which includes a ski-in/ski-out bar, coffee shop, fitness centre, additional spa pools and a yoga studio. The rooms are luxurious with fireplaces, plush beds and high-end finishes. Rooms during winter peak season start at US$575 a night.
The writer was a guest of the Aspen Skiing Company. It did not review or approve this article.