News from the snow
Aspen has established itself over many years as one of the world's leading ski resorts, with a reputation for superb skiing for all standards and for being a lively and diverse ski town. Although it also has a deserved reputation for being one of the few winter sports destinations for the world's rich and super-rich, the Aspen Skiing Company, which owns all four of Aspen's ski areas, is keen to point out that it's possible to ski Aspen "on a budget". About two thirds of Aspen's visitor beds are located in Aspen itself, whilst most of the remainder are 12 miles (20km) down the road at Snowmass, where 95% of the accommodation is slope-side. There is a third development, the newest, at Aspen Highlands. Given its status, it is not surprising that Aspen tends to be in the ski world headlines for one reason or another every year. In 1997/'98 it was for taking the "Biggest Lift-served Skiable Vertical in the US" crown from Big Sky in Montana, after Aspen added a high altitude surface lift to open up the powder bowls of the Cirque, high above Snowmass. Aspen's fame actually dates back to a time before skiing, although it was only settled as recently as the 1880s, having originally been a summer destination of the Ute Indians. Prospectors arrived in 1879 and within 15 years the town was the largest silver mining district in America, producing a sixth of the national and a sixteenth of the world's silver needs. It had hydro-electrically powered mines, a primitive cable car /cable tram for miners and ore, a railroad link, an opera house, a population of 12000 and six newspapers. Mining decreased at the turn of the century but Aspen was resurrected as a ski resort in the mid 1940s.
Few can agree on the world's greatest ski resort, but most would have Aspen in their top five, like St Moritz, just because of its reputation. Apart from being a remarkable resort, dripping with wealth, Aspen has great skiing over four mountains, a world-class lift system and more alternative things to do (underground loco pulled silver mine tours for example ) than anywhere else. Aspen Highlands offers one of the biggest verticals in North America (Snowmass has the biggest in the US), and both it and Aspen Mountain have plenty of expert terrain. Beginners have their own mountain - Buttermilk. Snowmass Village is a semi-autonomous resort, 12 miles from Aspen valley. It has immediate access to the most black and double black diamond skiing in area and offers 95% slopeside lodging.
Access to intermediate level terrain on Aspen mountain was improved with the installation of the United State's first high-speed detachable double chair, replacing the original Ruthie's chair, and reducing uphill transit time from 11 minutes to five.
For the more advanced skiers looking for extra excitement, there are guided off-piste tours at Aspen Highlands and Snowmass, and a popular Speed Skiing Course also at Snowmass, where participants often clock up 65mph (105kph). The lift-served Cirque powder skiing above the treeline at Snowmass is also a popular option (open around 60 - 75 days per season, according to snow conditions), as is an Aspen Mountain Powder tour. This all-day tour is not for the faint-of-finance however, coming in at $225, including gourmet lunch.
A huge range of ski and snowboard school classes are available through the thousand-plus teacher strong Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen. One of the most novel is the On-Mountain Performance Centre where all levels of skiers can use "on and off snow biomechanical analyses of body movement and equipment ...to unlock each skier's true potential".
Skiing begins with Big Burn Bears from age three and a half and there's a rare (for children aged under 7) 'boarding tuition offer for children aged under 5 - 'Bears on Boards'. From then on up there's a run of different programs for different ages, abilities and on-snow interests. Children from aged 7 to 12 up pay $35 a day for lift tickets, which compares poorly with children's lift ticket prices in leading resorts elsewhere in the world, if not in Colorado.
A special trail map is available showing runs particularly well suited to children, including special gentle kids' trails through the woods and there's a special alcohol-free teenagers' bar in the town.
Other restaurants that may appear expensive by the main menu often run discounted specials so keep your eyes peeled and make sure you book in advance.
Budget friendly nightlife for over 21s includes the U-Call-It Night, a '70s night at The Tippler and the infamous 'Pitcher-of-beer-and-five-shots' deal available after 11pm at Little Annie's (open until 1am) Ironically enough, given Aspen's reputation, this must be about the cheapest drinks deal available in any western ski resort.