Friday, March 10, 2017

Amazing Aspen

Aspen Snowmass - Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
Ranking high in my top ten ski towns, Aspen never ceases to amaze. We’ve skied there before, taking the hugely beneficial Bumps for Boomers course on Aspen Mountain six years ago and, more recently, joining a National Brotherhood of Skiers’ Summit at Aspen Snowmass. Both trips were signature experiences and we have never forgotten the entrenched ski culture of Aspen, which even encompasses the older generation (i.e. us!) This time we included Aspen Highlands in our ski itinerary, adding further fuel to the area’s lifestyle desirability.

Highlands Bowl at Aspen Snowmass - Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
I was there with hubby and ski pal, Dr Simon Hudson - tourism expert, researcher, writer and professor at the University of South Carolina - who was working on a research project for Hotel Business Review at the time. We both appreciated the chance to ski first with charming Chace Dillon – an investment broker with an office at Highlands right on the hill – and next day with his winsome wife, Chelsea Dillon – an expert events planner whose company Gold Leaf Event Design & Production is also based at this sought-after location. The charismatic couple met when working for the Aspen Skiing Company and have been ski guide ambassadors ever since.

Aspen Snowmass - Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
First Tracks on Aspen Mountain with Chace were a real treat, with endless untouched corduroy sparkling in the sunlight. Even when the hoi polloi joined us at 9, the slopes were quiet and the line for the gondola negligible. At 10:30 we found out where everyone was – in Bonnie’s, a jolly breakfast joint where oatmeal pancakes and huge omelets attract locals and visitors for big brunches.

Bonnie's at Aspen Mountain - By Louise Hudson
Cheese fondue at Ajax Tavern - By Simon Hudson
Aspen is a really friendly place, both in the restaurants and around the slopes. We met Tim Kurnos who works at the Aspen Times that first day. It was one of those garrulous gondola gaps in time when he recounted how he came to live at Aspen. His sister messaged him from an exotic island as part of a study abroad program and it so incensed him that he was in a dreary location while she was living it up that he left and moved to his favourite ski resort where he has been ever since. 

We bumped into Tim later on, too, when enjoying an amazing cheese fondue at Ajax Tavern, Aspen Mountain’s premier après ski spot. 

Ajax Tavern at Aspen Snowmass - Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
Christy with her Veuve Clicquot skis at
Ajax Tavern at Aspen Snowmass - By Louise Hudson
We also met a vivacious Veuve Clicquot quaffer at Ajax Tavern, which features a pop-up champagne bar on its slopeside terrace. Christy, who recently moved to Dallas, flies in every other weekend to meet her father who skis there all season. He tries to notch up 100 days on snow at which point he buys 100 bottles of Veuve Clicquot to celebrate on the patio. This year he has invited electric violinist Kat V to play for the party (in a custom-made mink bikini, says Christy). He was on his 49th day when we met him so this event will presumably be a spring fling.

Chelsea with me at Highlands Bowl at Aspen Snowmass - By Simon Hudson
Chelsea doing the Highlands hike - by Chace Dillon
Next day skiing Highlands Bowl was both challenging and rewarding. Chelsea took us to the free snowcat stop to get a head start up the ridge and we then added on a five minute hike to one of the lower access points. The entire hike is a 30 min slog which fit and feisty Chelsea does regularly on her days off. It was quite tricky putting on the skis on the pointed ridge and the survival traverse from the crunchy sunbaked-then-refrozen entrance had me shaking in my ski boots. But once we got into the beautiful bowl, the snow was soft enough to scythe through effortlessly, giving me a chance to enjoy the view with that extra sense of high altitude achievement.

Lower down as we approached the Highlands base, we saw odd deep grooves in the groomers which turned out to be the tracks of new Carving Boards (worn with harder boots than typical snowboards), which were being demo-ed that day. Hope they don’t catch on, though, as the grooves really cut up the corduroy! We popped into the Euro-style Caffe Siena, in the Ritz Carlton building, great for designer coffees, top service and chatty locals. In my semi-retirement mind’s eye I could really see Simon and I hanging out here regularly if we move to Aspen in the future.
Simon and I at Highlands Bowl - by Chelsea Dillon
Merry Go Round Restaurant Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
At the top of the Exhibition Lift, the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant has healthy lunches – such as pine nut and quinoa salad or red curry squash soup – and there’s a nice deck with Adirondack chairs and cocktails. But the hopping habitat on the Highlands hill is Cloud Nine – hangout of Malia Obama recently - where champagne is poured both into, and over, the party people who behave like Euro revelers, complete with table dancing to blaring music. Unlike Europe though, where everyone has to get themselves down the mountain in the dark, regardless of their state of insobriety, anyone who looks inebriated at much earlier 3:30 pm curfew is ferried down the mountain on a snowcat – a decadent version of the ‘designated driver’. The après fun continues at the base at Highlands Alehouse where fresh, made-from-scratch carbo comfort food really helps soak up the champers. 
Kelly Spring Skiing in shorts!
What was fun, too, during this visit was meeting up with Malibu Kelly Hayes (spotter for NBS Sports Sunday Night Football) and his wife, journalist Linda Hayes. We first encountered them in Aspen six years ago and have kept abreast of their careers sporadically since. What we didn’t know, though, was Kelly’s plans for his 60th birthday which are being played out over the whole year. In a project called Race2Walk2016, he is re-running every iconic Olympic running race – from 100m to Marathon – trying to do each in half the record time at the very places they were run. “I turned 60 this past year and decided that I wanted to do something good and do something that no one else on earth has ever done,” Kelly told me. “So I hooked up with an amazing organization founded by an ex Aspen ski instructor, Amanda Boxtel, who suffered a life changing accident on the slopes 25 years ago.” With ten races in total, he has already done the mile and 1500m in Rome, the 5000m in the Netherlands, the 100m and 200m in Berlin, and the 800m in Oxford, England. 

Start of the 200m in Berlin in Kelly Hayes'
quest to complete "The Running Decathlon"
 to raise funds to purchase a Bionic Suit
And this summer he is going to Europe to finish off his birthday challenge. Along the way, Kelly is raising money towards purchasing a bionic exoskeleton for the Bridging Bionics Foundation in Aspen – the goal $175,000, with over $30,000 already in the bag. Bridging Bionics is at the forefront of helping those with spinal injuries trial and use the best of emerging technologies to help them rise from their chairs and walk once again,” Kelly explained.

When we met Kelly and Linda we were anxious to hear their take on the skiing, too, of course. “The lure here is that we have four mountains in close proximity that each have their own personalities,” said Kelly. “Aspen Mountain is the Augusta National of ski mountains: on a measly 690 acres you have some of the best and longest big mountain runs in the state. Not to mention the best people watching in American skiing. Beautiful skiers. Beautiful skis. Beautiful skiers.” When we mentioned we were going to try out Highlands for the first time, Kelly said “Highlands is a different animal completely: Steep and rugged with an epic climb that is a draw for skiers from all over the world. There is not a ski mountain in North America that combines the luxury and rugged grit of the Rockies in one place like Highlands.”

Aspen Snowmass - Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
The Hayes’s are particularly fond of Snowmass which is closest to where they live. “So diverse but perhaps best known for the make-you-feel-special cruisers on the Big Burn. My home mountain never disappoints,” says Kelly.And the thing is, it is always empty. Or at least it feels that way. This week, President's Day, there were over 200 private planes parked at Sardy Field. That would be capacity. And yet the longest wait I had was about four minutes at Snowmass." 

That same night while enjoying the fun and friendly après ski at the lively Limelight Lounge, we also bumped into Joe and Nancy Nevin, our Bumps for Boomers buddies. We basically had everyone we know in Aspen in the same room! Great to hear that their innovative ski instruction program is going from strength to strength and they are even thinking of adding Groomers for Boomers in the future. Simon and I have been using their techniques on bumps and steep slopes ever since learning them on their 90cm skis six years ago. Hopefully their tips are helping our skiing longevity!

Limelight Lounge AspenCourtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
We were staying at the 126-room Limelight Hotelwhich since rebuilding in 2005 is ultra modern, with huge suites and a very non-cluttered, Zen décor direction. The central downtown location is close to the gondola with shuttles available and also the local bus system nearby. Possibly the best part of staying at The Limelight is its massive lounge, with restaurant and bustling bar area featuring live music five nights a week. Perpetuating the sociable ski lodge vibe that it used to have pre-reno, it is a hub for locals and tourists (both staying in-house and from other hotels) all attracted by the happy hour from 2-7pm and also the gourmet breakfast every morning. “At the end of the day Aspen comes down to the locals,” senior sales manager, Connie Powers explains. “Aspen was not developed as a cookie cutter ski village but was a real town, first with silver mining followed by a period known as the ‘quiet years’ when it was quiet ranching community. Then enter the Aspen Idea which plays into the world-class ski resort culture we have today.”

Limelight Hotel Aspen - Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company
Aspen Snowmass
Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Company

The Limelight, on the corner of Monarch Street and Cooper Avenue, is an integral part of the Aspen ski culture which, according to Connie, is similar to a deep seated surf culture. “The work hard/play hard theme is seen everywhere in Aspen,” she says. “Although Aspen is known for the celebrities and champagne it has a core ski culture with diehards from 18-80 years who live here simply for their deep passion for skiing. Whether a powder day, skiing trees, cliffs or groomers, it is what gets them up in the morning.” She recommends the Wall at Snowmass or the Bowl at Highlands for experts. “Both inbounds and out the new motto of “earn your turns” is growing as well with the uphill enthusiast,” she adds. 

And for beginners and terrain park paragons it has to be Buttermilk. But here is where Kelly Hayes differs: Buttermilk is oft overlooked but, as we have a few inches of fresh snow I am heading over to catch a few runs at what feels like a private hill before my business meeting. I will park steps from a high speed lift and get in four or five long cruising runs at Tiehack with fresh snow in just over an hour. It is also the best outdoor television studio on earth for events like the X Games,” he says. I didn't get to ski there this time but I will add it to the schedule on my next visit!

Jimmy's Aspen - Courtesy of Jimmy's Aspen
Home Run Ranch Burger at Jimmy's Aspen - Courtesy of Jimmy's Aspen

Known for its A-list inhabitants (such as Mariah Carey, Elle Macpherson, Paris Hilton, Kate Hudson and all their famous friends who visit), the closest we actually came to a star was at Jimmy’s, which offers steaks from the Home Run Ranch run by Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn (who also have a place in Aspen Snowmass). Jimmy Yeager, himself, is a bit of a star, too. Originally from New York City, he has this amazing deep voice and, when he told me had lived for many years in California, I couldn’t help asking if he was in the movies. Turned out he was a voice actor for cartoon films! Kurt, who is a friend of Jimmy’s, produces grass fed beef which is then grain fed for the last 60 days. 

Crab cakes at Jimmy's Aspen - Courtesy of Jimmy's Aspen
There are specials on Jimmy’s menu daily, pairing this delicacy with decadent sauces, spices and sides – for example a 6oz skirt steak pre-cooked sous vide with coffee chipotle, paprika and Kobe fat and later grilled and served with beluga lentils and crispy potatoes. “His ranch, which is less than 10 miles away, is called The Home Run because Kurt played minor league baseball when he was young. Not everyone knows that,” Jimmy told me. After 20 years of buoyant business, Jimmy’s is an institution in town, accompanied now by its newer sister restaurant, Bodega. Jimmy takes his staff abroad in shoulder season each year to learn about culinary and beverage excellence. Last year it was Japan, including Nagano, Kyoto and Tokyo, where the team discovered sake and Japanese whisky which they now use in creative cocktails. With interesting international insights, Jimmy’s top picks are crab cakes, filet mignon, Cap of Rib Eye, and Jimmy’s hot fudge sundae.  If you want to get on his walls of fame, you either have to be called Jim, James, Jimmy or Jim Bob or, alternatively, contribute $500 to Challenge Aspen. 

Champagne Sabering at St Regis Aspen - by Louise Hudson
Other après ski highlights included Champagne Sabering in the ritzy St Regis courtyard. The sommelier – and sometimes a hotel guest – slashes the cork off with a saber and then fills glasses for a tasting. Followed by more champers after hot soaks and cool plunges at the underground-themed Remede Spa, we then had dinner at Portal@TQD. All the food options, created by executive chef Samir Roonwal, were innovative, internationally-inspired and delicious but particularly notable for the butter chicken curry.

Our last night was spent at Mezzaluna where I had the best tomato soup of my life, fabulous wholewheat pizza (very difficult to find usually, but so much tastier, and presumably more nutritious, than white flour) and great wines. With a circular bar, suspended ceiling pictures, art wall and a lively atmosphere, this is a more affordable eatery but still uses organic and locally-sourced ingredients and makes everything from scratch. I could see this being a regular if we ever stayed there for a season!

Next morning we had the luxury of flying out of Aspen Airport, just a five minute drive away from town and even linked by the shuttle bus system. 

If you're thinking of visiting Aspen this season, check out the array of spring activities coming up soon:

17th Annual Bud Light Spring Jam
Mar. 25-Apr. 9
Aspen Snowmass
The 17th annual Bud Light Spring Jam, the premier spring festival in the Rocky Mountains, will bring a schedule filled with competitions, concerts and parties to Aspen Snowmass. The festival features everything from free Bud Light Hi-Fi Concerts in Snowmass with acts such as Moon Taxi and The Big Squeeze, to competitions such as the Banked Slalom and the return of the Freestyle Friday event taking place at Aspen Highlands. Other events include the classic Bacon Appreciate Day at Buttermilk and the ninth annual Schneetag competition.

Bud Light Hi-Fi Concert: Moon Taxi
Mar. 25
Kicking off the 17th annual Bud Light Spring Jam, Moon Taxi will hit the stage in Snowmass Base Village at 4 p.m. Saturday, Mar. 25. Based in Nashville, Moon Taxi was formed in 2006 and has dropped two albums since and appeared on shows such as the Late Show with David Letterman and Conan. They have also performed at popular festivals such as Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza and more. Their music is described as American indie-progressive rock.

Freestyle Friday
Mar. 31
Aspen Highlands, Scarlett’s Run
Freestyle Friday returns after a 13 year hiatus to the Spring Jam calendar and will consist of skiers competing in a single elimination competition where they will race side-by-side down a course consisting of 400 feet of bumps, two skier cross banking turns, a spine jump, a big air jump and a rail slide. The winner will be crowned by a combination of the fastest time and overall impression.

Sunset Skiing
Mar. 31
Aspen Mountain
Sunset skiing returns to Aspen Mountain Mar. 31 allowing guests to ski Aspen Mountain past normal operating hours. The Silver Queen Gondola and the Ajax Express will run until 6 p.m. and the Sundeck will host a party under the stars until 9:30 p.m. complete with a DJ, drink specials and a dance party.

Banked Slalom
Apr. 1
The fourth annual Aspen Snowmass Banked Slalom Snowboard Race will take place in Snowmass Apr. 1. Join or watch as the local snowboarding community gathers for a day of fast-turning and friendly competition. After last year’s “longest banked slalom course ever,” expectations are high for this year’s event. All participants are invited to join in a community course build day, Thursday, Mar. 30. Course build workers will receive preferred course access, design input opportunities, lunch and a special gift. Entry fee is $30 and advance registration is required. Registration will open Mar. 1.

Apr. 1
Crested Butte to Aspen
This 40-mile backcountry ski race spans across an old mail route from the 1880's that connects the towns of Aspen and Crested Butte. The race begins at midnight in Crested Butte and climbs more than 7,800 vertical feet before the extreme endurance event comes to an end in Aspen. In order to maintain safety, the race is done in teams of two and all racers must have the mandatory gear in order to compete. The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse has been a staple event since 1998 and truly tests athlete’s mental and physical toughness.

Bacon Appreciation Day
Apr. 2
In celebration of Buttermilk’s closing day, the mountain hosts an annual Bacon Appreciation Day featuring a schedule of all things bacon including bacon waffles at the summit in the morning, bacon samplers around the mountain throughout the day, kid’s games in the base area and a bacon and beer happy hour at Bumps restaurant. A cost is associated with the lunches and happy hour, but all other bacon items are free while supplies last.

In conjunction with Bacon Appreciation Day, Buttermilk will also host an uphilling event called ‘Fueled by Bacon Sizzle Up’ that will begin at 8 a.m. at the base (registration day-of starting at 7 a.m. at the base of Buttermilk) and end the Cliffhouse. Prizes will be awarded for the Best Costume, the Center Cut (person who is in the middle of the pack) and for the fastest family, with additional prizes raffled off as well. Bacon will be available at the base and finish line and bacon waffles will be served at the Cliffhouse. Cost is $15 for individuals and $40 for a family of four.

Smith Optics Grudge Match
Apr. 2
The Smith Optics Grudge Match is a snowboard only rail jam event that will take place Apr. 2 at Buttermilk Mountain. Featuring a head-to-head bracket style snowboard competition, the winner will take home $1,000 in cash and a pair of Smith I/O goggles. The event will also include food and drinks specials as well as a DJ playing in the Bumps Restaurant patio area. Registration for the rail jam is free. Call (970) 925-9373 for more information.

Apr. 8
Taking place in the Snowmass Base Village, the Main Squeeze will take to the stage at 4 p.m. Saturday, Apr. 8. The Main Squeeze is an energetic five-piece band that blends funk, soul and rock n’ roll. With roots in Bloomington, Indiana’s vibrant live music scene, since their inception, The Main Squeeze has amassed a remarkably loyal and rapidly growing national fan base. They’ve graced the stages at some of the country’s biggest festivals, including Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, Phases of the Moon and Gathering of The Vibes.

Apr. 9
Aspen Highlands
Taking place Sunday, Apr. 9 at the bottom of Aspen Highlands, the ninth annual Schneetag (pronounced Sch-knee Tog) invites teams of four to create a craft they will pilot down a slope and attempt to float across a 20 by 50 foot pond. Schneetag is the German word for "snow day." Put simply, it translates to "daredevils willing to propel themselves down a hill, over a jump and across a pond on a craft they built themselves." Each team will present a theme and perform a skit before they descend. Entry is free, but pre-registration online is required. The competition starts at 1:30 p.m.

Spring event sponsors include Bud Light, GoPro, Audi, Helly Hansen, Coca Cola, Noosa Yogurt, Lavazza, Perky Jerky, Alchemy, Snowmass Tourism, Belly Up Aspen, Smith, Clif Bar and Head.

For more information about Aspen Snowmass, visit or call (800) 525-6200. Follow Aspen Snowmass @aspensnowmass on Twitter and Instagram, @Aspen_Snowmass on Snapchat, or at

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