It's that time again. The white stuff is building into a thick blanket over Denver's backyard playground, and Westword is here to remind you how lucky you are to live in Colorado. In The Edge, area insiders offer advice on where to find the sickest powder stashes you never knew existed at your old favorites, as well as tips for places you've yet to sample. There's plenty to discover as resorts top themselves with gnarly new toys and access to higher, steeper and more remote extremes. So take a drive, catch the bus, hop on a snowcat, or book a heli drop. Your winter wonderland is waiting.
Already known as the locals' mountain because of its extreme skiing, Aspen Highlands gets even more extreme this winter with the opening of Canopy Cruiser, eighteen new acres between Deep Temerity and Highland Bowl. "It's going to be super-steep, double-black-diamond skiing, lots of trees," says pro skier Kate Olson.
Olson already spends most of her time on that part of the mountain anyway. The Highland Bowl, she says, is "humongous on the vertical. It's just open, airy skiing, nice and steep, with excellent views." It's about a 30- to 45-minute hike to get to the top of the bowl, but it goes by quickly with incredible vistas on both sides, she adds, and the hiking keeps the bowl from getting too crowded. "On a big powder day, there's going to be a line of people hiking up the bowl, but for the most part, because there's so much terrain, you can find your own tracks and your own line," she says.
The nearby 230-plus acre Deep Temerity area, which recently opened, has long, sustained, steep gladed runs that hold their snow all year long.
"It's the most extreme terrain of all four mountains. If you're a local, you end up seeing a lot of the same people day after day skiing the same favorite runs, and everybody out there, for the most part, are excellent, expert skiers," Olson says.
But there are also areas like Cloud Nine that cater more to intermediate skiers, and they are rarely crowded — probably because everybody's up in the bowl.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk, too. If you want to come celebrate or try out any of the Aspen/Snowmass skiing, the company will be running a Gray Line luxury shuttle bus direct from Denver International Airport.
General Information: www.aspensnowmass.com/highlands; 1-800-525-6200.
Location: 219 miles west of Denver via I-70 and Colo. Hwy. 82.
Hours: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Snow Report: 1-970-925-1221.
Lift Rates: TBA.
Terrain: 1,010 skiable acres with 125 trails; 18 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 16 percent advanced; 36 percent expert. The base is 8,040', with a 3,635' vertical rise; summit: 11,675.
Aspen Mountain clearly resembles the paradox that is Aspen. That's why Aaron Berne, a snowboarder and sales guy at Aspen magazine, loves it so much. On the 1A side of the mountain, you'll find the ski area's original lift, Shadow Mountain, which was the longest in the world when it was built some fifty years ago. It's a super-steep two-seater over ungroomed terrain, and it's where you go when you don't want to wait in line on a powder day. But Ajax also reflects Aspen's "see and be seen" image with the Silver Queen Gondola, located right in the heart of downtown Aspen. This is where you'll find locals standing in line next to Aspen-chic visitors in one-piece Prada ski outfits.
"It's great entertainment with all the ridiculous people to look at," Berne says. "And it's fun to hassle the man, freak out the establishment." The best way to do that is to find one of the mountain's famous shacks hidden in the woods — or shrines, as the locals call them, erected in honor of heroes like the Beatles and Jimmy Buffet. "The Grateful Dead one is a classic," Berne says. "It's a fun spot to stop. Sometimes you can catch an old-timer up there with stories from the '70s he wants to talk about."
New, if you can find it, is a shrine to local skier John Nicoletta, who died last year at the Freeskiing World Championships in Alaska. "His close friends went up and built a shrine to him, which is going to be really special for the local community," Berne says.
Shrines and people-watching aside, the skiing is why people come to the mountain. "It's kind of a melting pot, and these people are all coming together for one reason: to get out there and get after it," Berne says. He likes to start the morning with an eye-watering, leg-burning, blood-flowing steep and fast run down the groomed Copper. His other favorites on the east side of the mountain are the Walsh's, an out-of-bounds access run, and Pandora's Box. He advises everyone to check out the Dumps, named for the mine tailings below it. "It's all open Aspen tree skiing," Berne says. "It's always got powder in it, and it's real steep and real fun, with nice cliff drops." On the opposite side is gladed skiing with a couple of nice pillow lines in the Trainors, which is "probably the gnarliest in-bound skiing," and it accesses Berne's all-time top place to find powder stashes: the out-of-bounds Shadow Mountain area.