On a powder day, she can feel like a one-night stand (“OMG, did that really just happen?”); over the course of many seasons, like a loving, reliable partner (“I ski that run every time and it keeps getting better.”). And she can fulfill every relationship type in between. For those who don’t know Aspen Mountain (or Ajax, as she’s known by her local nom d’amour), she can be intimidating and hard to read. Don’t take her simply at face value—those 675 acres ski much bigger than you’d think. And, yes, there are wide blue cruisers at the top of the mountain, her tamer side, that you can’t see from town.
Those who know Aspen Mountain well—some have enjoyed her charms for decades—are fiercely loyal, refusing to betray her even by riding faraway Snowmass. Those in the process of developing a relationship are advised to exercise patience, pay attention, and have a sense of adventure. For that, you will be rewarded: you’ll learn how to link certain runs to maximize Ajax’s 3,267-foot vertical rise, where to get first tracks on a powder day, and how to time runs with the sun’s progress in the sky to ensure yourself snow that’s neither too soft nor too hard.
Bottom line: Ajax may look like she’s got nothing to hide, but that’s only true until you put the effort in to get to know her many facets. On these pages, you’ll find some relationship advice.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Getting the most out of Aspen Mountain requires understanding how runs are connected.
Aspen is a mountain riddled with traverses, catwalks, and roads—short, long, marked, and not—that efficiently connect one run to another. Forgo those link-ups, and you’ll quickly funnel to the bottom via Spar Gulch or Copper Bowl, and suddenly Ajax seems quite small. Stitch them all together, however, and the mountain feels like it’s tripled in size. The following four examples prove the point.
1Walsh’s to Glade One to Bingo
Hugging the eastern ski area boundary, this is a three-runs-in-one combo that covers most of Aspen’s vertical drop. Starting on Walsh’s (Hyrup’s or Kristi work, too—check the sign on top to make sure they’re open), you test your mettle on this steep, wide-open run marked by two ridges and enhanced by spectacular views toward Independence Pass. Turns on Walsh’s justify the required uphill slog out from the bottom of the run via Lud’s Lane. At the crest of Lud’s you’ll want to assume a tuck position to speed your way down the final hill and across the flats of North Star. Pass the base of the Gent’s Ridge lift and stay right, poling under the large Experts Only sign hanging over the trail. Veer left at Glade One, enjoying a dozen or so turns on this lightly skied run before reaching an at-times faintly visible traverse heading right into the trees. You’ll know you’re going the right way when you see the Jimmy Buffett shrine. Stop and sing “Cheeseburger in Paradise” if you must, then follow the traverse out of the trees and high across Glades Two and Three until you hit the more well-trod route to Jackpot and Bingo Glades. You will want to say “Bingo!” when the gate to the double-black diamond terrain is open. Several routes lead through perfectly spaced Aspen trees across varied pitches down to a catwalk connecting to the Little Nell run and the bottom of the mountain. Now, breathe.
When most people ski the Mine Dumps—a row of east-facing, aspen-gladed, double-black-diamond runs below the FIS lift—they don’t realize that an old irrigation ditch, one of many remnants from the mining days on Aspen Mountain, runs across them. Starting near the bottom of Bear Paw, it is possible to follow this ditch across S1, Short Snort, Zaugg, Perry’s, and Last Dollar—it terminates fairly high up on the Buck—and choose any line along the way. It may seem like an uphill journey in spots, but remember that water always flows downhill.
3Back to Ridge to Shoulder of Bell
Here’s a way to maximize your turns on Bell Mountain and potentially experience three different types of snow conditions. From the “shady side” traverse to Bell Mountain, head down the fall line into east-facing Back of Bell #2, an aspect that storms generally favor with copious powder. After a handful of turns and a short steep pitch, pay attention for a traverse going left into the trees. Passing the Yankee Stadium shrine (Der-ek Jet-er), you’ll emerge onto the right flank of Ridge of Bell. Here you can choose to continue down the north-facing Ridge—where you’ll typically find the most consistent conditions all season long—or traverse it, squaring up directly at the top of the west-facing Shoulder of Bell, the place to be on spring afternoons for thick, soft, forgiving snow.
4Ruthie’s to Ridge to Jackpot
It’s very rarely done, but it is possible to traverse from the far west side of Aspen Mountain to its far east side. Even if you’ve just gotten off the Ruthie’s chair, you can take any run down toward Ajax Express, and, just above the base of that chairlift, on the opposite side of the lift corral, you’ll see a hiding-in-plain-sight traverse (it’s easier to detect from below than above). Be ready to walk, pole, and occasionally sidestep up as you contour Bell Mountain, staying as high as possible, across the Face and Ridge, crossing Copper Bowl back into the trees and through the Gent’s Ridge Glades, and ending up on Jackpot. Do this one for no other reason than to impress your friends with your terrain knowledge.
Some four dozen shrines—memorializing celebrities, musicians, and local personalities with photos and memorabilia—can be found in the trees of Aspen Mountain, and many of them have become way markers. Two of the most well known are the Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe shrines, marking the upper and lower traverses from Copper Bowl to the Ridge of Bell. Although we revealed the locations of a few shrines here, their whereabouts are by local custom kept secret—inviting discovery only by chance or by being guided there.
Taking time to scope a route within an individual run usually pays off.
Chock full of fall lines, many runs on Ajax offer multiple paths that can ski very differently, depending on that day’s conditions or the rider’s mood. How to hone your knowledge of lines within a run? Pay attention. Stop at the top and assess the run. Oftentimes the left or right side has more fresh snow and smaller bumps (the right side of Red’s, for example) than the center. On the vast Face of Bell, pay special attention to lines that don’t lead directly to the Ajax Express or FIS chairs; less traffic means better snow. And on runs shaped around gullies (Super 8, Walsh’s), you can get into vastly different rhythms on the crest of the ridge, its sides, or in the gully itself.
STILL THE ONE
The Kastle MX88 made its North American market debut at Aspen’s Hamilton Sports in 2008. In the ensuing six years, it has seen only two minor tweaks to its construction. That’s an unprecedented run in ski manufacturing, where significant reengineering every couple of years is the norm. The MX88 also happens to be the perfect Aspen Mountain expert’s ski. Its traditional camber, sheets of metal, and stiff, square tail deliver a ride on firm snow that feels like a scalpel with rocket boosters. Those attributes would normally indicate a heavier ski, but the MX88’s hollowed-out tip lightens things up enough for nimble precision in bumps, trees, and even a foot of powder. Light, precise, stable at speed, playful. When it does eventually go away, curse the day: this ski deserves a shrine. —Michael Miracle
You’ve learned how linking runs can greatly increase the quantity of interesting terrain you can ski on Aspen Mountain. Now for some bigger-picture wisdom.
9On a big powder day (double-digit new snow totals), simply put, get there early. This is one of the rare occasions you’ll encounter lift lines and see the mountain tracked up by noon, as many locals prioritize skiing over work (and many businesses still observe the six-inch powder day rule, either pushing back when they open or allowing employees to come in late). A good way to maximize a powder hour is by lapping the fast lifts at the top of the mountain. One popular approach is “Face to Six,” meaning skiing the Face of Bell to the FIS lift, then doing one to three laps there before heading down to the bottom, where the line will have thinned out some. Lines are generally much shorter at Lift 1A/Shadow Mountain, where fresh tracks can often be found on classic runs like Corkscrew and Lift Line.
Fewer than six inches of new snow warrants a more leisurely approach. If three inches or less are reported—especially on a cold or overcast weekday—you may end up enjoying a surprise powder day, as snow can pile up deeper than the official report in spots and the mountain can be virtually empty as fickle, fair-weather riders stay home.
10If it hasn’t snowed in a while and conditions are firm, take advantage of the Aspen Skiing Company’s top-notch grooming. Get on mountain early enough and experience the delights of some serious corduroy carving. The west side of the mountain (the blue runs accessed by the Shadow Mountain and Ruthie’s lifts, where World Cup alpine ski races are held) is the place to go to arc those big GS turns. After warming up on upper Ruthie’s, veer left to Aztec, if it’s groomed, where you can challenge yourself to hold an edge on this steep pitch. Take the airplane turn on Spring Pitch, then swoop your way down Strawpile. Trust us, cruising will take on a whole new meaning. Grab a grooming report at the base of the mountain or look it up online (aspensnowmass.com) to know exactly where to go.
Nothing beats sharing stories of a great ski day over a beer.
It’s the wild pool scene of late winter and early spring that earns the Sky Hotel its straight-out-of-a-beer-commercial reputation. But during the shorter, colder days of December through early February, the Sky’s indoor bar and lounge, 39 Degrees, takes on the feel of a cozy lodge. The experience, more huddled and intimate, still communal but a lot less boisterous, brings a touch of throwback elegance to sipping glasses of beer and wine and sampling the pork miso ramen, shrimp tacos, and sake-braised Bangs Island mussels of chef Shawn Lawrence’s underappreciated menu.
Though it requires a stroll, potentially in ski boots, from the gondola to an upstairs space on Hopkins Avenue, après at the Aspen Brewing Company delivers an atmosphere well worth the walk. Here you will encounter something increasingly rare for Aspen: skiwear many seasons old mended with duct tape, the occasional Grateful Dead bootleg on the stereo, and bona-fide ski bums young and old drinking the Brew Co.’s seasonal craft beer. It feels like—gasp—an actual Colorado mountain town. And thank god for that.
Eight-dollar happy hour pizzas—the price just went up after ten years at $7—until 6:30 p.m. at the bar and $4 beers and house wines have made Mezzaluna an end-of-the-ski-day magnet for years. That long-standing status means a crowd of regulars mixing with visitors who wander in. A horseshoe-shaped bar entices all of those folks to engage with neighbors on both sides and across the bar. Before too long everyone has met a sizeable chunk of everyone else. Then things get fun. —M.M.
11Come springtime, timing is everything, as temperatures vary widely and snow conditions may range from coral reef to rotted mush. This is when it’s more important than ever to ski east-facing runs like Walsh’s, Back of Bell, and the Dumps in the morning, after the sun has softened the overnight crust but before the snow gets too slushy. Save west-facing runs such as Face of Bell and Jackpot for the afternoon for the same reason, while many north-facing aspects—especially those higher on the mountain or that rarely get sun—are safe most of the day. On a sun-blazing late March day, if you hit them at just the right time, nothing beats the slushy bumps of Last Dollar to Slalom Hill in the late morning or the bumps on Face of Bell just before the lifts close. If you’re not a snow scientist with intuitive calculation of how nighttime temperatures, cloud cover, and aspects affect the snow, your choices from about the beginning of March until the end of the season are as follows: experiment, stick to the groomers, follow a knowledgeable local, or hit après-ski early.
Becoming a true Aspen Mountain sensei means never sacrificing time skiing for time waiting for friends.
It’s a powder day, so you’re understandably reluctant to wait for your ski buddies at the top of the gondola, which will take a minimum of fourteen minutes if they’ve just boarded. Fortunately, there are ways to kill that time without standing around by using Ajax’s fast, efficiently linked lifts. If your pals are less than halfway up the gondola, “do a lap on 3,” as locals frequently advise—the ride time on 3, a.k.a. the Ajax Express chair, is a mere five minutes—and then meet at the water fountain at the information hut. The bottom of the FIS chair, a four-minute ride, meaning you could do a couple of laps while waiting for your friends, is another practical meeting spot, and the top of the FIS chair is a good place to rendezvous with someone coming up the west side of the mountain (the Shadow Mountain and Ruthie’s lifts ride times are twelve minutes combined). If, on the other hand, someone is waiting for you, use your gondola time wisely: adjust your boots, dry your goggles (the history plaque in each gondola car makes for a perfect perch), and take notice when ascending the Ridge of Bell—you can tell a lot about snow conditions and wind loading during those few minutes.
West Side Classic
Laps on the gondola deliver a great day, but there’s something deeper that comes with skiing Aspen’s throwback side.
By Catherine Lutz
There’s no lift maze at the base of Lift 1A, just a single turnstile two ski lengths from the loading area. No one mans the tiny, lonely ticket office shack; a sign in the single window says to ask a lift operator for assistance. In fact, there’s not much going on at this western portal of Aspen Mountain. Below the bullwheel of the fixed-grip double chair sits a ramshackle, red wooden building that houses ski patrol, and across Aspen Street, the Shadow Mountain condominiums nestled into the hillside are the only tourist accommodations in the immediate neighborhood. (For now.) There’s no place to eat here.
Aspen’s tourism boosters consider the Lift 1A base a travesty of unrealized potential. I love it. Skiing down this side of the mountain, no buildings loom up to create shadows or block views. Lift lines are nonexistent (save on big powder days), and parking is still free in a row of two-hour spaces on Aspen Street. There’s a spot at the top of Norway where I like to pause, usually in total solitude, to look out over town. The feeling of old Aspen is palpable here—no clutter of base development, no buzz of traffic, and the density of downtown just far enough away. Snow blankets a large empty lot that is slated to soon become luxury townhomes. And it’s comforting to know that below the Swiss-style Skier’s Chalet (a former ski lodge that has been fittingly housing local ski bums lately), the remnants of historic Lift One—Aspen Mountain’s original chairlift that opened in 1947—will always be there, as it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And the skiing! Some of Aspen’s best lines can be found here: riding the wave on Super 8, the swooping double fall line of Corkscrew, the selection of perfect pitches on Norway, to name a few. When the bumps are rock hard up high, the snow stays softer longer down here. Cruisers remain in ideal shape all season long thanks to the copious snowmaking and five-star grooming given to the Thanksgiving weekend World Cup racecourses. And although it’s an old fixed-grip double (with some of the chairs missing the padding), 1A—officially the Shadow Mountain Lift, but nobody calls it that—is only a seven-minute ride, allowing for quick laps or easy access to the Ruthie’s chair and the Dumps.
The 1A side is where it all started for Ajax, and while it’s no longer the main artery, it remains, for some, the heart and soul of this mountain.