The Ultimate Guide to Skiing and Riding Buttermilk
Buttermilk has a little image issue. Ski and snowboard cognoscenti tend to either think of it as a gravity-bound beginner’s mountain or associate it with the high-flying Winter X Games. While it’s true that the mountain’s gentle, uncrowded green runs are ideal for learners, and equally true that the Milk rates as one of the premier resorts anywhere for riding parks and pipe, many people don’t realize that Buttermilk may be one of the most experientially diverse mountains in North America.
Witness the über-fit uphiller community that samples the resort’s goods every night, many tracking the untouched groom or powder within hours or even minutes after they’ve been laid down. Or the one occasion a year when Buttermilk’s cat drivers roll out the white carpet for hard-boot snowboard carvers, for whom Buttermilk’s wall-to-wall groom makes a perfect platform for surfing on snow. Or the Aspen Skiing Company’s greatly expanded new building, which opened last year, catering to its two- to six-year-old customers in ski school.
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that there is something for everyone at Buttermilk. Nervous about getting back into the sport? Buttermilk’s open, empty slopes are the place to be. Want to learn to tele or ride park? Buttermilk’s the place. Already a bad-ass in the park? Buttermilk’s the place. Looking for freshies three days after a storm? Got kids? Ski trees? Like to après? ... You get the idea. To find your ideal Buttermilk, read on.
Seeing through kids’ eyes at the Milk’s ski school
For first-time skier tykes, Buttermilk’s Panda Peak must seem like the North Pole. Snowmobiles pull trains of kids bundled like so many little mints back and forth from the Disney-esque Hideout children’s center to a magic carpet next to a tipi, while another rainbow of toddlers “skitches” up the hill behind a different snowmobile, like water-skiers being towed by a boat. They tumble over and under snow tunnels, build snowmen, and giggle their way down larger-than-life snow slides, all of it designed to encourage play while secretly advancing their skills.
But before kids can learn to ski, they have to want to be in ski school. And that takes more than being wowed by the carnival atmosphere. Imagine being three or four years old and not having started school yet, or never having left the care of your parents. Powder Pandas might be the first place you’ve ever been under the supervision of someone other than family or friends—and it can be overwhelming. Buttermilk’s children’s instructors, trained to handle the occasion, help fear give way to wonder.
“It’s a place where you can take your kids, and they actually want to come back,” says Georgie Bremner, Buttermilk Ski School manager.
To a young child, “skiing” encompasses everything from drop-off to pickup. It’s lunch and snacks, new friends and adventures, new clothes, new machinery, and, for some, the first time they’ve ever seen snow. Once kids graduate to the top of the hill, Buttermilk keeps the fun rolling with daily on-mountain activities like piñata parties, s’mores, and races for kids from the Powder Pandas program through age seventeen.
But it’s the instructors who define the experience. At Buttermilk, snow pros specialize in every type of snowsport, can ride any terrain, and have intimate knowledge of all four mountains—and they thrive on the energy new riders bring to the sport.
“I really appreciate pros who can hike the Bowl but are also passionate about beginners,” Bremner says. “Little people have hunger meltdowns, separation anxiety. They’re in a new environment. And that instructor is encouraging those little people to get out there and move and learn a new sport. That’s a skill.”
Parents who press the instructors for a few details about their lives may find that they compete in big-mountain freeride events or coach local up-and-coming athletes—maybe they’ve even been in the Olympics. But all that the kids know, or care about, is that they’re having fun and want to come back, again and again and again.
It Takes a Village
At the Hideout, Aspen Skiing Company’s new 7,500-square-foot, $5 million childcare facility, two two-story play areas beckon kids with rope cribbing, a firemen’s pole, funhouse walls, and giant bells (no whistles ... yet). It’s enough to leave any parent wondering: Will my kids want to ski?
Not a problem. As with adults, skiing sells itself. The Hideout sells everything else around the skiing, making downtime fun time by giving kids something to do during drop-off and pickup, when parents have business to attend to. The generous registration room itself allows for comfortable waiting, with plenty of space for staff to mill about and help with forms or put on little mittens and boots. And it’s all surrounded by ample storage for extra clothes and gear and a collection of loaners for whatever didn’t make it to ski school that morning.
“There’s a long list of things to forget that make you an ‘inept’ parent,” says Buttermilk Ski School manager Georgie Bremner, who’s been shuttling her own mitten-eschewing kids to Powder Pandas for several years now. “But everyone is there helping.”
Forests of Fun
Kids love tree trails. Buttermilk’s got the goods.
“There are some dicey moments following a little ripper through the trees when they’re half your size,” says Georgie Bremner, Buttermilk Ski School’s manager. “It’s like going into hyperdrive in Star Wars.”
For a tree-trail thrill ride on Buttermilk’s west side, follow your little ripper from the top of Summit Express through the groomed (by a snowmobile; the trees are too tight for a regular-size cat) paths, starting with meandering green Aldrich Alley. Step up to blues off of Westward Ho, and let them lead you through the turny, sloping blue Devil’s Gut for a Mr. Toad–worthy romp through tunnels and trees. Segue immediately into Mr. Bill, where the main route is snowmobile-groomed, but adventurous souls of any age can dart into the margins to sample the powder and contribute to an array of braided lines through sparse aspen trees. From the end of Mr. Bill, get back on the lift at the midway loading station, or slingshot to the bottom through the big berms in Moose Alley in the tree island just below the bottom.
Wookie Woods, Buttermilk’s only black tree trail, earns its rank by dropping into a dark conifer forest and descending a steep slope in a series of banked turns that ski like a luge track, demanding that the Force be with you as you race through dense trees that trick the light like a light saber losing its potency. Watch your speed, though—this trail can get slick.
“Am I right or am I right or am I right?”
In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is haunted—or perhaps hunted—by a terminally giddy high school classmate–turned–insurance salesman by the name of Ned Ryerson. The character gets his name from Buttermilk’s own Ned Ryerson, a.k.a. “Tele Ned.” Back in the day, Ryerson was a grinning waiter at the now-defunct Mother Lode restaurant, a popular spot with Murray and his comedic cohorts. But don’t let the gangly movie Ned fool you: the real Ryerson tears it up on telemark or alpine skis, and he’s just one more face in the lineup at Buttermilk’s ski and snowboard schools.
Park It Here
Buttermilk’s terrain parks and its competition-size superpipe define the mountain as much as any beginner terrain. Freestyle couldn’t have developed without competitive venues like the X Games to showcase its stars, and the X Games is synonymous with Buttermilk—the late-January event has been held here since 2002. But you can’t start at the top, so Buttermilk offers parks that let you session features of every size and level.
> Red’s Rover
The key to any new sport is repetition, and you can session Red’s Rover on West Buttermilk in ten minutes, including the ride from the midway loading station on the West Buttermilk Express chair. Jumps get progressively larger down the trail, and boxes and rails that begin flush with the snow can grow to more than a foot off the ground by the bottom. Look for quarter pipes, buffalo bumps, and rainbows—the park crew changes it up when they can. Features are dispersed throughout the piste’s double-wide pitches, and even without them Red’s rolling terrain offers natural, parklike features that make for a fun run at any speed.
Follow the “Preride. Reride. Freeride.” philosophy to play it safe: inspect first, then hit some features straight up, then add in tricks, building up difficulty through repetition. And consider taking a lesson—it takes more than just nerve to land jumps safely. Instructors certified in freestyle skiing and snowboarding can generally progress a seasoned rider with no park experience to clearing jumps in Red’s Rover and spinning 180s in less than two days.
> Park Quest
Park riding quickly gets real, as the hits seamlessly transition from jumps intended to send you up to fifteen feet on upper Teaser to upward of thirty-five feet by the bottom of Spruce Park at the base area.
Follow Teaser over the Homestead Road bridge, and the park transitions into Uncle Chuck’s Glades. The run narrows and steepens as it plunges into a thick aspen grove, where a variety of metal-fabricated features—stairwells, cannons, cheese wedges, and wall rides—emerge as Chuck’s segues into Jacob’s Ladder halfway down. By the time Jacob’s reaches Spruce Flats at the start of the expert line, skilled riders can be sending twenty-five-foot jumps.
Exit stage right at Spruce Flats if you’re not ready to supersize your air. The X Games uses millions of gallons of water to sculpt its features, and it leaves all of that snow behind. After the Games, Buttermilk’s crew redistributes the big air jump to the skier’s left of the superpipe, shaping it into jumps intended for up to thirty-five feet of air.
Wanna ski like the big kids? After the X Games are gone, Buttermilk opens the twenty-two-foot superpipe and the last of the slopestyle jumps to the public. You—yes, you—can ski over (or likely around) the mega jumps that boost athletes sixty-five feet into the air. Only the handful of resorts in the world that host world-class freestyle competitions have courses this big—even the landers are freaky steep.
Survive, and you can ski almost up to the bar at Bumps for a little window-serviced après on the deck, which offers virtual gallery seating for all of Buttermilk’s X-large venues. And even after Buttermilk closes, X Games just keeps on giving. The “Buttermilk Glacier,” formed of the last remnants of slopestyle features, provides ample snow for kids’ snowsports programs well into the middle of summer.
> Pint-Size Parks
Buttermilk has park features even where it has no parks. During the X Games, the skicross/snowboardcross course runs down the middle of the mountain on Midway, then shoots across fairly flat terrain as it skirts the Summit Express before it drops down to Spruce Flats. After the thrill-seekers are gone, Buttermilk’s crew reshapes the snow there into miniature features such as banked S-turns and tiny rollers that even beginning riders can enjoy.
Until the X Games begin, snowmaking crews blow massive “whales” of snow on the Panda Peak beginner area, which basically serves as skiable snow storage for the snowmobile events. Afterward, Buttermilk’s groomers reshape the moto mess into a mini halfpipe that thrills little riders while helping them break out of their pizza-pie wedge stance.
> The Superpipe
“Parks and pipe.” The alliterative pair rolls off the tongue like some extreme side of peas and carrots. But even within this perfect marriage, the Buttermilk pipe stands alone. In the face of rises more than two stories tall, merely standing in the floor of the superpipe intimidates. Imagine Shaun White or Kelly Clark boosting another two stories above the lip, and it’s positively dizzying.
But don’t stop there; sample the pipe yourself. For a brief period between the X Games and construction of the equally awe-inspiring Red Bull Double Pipe, Buttermilk’s twenty-two-foot superpipe wants you to ... be careful, because this thing is huge.
“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” Mom used to ask. At Buttermilk, the answer is, “I already did. And I went bigger.”
Flatlanders, Start Here
Buttermilk is lower than the other mountains, and if you’re not used to the altitude that’s great news. Succumbing to altitude sickness can shave days off of your vacation, so even a seasoned skier who hasn’t been on skis in a while does well to take a day at Buttermilk to get used to the thin air—or, if the grandkids have lured you back to the slopes after a twenty-year hiatus, to adjust to the new equipment. Perfect grooming on wide-open cruisers, complemented by Mongolian barbecue and views of Aspen Highlands and Pyramid Peak at the top of the mountain, never fails to build confidence and inspire awe. Not a bad beginning.
Admit it. Back in your child-free days, you bought into that whole “Buttermilk is for beginners” nonsense. Now here you are, dropping the brood off at the Milk and looking for some thrills for yourself. Try these short, adventurous shots:
- From the top of the Summit Express, follow the liftline down Savio to where it widens at Savio Flats above Lover’s Lane. Stay high and right on Homestead Road as it skirts a knoll on the right. Look for three- to four-turn lines dropping down through rolling terrain in nicely spaced trees to Lover’s Lane on the left.
- In a good snow year, patrol will open the headwall to the skier’s right of Savio Flats, dropping down into Buckskin. The usually closed east-facing slope with a handful of natural terrain features needs a lot of snow to cover ski-grabbing bushes, but when the powder arrives, the off-piste headwall offers a few of the best beginner-black turns on the hill.
- Beyond those two, be your own guide. Instead of reading the map, practice reading terrain. Stand in the Tiehack parking lot, and look for the steep pitches on the hill. Look at the rolling topography of the whole mountain, not the cut ski runs. Pick the pitch you want, and seek it out—on or between the runs. At Buttermilk, finding the goods will have you feeling like a kid again.
Everyone has their favorite spot on a powder day, and Buttermilk’s Tiehack side has had plenty of devotees, especially since 2011 when a high-speed lift replaced two fixed-grip doubles, halving the ride time to the summit. But the real secret is the low-angle powder shots you’ll find at Buttermilk days after a big storm. Anyone who’s tried to ski greens on a powder day knows you don’t get anywhere without at least a little pitch. So anything ungroomed on West Buttermilk that isn’t steep enough to ski until several days after a blizzard likely won’t suffice.
If you’re seeking those stashes, head to the top of the Summit Express and dart into the trees to the skier’s left of the Teaser terrain park. Hold a hard left line in search of tiny rock drops between Teaser and Westward Ho. Or, once in the trees, head right down alternating hills and plateaus, where you can pick an untracked line through the loose aspens from the top of the Teaser park, across Homestead Road, and down through the trees to the left of Camp Bird, all the way to the bottom of the West Buttermilk lift.
Skiing without après just isn’t skiing. Poised at the base of Buttermilk, Bumps may look like your run-of-the-mill base area lodge, but it’s home to one of the best margaritas in the shadow of Aspen. Bartender Craig Witthoefst has been mixing up the fun at Buttermilk for fifteen years. He religiously loads the lift with patrol every morning and skis for two hours before clocking in behind the bar, where he’s been perfecting a hand-blended margarita, topped with fresh lime and Cointreau (try it with a splash of OJ), and a Bloody Mary stout enough to cure any hangover (or perhaps inspire one).
On the Up and Up
Buttermilk is a favorite with uphillers, day and night, and there’s no better time to take in the view from the top than under a full moon. (The early-morning crowd might beg to differ.) For the shortest route, skin or hike up the west side in less than an hour. Heading up main Buttermilk or Tiehack will take slightly longer.
Any which way you do it, be prepared for an altogether different experience from the daytime, lift-served one. Before the lifts open or after they close, the only sounds you hear are your own breath, the rhythmic clicking of boot on binding with each step, and the occasional squeak of really cold, freshly groomed snow. Sunrise or sunset unfolds like your own private show. You appreciate every undulation on the mountain, adjusting your pace accordingly, and thrill in the sense of accomplishment upon reaching the top. And, yes, turns you earn are that much sweeter.