Snow Much Fun

Snowy Aspen Adventures

20 ways to enhance your skiing, challenge your fitness, and discover new thrills on the slopes and beyond.

By Todd Hartley and Cindy Hirschfeld Photography by Brent Moss February 21, 2019 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2019 issue of Aspen Sojourner

It could be as simple as trying a favorite activity at night or sliding a box in the terrain park, as adventurous as exploring Aspen Mountain’s most difficult terrain or going on a multiday ski mountaineering trip. Whatever your preference, we’ve got a challenge to push you past your comfort zone and broaden your experiences on snow. Now go out there and have fun! 


1. Get the perfect intro to hike-to skiing

Long ago an excursion only for locals in the know (which ended with skiing across the golf course to catch a bus back to the resort), Burnt Mountain at Snowmass is now readily accessible but still offers a sense of sidecountry adventure. If you’re at least a strong intermediate skier, make the 10- to 15-minute hike from the top of the Elk Camp chairlift to the summit of Burnt Mountain. Soak in the view, then shove off into the rolling, lightly treed terrain of Long Shot, one of the country’s lengthiest intermediate runs. You’ll feel miles from anywhere, but at the end you’ll wind up right at the Two Creeks lift.



2.Cross-country ski all the way to a classic vista

If you’re a goal-oriented Nordic skier and Aspen’s 60 miles of free cross-country trails aren’t motivation enough, park at T-Lazy 7 Ranch on Maroon Creek Road, where the plowing stops, and don your classic or skate skis. The ranch grooms the road for its snowmobile tours and puts in a classic track, too. (One caveat: you’ll pass some avalanche chutes.) At 6.1 miles each way and gently but persistently uphill, the lengthy round-trip “is a great workout because you still have to put in some effort on the way down,” says local Nordic enthusiast Cara Borchers, who skate-skis up in just over an hour (she’s fast—plan on closer to two). Your reward for the exertion? A spectacular view of the Maroon Bells, the pair of iconic 14,000-plus-foot peaks.


3.Venture into Snowmass’s extreme terrain

Ready to tackle Snowmass’s wildest side? For a good intro to the double-black-diamond terrain of the Hanging Valley Wall, hike for 10 minutes from the top of the High Alpine lift to the Wall. (Alternatively, ski over from the Cirque poma via the High Pass Traverse.) Head skier’s left to Roberto’s, a wide, steep couloir that spills out into consistently soft snow below the daunting chutes and cliffs of West 1 and West 2 (your someday goal). From there, weave among the trees of Frog Pond Glades before bearing right to reach the wall’s main face at Strawberry Patch, an open glade where hero turns can be had days after a storm.

4.Ride a mountain coaster—at night

If skiing doesn’t offer enough of a downhill thrill, head to Elk Camp at Snowmass for a session on the Breathtaker Alpine Coaster. The sleds (which are attached to rails) reach speeds of up to 28 miles per hour, but you’ll feel like you’re going faster than that as you turn and twist for more than a mile through the trees between Gunner’s View and Sandy Park. Daytime rides are exciting enough, but for an added thrill, bundle up and try it after sundown during weekly Ullr Nights on Fridays. We can’t promise it’ll take your breath away, but don’t be surprised if it does. $39–$54

5.Ski mountaineer in the Elks 

You’ve spent the winter honing your ski-mountaineering skills. Now it’s time to put them to the ultimate test on Aspen Expeditions’ new SkiMo Aspen Haute Route. Based on the guide company’s standard Aspen Haute Route trip, this grand endeavor encircles Taylor, Star, and Mace Peaks with overnights at the Opa’s Taylor, Friends, and Tagert huts. With an emphasis on climbing and skiing steep summits—including, if conditions permit, 14,279-foot Castle Peak—the trip is timed to take advantage of the consolidated late-spring snowpack, “which allows us to ski much bigger terrain,” says guide Sammy Podhurst. April 30–May 4, $2,500 per person

6.Bust out of the blues

 Take a lesson to move out of the intermediate rut. Sure, it’s an obvious suggestion, but the fear of not being good enough to ski more advanced terrain holds many people back. Says Jonathan Ballou, managing director of the Aspen Snowmass Ski and Snowboard Schools, “As long as you’re making parallel turns in varying radiuses, can handle pretty steep blue terrain, and have experience in intermediate bumps,” you’re more than ready for the transition to black-diamond runs. Clearly express your goal to your ski pro, and he or she will take care of the rest.

7.Experience the real Aspen Extreme 

Once you’ve mastered classic Ajax lines in areas like Bell Mountain, the Dumps, Walsh’s, and Jackpot, it’s time to push yourself on the proving ground of Traynor Ridge, which opens when there’s solid snow coverage. A small but mighty glade on the mountain’s western side, Traynor contains some of the steepest, most feature-filled terrain of our four ski areas—cliffs, pillow lines, hidden mine shafts, and pitches well above 40 degrees. For an introduction, head to T1, the longest, most easily accessed run, which packs a little bit of everything into an ultra-steep, rock-strewn chute that works its way around a massive mine cave-in.

8.Nordic ski by moonlight

Add a twist to cross-country skiing by kick and gliding under the full moon. The monthly Moonlit Treks at the Snowmass Cross Country Center, scheduled on Saturday nights closest to the full moon, feature a 1.2-mile course around the center’s groomed trails, with a stop along the way for hot cocoa and cookies at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. A naturalist from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies offers an optional tour at 6 p.m. Be sure to make reservations for the lively pasta dinner at Black Saddle Bar and Grille afterward, as it typically sells out. February 16, March 16

9.Backcountry ski from the top of Aspen Highlands 

Been tempted by the spectacular, easily-accessible backcountry terrain that falls off both sides of Highland Ridge? This avalanche-prone terrain is no place to venture into unawares, so go with a pro from Aspen Expeditions, the guide service that calls Highlands home. Day trips go into Maroon, Tonar, or Five Fingers bowls. These three behemoths—all approaching Highland Bowl in size—offer long, steep, untouched lines, but “the skiing is almost like a bonus,” says Podhurst. “Just going out the ridge, with its exposure and some rock scrambling, is such a cool adventure in itself.” $275–$600 per person



10.Ski through the skies

Looking for a way to really soar down the slopes? A tandem paraglide flight on skis with Aspen Paragliding is just the ticket. While the company’s standard foot-launch flights off Aspen Mountain are exhilarating, launching and landing on skis at Snowmass, which few resorts offer, is the even more thrilling way to go. “I call it the James Bond flight,” says Aspen Paragliding owner Alex Palmaz. You’ll take off from the top of Sam’s Knob for a 2,500-vertical-foot, roughly 10-minute flight to the base of either Fanny Hill or Campground. $250


11.Self-propel up Aspen Mountain

You’ve got skinning up Tiehack or to the Merry-Go-Round at Aspen Highlands down pat. The next uphill challenge? Aspen Mountain. But rather than having to wake up at dawn to make the summit by 9 a.m., sign up for America’s Uphill, the annual 2.5-mile, 3,267-vertical-foot race up the mountain. Dating to 1988, long before uphilling became trendy, the comp is a revered tradition that draws skiers using skins, snowshoers, and hikers wearing traction devices, so expect lots of fellow racers but not many breaks on the relentlessly steep trek up to the Sundeck. March 9, $40–$50

12. Snowcat ski on the back of Aspen Mountain

You don’t have to be an expert skier or rider to experience the sensation of floating through untracked powder. In order to enjoy the snowcat-served stashes on Aspen Mountain’s backside, “you should be able to link turns down the fall line with a pole plant and be comfortable on blues and easy blacks,” says Powder Tours manager Murray Cunningham. Most slopes are comparable to the pitch of Ruthie’s Run on Aspen Mountain, he adds. Rent a pair of powder skis (at least 105 mm underfoot), then get ready for about 10 runs in open bowls and glades, with time to rest your legs during lunch at a cozy backcountry cabin. $499 per person

13. Earn your turns—plus a gourmet breakfast

Follow co-proprietor Gwyn Knowlton’s example and skin up to Gwyn’s restaurant midmountain at Snowmass, then feel even better about indulging in dishes like eggs Benedict with trout smoked on-site, huevos rancheros with wild boar sausage, and perhaps a mimosa or two. Knowlton has been uphilling to work several times each week since she and George Gordon took over the restaurant in 1979—each trip is a vertical ascent of about 2,000 feet over 2.5 miles. From Base Village or the Snowmass Mall, head up Fanny Hill to Green Cabin to (appropriately enough) Coffee Pot. Breakfast is served from 9 to 10:30 a.m.

14. Uphill by the light of the moon

Time was when uphilling at Buttermilk under a full moon was a grassroots affair undertaken by groups of hardy souls. With the introduction three years ago of à la carte dinners at the Cliffhouse, with free hot chocolate around a firepit beforehand, popularity has soared. Tackle the approximately 1,600-foot-vertical climb from the base of Tiehack on skis with skins, snowshoes, or even hiking boots with traction devices; just be aware that you’ll have to descend by your own power, too. Bring a headlamp and dry layers to change into at the top. February 19, March 20


15. Hit a terrain park feature

Want to do more than just follow your kid through the terrain park? Jason Hartmann, snowboard program coordinator at Snowmass, shares a few tips for sliding a small box: Look ahead to the end of the box or just past it; looking down—a common tendency—may throw you off balance. Keep your skis or snowboard flat and going straight; “if you try to edge,” says Hartmann, “you’re going to slide out.” And if you feel yourself getting out of balance, just go with it and come off the box early. “When you fight it and try to stay on the feature is when you end up falling down,” Hartmann notes. Get more tips at the free Terrain Park Boot Camp, March 16–17 at Buttermilk and March 24–25 at Snowmass.

16. Discover the true backcountry

It’s hard to beat a hut trip for the pleasure of wilderness solitude and backcountry turns paired with the social camaraderie and cozy confines of a rustic log haven—as long as you’re willing to put in the sweat equity required to ski up a trail while wearing a backpack. Hut amenities include beds (bring a sleeping bag), kitchens, wood stoves and firewood, photovoltaic lights, and outhouses. For a first-time experience, either go with a group of knowledgeable friends experienced in backcountry travel and avalanche safety, or opt for a guide. Both Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions offer custom trips to huts near Aspen, including women-specific outings.

17. Take a run down the superpipe

Descending the icy, near-vertical walls of the superpipes at Buttermilk or Snowmass can be downright terrifying, even for otherwise experienced folk. Hartmann’s advice: Practice first outside of the terrain park on natural berms and walls around the mountain, then in the smaller half-pipes. “Build comfort with being perpendicular to the slope as you go up and come back down,” says Hartmann. Come time for the superpipe, control your speed through skidded turns low in the transition area between the bottom and walls (yes, the pros carve, and as a result, they go super fast). And follow etiquette. After the skier ahead of you goes, wait for at least a couple of turns before dropping in. 

18. Hike and ski Highland Bowl 

You’ve eyed the Bowl from the top of the Loge lift at Aspen Highlands; it holds some of the steepest lines at any Colorado ski area and requires a 30-minute to 1-hour bootpack to the summit. Before you go, keep in mind: a fall on a 40-plus-degree slope can mean a lo-o-ng slide if you don’t know how to self-arrest by getting your skis back below you and digging your pole and/or hand into the snow. Strap your skis or board to a backpack or buy a bowl strap at ski patrol HQ for the hike up. Wear a hat and carry your helmet to avoid overheating. Bring water. And there’s no shame in taking the free snowcat ride and shaving 10 to 15 minutes off the hike.

19. Go way past the roundabout

For some Aspenites, going to Snowmass is a major road trip. We challenge you to go farther, all the way to Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs. The old-school vibe is refreshing—there’s not a high-speed lift in sight, no on-mountain dining other than a food truck up top, and only a cafeteria/bar and a rental shop at the base. What you will find: 680 acres of skiing (the same size as Aspen Mountain), gladed powder stashes, an inspiring view of Mount Sopris from the summit, and the Heathen, one of Colorado’s steepest runs with a pitch of 52 degrees. Did we mention $65 lift tickets and free parking?

20. Ski all four mountains in a day

No, we don’t mean the Power of Four, the annual endurance race in which competitors climb and ski the four ski areas. The more realistic version for most of us involves getting in a few runs at each mountain, starting at Snowmass and working over to Aspen, riding the free shuttles in between. From early March on, Aspen Mountain lifts spin until 6 p.m. on Fridays, giving you an even larger time window. And if you can’t help but compete, sign up for the Helly Hansen 4 Mtn Mission (from $50 ) on March 17; teams of two or more undertake an adventurous scavenger hunt across all four mountains.

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