Not Your 80’s Snowmass
Way back in the previous century, I took my first runs on a huge mountain not far from Aspen called Snowmass. I loved it instantly. I love it still. But it’s not your ‘80s Snowmass anymore. The sleeping giant has awakened.
In earlier years, I was excited each time the mountain came into view from the small plane bringing me from Denver. It looked inviting, less difficult than the Aspen slopes. One central face had runs carved to resemble an enormous aspen leaf. Another was an expanse that seemed to have only a few trees.
I made my way there as soon as I could. The free skier bus from Aspen dropped us at a pleasant mall surrounded lined with eateries and a few retail stores, There were loads of slopeside condos and some moderately priced hotels. Across the road were still more condos.
Once we clicked into our skis I discovered a seemingly endless dominion of beautifully groomed intermediate runs. The lifts were slow, so it took several days to explore the whole mountain.
That area with few trees? It turned out to be the Big Burn. Its chairlift might have been slow, but its runs were express lanes, including one to this day called Dallas Freeway. The Burn was a busy place, beloved by generations of intermediate skiers whom the flowing groomed runs felt like a safe space. As l became a better skier, I discovered the chutes off the High Alpine chair, and scared myself half to death trying to master them.
One year, my friends and I stayed at the Stonebridge a pleasant hotel not too far from the mall. There were not many memorable places to eat, but I loved having the slopes right at our ski tips. The day we were due to leave, a snowstorm forced cancellation of our flight out. Rather than ski, I visited a real estate office
I wound up buying one with a friend, located across the Brush Creek Road. We called it walk-in walk-out, because you could hike across the road on a pedestrian bridge to the lonely lift at the bottom of Assay Hill.
Having opened in 1967, Snowmass still had a feeling of being unfinished. When I began my summer visits the area was sleepy, except for interesting art shows at the Anderson Ranch complex in the valley, and the times that the Gold Wings, a Honda motorcycle club, took over most of the condos.
Fast forward to now: The mountain is the same, yet totally different. The lift system has been reconfigured to spread people around; lift lines are just about nonexistent. A gondola has been added to speed skiers from that base to Elk Camp, while a six-seat high speed lift leads others in the opposite direction, beyond Fanny Hill all the way to Sam’s Knob, which leads to the Burn, an underused area called Coney Glade and the tough Campgrounds slopes.. Either way, skiers are up the hill in a jiffy.
As Rose Abello, the new head of Snowmass Tourism, told me, the gondola/six-pack combo has “virtually expanded the mountain by redistributing skiers to the east and the west.” The Burn may have a Freeway, but it is amazingly uncrowded for much of the day.
Snowmass is well named: So massive, it still takes days to explore all of it on skis, but it has not forgotten those of us corduroy lovers who can cruise forever, starting over 11,800 feet at the top of the Burn to a chair or the gondola – even higher when you catch the Cirque surface lift.
I may not do the double-blacks any more, but others do – when there is enough snow, head for the Cirque and/or the headwall. For bumps, High Alpine and Campgrounds are the moguls of choice
Although the mall remains, there is now a “base village” at the confluence of the new gondola and six-pack chair. The Viceroy, a world-class luxury hotel, anchors one edge of Base Village. There are casual restaurant and condos in the Base Village as well. That’s the area that seems unfinished now.
Forty years after I first “discovered” it, Snowmass has grown up; it is Vail without the pretensions, Whistler without the fog. Multimillion-dollar homes dot the slopes. Many of the older condos like the one I used to own across the road have been refurbished or turned into employee housing. The corps of instructors is among the finest in the area. Children get especially good lessons here.
This winter I sampled the pleasures of the Viceroy for a few days. Opened in 2009 in the depths of the recession, it is the best thing to happen to Snowmass since woolly mammoths roamed the neighborhood back in the Pleistocene era. (More about that in a moment.) At last, this wonderful mountain is home to a five-star property. The helpful, friendly and efficient staff does everything except sleep & ski for you. I loved every minute of my stay and I wanted to steal the sheets from the bed. My only request was for a regular coffeemaker in the kitchen area; standard issue is an espresso machine.
Friends took me to dinner at its restaurant, 8K – it was excellent. It is a reason to drive from Aspen to Snowmass in the evening, rather than vice(roy) versa… there has not been a grand food destination like it in Snowmass since Chez Grandmere 30 years ago. There are other dining choices both on the hill (Gwen’s High Alpine remains the gold standard) and on the Snowmass mall, including Il Poggio, an outpost of fine Italian food for dozens of years.
Summer in Snowmass now is a busy destination for mountain bikers, wildflower enthusiasts and hikers. There are free Thursday night pop and jazz concerts on Fanny Hill and a special fun-zone up at Elk Camp – trampolines, climbing wall and outdoor dining.
Once upon a time, woolly mammoths really did roam this region; in 2010 the so-called Snowmastodon, the fossilized bones of an Ice Age creature, were unearthed by a construction crew digging a new reservoir. The bones have been moved to a Denver museum; a site on the mall explains its significance, although the actual discovery site has been filled in.
In less than two years, Snowmass will celebrate 50 years as a resort. One thing I’ll say about that Snowmastodon: it sure had great taste.