In the know: Tips to ski, board like a local in Aspen
ASPEN — If you’ve ever lived in a ski town, you understand the appeal of being “a local.”
Whether it’s knowing where to find the best powder, the shortest lift lines or simply the most-filling and affordable breakfast, knowing your way around the town and the ski area certainly has its benefits.
But what about us, those who don’t live in a ski town but visit (or adopt) ski towns regularly throughout the season? Where do we turn for advice and insider information?
Hint: Ask a local.
For this week’s feature on Aspen we cornered Meredith McKee, a four-year veteran of Glitter Gulch lifestyle and public relations manager for the Aspen Skiing Co., usually referred to by the townies as SkiCo.
McKee grew up in Colorado, skiing at Winter Park, Copper and other resorts before finding her current niche at Aspen. Her PR position gives her insight into where the locals go, sometimes better than the locals.
“There’s so much going on, there’s always something for everyone,” McKee said. “We’re so close for you guys in Grand Junction, it’s like you’re all locals, anyway.”
Aspen skiing includes Snowmass (opens Thursday), Aspen Highlands (opens Dec. 11), Buttermilk (opens Dec. 11) and Aspen Mountain (opens Thursday), which often, although not officially, is called Ajax by the locals.
“Snowmass has something for everyone,” asserts McKee, and she’s right.
From the cruiser runs on the Big Burn to the lingering powder stashes on the Hanging Valley headwall, skiers of all abilities will find something to their liking.
Free tours: To get the real flavor of this expansive — 91 trails on 3,132 skiable acres — terrain, McKee suggested finding one of the area’s skiing ambassadors and take the free orientation tour.
Ambassadors, long-time locals with an answer for just about any question, are found at any base area wearing the company uniform and a big smile.
“They’re the way to get a real insider’s track on the best snow,” McKee said. “I suggest taking a tour to find out where the good spots are and then go out on your own for the rest of the day.”
Starting off: Skiers of any level can take the Village Express or the Elk Camp gondola out of the base area and from there head off to their own version of paradise.
Parents seeking a get-away ski day can drop off the younger skiers at the Tree House Kids’ Adventure Center at the base area, then head up mountain.
Terrain: McKee suggests hitting Sneaky’s Glades off the top of the Big Burn lift. Families can split up to either duck through the trees or hit the powder and meet again at the end of the run.
Most of the Big Burn area is mixed intermediate, while experts can hike into the East Cirque or the Hanging Valley area off the High Alpine lift.
Lunch: Try the newly remodeled Ullrhof restaurant, under the direction of Jim Butchart, executive chef for the Ajax Tavern and known for his fabulous burgers.
Sneaky’s Tavern, in the base area near the Village Express lift, offers bistro-style dining with affordable lunches and apres ski.
Parking: The free Rodeo Lot has regular shuttle service to the base area.
The late Whip Jones, ski industry maverick and founder of Aspen Highlands, would be pleased to see that his ski area — 119 trails, 1,029 acres of skiable terrain — still is the locals’ favorite.
“That hasn’t changed at all,” McKee said. “When you get to Highlands, it’s not about anything but the skiing.”
Powderhounds: Follow the locals up into the expert-only expanses of Highlands Bowl.
“I was so intimidated when I first moved here because you have to be able to hike and ski double-black runs,” McKee said.
Tours: The Highlands Ambassadors offer free tours of the bowl at 11 a.m. every day.
“Follow them to see how it’s done,” McKee advised.
Quick fill-up: Before hitting the bowl, warm up with free hot chocolate and a granola bar at the top of the Exhibition lift.
“That’s a real local’s secret,” McKee said. “When the powder’s really good, you sometimes just skip breakfast and munch on a granola bar and hot chocolate.”
Groomers: Jump on the Thunderbowl Lift for the cruiser runs of Thunderbowl, Golden Horn and Smuggler.
Freebie Wednesday: Wednesday is locals day at Highlands, with free parking, free muffins at the base area and free hotdogs at the base of the expert-rated Steep Temerity lift.
Parking: Limited at Highlands, but plenty of free space at the base of Buttermilk. A free shuttle runs every 30 minutes.
With a reputation for its gently rolling terrain, Buttermilk — 44 trails, 470 acres — also known as the home of the Winter X Games.
“Lots of families and beginners start at Buttermilk,” McKee said. “And a lot of the local kids are at the (terrain) park every day” trying out the Olympic-size half-pipe.
New this year: A bridge separates the terrain park from the beginner area, where skiers enjoy well-groomed trails winding through the trees.
Powderhounds: In-the-know locals skip the other resorts and head to the Tiehack side of the mountain, with its untouched powder and unmatched views of the Maroon Bells.
Lunch: Try the Cliff House with its Mongolian barbecue at the top of the Summit Express.
If there’s one thing to know about Aspen Mountain — 76 trails, 675 acres — it’s that it is not for beginners.
“Nope, no beginner terrain here,” McKee said. “On powder days you go to Aspen Mountain to ride the (Silver Queen) gondola up, ski until your legs quit and ride the gondola back down.”
iPod outlets: This year, each fifth gondola (the red ones) has an iPod docking station so you can listen to your favorite tunes while enjoying the scenery.
Powderhounds: Take your pick, but first off, make tracks to Walsh’s off the top of the Silver Queen.
“It’s worth it to wait until the ski patrol drops the rope,” McKee said.
And if you can’t wait, head over to Belle Mountain, with access to the Ajax Express and FIS lifts and another ride up.
Groomers: There are plenty of groomer runs under Ruthie’s Chair, which drops you off near Bonnie’s restaurant, considered THE place for a late breakfast after catching those first powder runs.
Parking: Pay parking is found around town, including the covered city parking facility.
Information, ski tips and trail maps for all Aspen resorts are available at http://www.aspensnowmass.com.