Aspen marks 50 years of skiing Original: Some extraordinary mountains with efficient lifts and varied runs maintain the city's status as a prime winter resort.

November 17, 1996|By Susan Kaye | Susan Kaye,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The upstart resort called Vail on the other side of the Sawatch Mountains is stealing headlines with its massive buyout of Breckenridge and Keystone.

Overnight, Aspen, Colo. -- the grande dame of Western ski resorts -- is the little guy on the block.

But before Vail was even a gleam in a developer's eye, Aspen had a star-studded following that raved about its extraordinary ski mountain and the eccentric town at its base.

This winter, Aspen celebrates its 50th year as a ski resort. There will be parties, parades, fireworks and hoopla. But for most visitors, a winter vacation in Aspen is about skiing and the dazzling array of apres-ski choices.

In 1946, Aspen opened two single-chair lifts that climbed to the 11,212-foot summit of Aspen Mountain. Overnight, Aspen claimed both the world's longest lift system and the world's longest vertical rise.

Three years later, the ski company had the temerity to play host to the most prestigious ski races in the world, the International Ski Federation championships. As the first North American venue for this world-class event, Aspen acquired an international reputation.

No matter that it was another 12 years before the streets got paved. Or that the only hotel doubled as a boarding house where bunk rooms went for $1 a night.

Aspen had a cachet even then -- it was remote, beautiful, upbeat and just a little wacky. Before long, the Hollywood legends -- Gary Cooper, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and John Wayne -- were skiing Aspen's steep runs and drinking Aspen crud (a milkshake laced with bourbon) with the locals in the J-Bar of the Hotel Jerome.

Over the years, Aspen's rough edges have been smoothed over. But the town still pulls in the high-fliers. During Christmas, more than 100 private jets a day land at Sardy Field and paparazzi hover by the gondola for a snap of Ivana or a Saudi prince.

But beneath the tabloid hype, the mystique lingers. Aspen is a postcard-perfect Victorian whose ski runs careen to the doorstep of its seductive hotels and to streets lined with first-class watering holes.

Without question, it's North America's most sophisticated mountain town, with free evening lectures by visiting senators; concerts by world-famous musicians in a new multimillion-dollar facility; and movies in an extravagant hundred-year-old opera house. Along with more than 50 art galleries, Aspen has its own art museum.

Take it or leave it

But, like the celebrity scene, the sophistication is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Most vacationers skip most of it, concentrating on magnificent skiing and uptown dining.

Aspen celebrates the outdoors on four separate ski mountains, each with its own personality. Plus, there's the fifth mountain: 48 miles of cross-country trails -- the country's largest free system -- feathered between Aspen and Snowmass Village.

Aspen Mountain, locally called Ajax, isn't for the timid. The chutes, gullies and ravines skewering this 630-acre playground at the town's back door leave no room for easy "green" trails. Experts thrive here.

But there is more to Aspen than black diamond trials.

As ski company executive Fred Smith says, "Skiing Aspen Mountain has always been as much of a social experience as a ski experience."

And it's definitely a place to dress in the latest high-fashion ski outfits. Two major skiwear companies have their headquarters here, including Sport Obermeyer, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter.

Over the years, founder Klaus Obermeyer has heralded nearly a dozen ski-industry firsts that skiers now take for granted: Goosedown parkas, quilted parkas, American-made turtlenecks, mirrored sunglasses and nylon wind shirts were all pioneered by Obermeyer.

Aspenites dress well and eat well. Since opening two years ago, the town favorite has been the Ajax Tavern, at the base of the gondola. Chef Nick Morfogen, honored this summer as one of America's top young chefs, is known for his innovative alpine-bistro cuisine.

Four blocks away on Main Street, the Hotel Jerome remains as tony an address as it was 100 years ago. Before Aspen's streets were paved in the early '60s, people skied right through town to the Jerome on Main Street, since it served as the first headquarters for the ski company. This year, look for the Jerome's new corner library for sophisticated apres-ski and chef Todd Slossberg's entrees in the ornate Century Room.

Aspen Highlands, a 10-minute free shuttle ride from town, was acquired by Aspen Skiing Co. three years ago. Its rickety lifts were promptly replaced by two high-speed quad chairs, a move that cut the ride to the top by half and doubled the number of skier visits. As is the case at Aspen Mountain, there's plenty of intermediate skiing, but hiding in the trees are gut-wrenching runs with confidence-shattering names like Temerity and Twilight Zone.

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