“This had to be the most perfect day ever to ski Buttermilk,” laughed my husband as we walked back to our car at the end of our ski day. “Deep powder and no crowds,” he crowed. “This may have been my best ski day ever!”
I will admit it. Our expectations for Buttermilk were low. Having driven by Buttermilk countless times, our experience was limited to skinning up Tiehack on our teleskis and then skiing one run down. We thought of Buttermilk as the “beginner” mountain and had really never seen a reason to ski there. Yes, the Buttermilk map shows the entire panoply of runs –green, blue and black — but we just weren’t tempted.
Powder, Powder Everywhere
When we awoke on Sunday, light, dry snow was piling up everywhere. Our boys couldn’t stand it. We were staying only two blocks from the Aspen Mountain gondola and we quickly recognized that in order to preserve parental sanity, we just needed to let them go in search of first tracks. So, off they went to Ajax and off we went to Buttermilk.
We didn’t have an instructor with us on Sunday, but we did have a guide, a local ski mom. Feeling guilty that she was missing a powder day, I immediately apologized for taking her away from her family and the delights of one of the other mountains. Laughing me off, she explained that her kids had learned to ski at Buttermilk, that she really enjoys skiing at Buttermilk and that there would be plenty of first tracks and fresh lines all day long at Buttermilk. Mind you, it was already 9:30.
She didn’t lie. Moms don’t. There were first tracks galore and the snow kept pounding down all day. Every run was fresh. She took us over to the advanced part of the mountain, which is served by the Tiehack chair. While there are some broad, advanced groomers in this area, the real draw is the glades. On a powder day, these glades were perfection. Neither super tight, nor super steep, the combination of the snow and the terrain made us into superstars and heroes. The other five people skiing Tiehack must have felt the same, because while we never saw anyone else, we did, from time to time hear happy whooping noises.
And I am not exaggerating when I say five other people. Well, perhaps there were six, or maybe seven, but for all intents and purposes, we had Tiehack to ourselves. While the powderhounds were rushing to cut up the other mountains, we had all the time in the world to choose our lines. The powder was for the taking. While we might not have friends on a powder at any other mountain in Colorado, at Buttermilk there was no need to rush.
A Perfect Place to Learn to Ski or Ride
Actually, it is hard to rush at Tiehack. Each ride up probably takes about 15 minutes, which gave my ski mom guide and me plenty of time to chat. I was curious as to why she and her husband chose the Buttermilk ski school over the Snowmass ski school when their children were learning. “Easy,” she answered. “Location. From our house, it was easy to get to Buttermilk and after I dropped them off, I could go to Ajax.”
Then she pointed out that the mountain offers a perfect progression for learning to ski. The youngest skiers start at the Powder Panda House at the base area. There is a magic carpet in this area as well as the Panda Peak beginner lift. After the kids have mastered Panda-land, they can ride to the top on the Summit Express and from there find green runs all the way to the base or over in the West Buttermilk area. Intermediate runs are found off of all three main lifts, with black runs mostly limited to Tiehack. She easily convinced me that Buttermilk is a great place to learn, for kids and adults alike.
Over on the main part of the mountain we saw quite a few instructors and students on Sunday. The classes were either private, or tiny, maybe two, maybe three students per pro. While there were more people skiing the Summit Express area than skiing Tiehack, it still wasn’t crowded and the runs were wide-open. There was no chance of anyone getting run over or run into by anyone, because for the most part the slopes were empty. Again, perfect for learning.
So far this morning, I had learned a lot. I had learned that on a powder day, Tiehack is near perfection. I had learned that Buttermilk deserves its reputation as a great learn-to-ski/ride mountain for locals and visitors alike. If I were coming to Aspen, staying in Aspen and hoping to put my kids in ski school, I would look no further than Buttermilk and it would be a fine choice.
Park and Pipe: Buttermilk’s Extreme Terrain
By now we had covered most of the mountain, with one glaring omission: The terrain parks. For the past decade or so, skiing and riding have undeniably pushed the limits of sanity in the name of adrenaline. I am guilty of seeking the rush, just like everyone else. But while many mountains have expanded and opened previously closed sections in order to provide extreme terrain, gentle Buttermilk has gone the other way and created its own extremes in its parks and pipes.
With X Games 15 approaching in two weeks, the Buttermilk base was a hive of activity with construction crews erecting scaffolding for media towers, jumbotrons and the like. Snowmaking was constant, as was the roar of snowcats pushing snow into the giant piles needed to create massive kickers and goodness-only-knows what other features. The main Buttermilk park was closed in preparation for the X Games, but the small park and the medium park were open, although covered in snow.
According to our guide, Buttermilk isn’t always empty. When the weather is clear and the parks are open, she told us that her kids love the parks and that the parks, too, have a natural progression. Each park is one continuous run, so it is easy to do laps. For most mere mortals, the park with medium features off of West Buttermilk Express would be the best. The features are decent-sized, but not mondo-sized, perfect for honing and developing skills. West Buttermilk Express also has midway loading right at the base of the park, so no time is wasted between laps. If you don’t want to get on at midway, the best way to the lift base is along a really fun, bump run called Lower Larkspur. Parents can accompany their kids to the park and either work on their own skills, ski alongside the features or duck in and out of the glades. Despite the heavy snow, my husband and I both tried a medium kicker. It was fun and the landing was powder soft. Not good for X Game-type pros, but perfect for us too-old-to-be-cool parents.
After lunch, our boys took the bus from Aspen over to Buttermilk. We skied a bunch of glades together and stayed a full hour later than we had planned. We were having that much fun learning Buttermilk, the perfect learning mountain.
As for the Yin and the Yang, we definitely had a Yin-Yang weekend. Blue skies to deep powder, warm sun to thick fog, the extreme natural terrain of Highlands Bowls to the extreme man-made terrain of the Buttermilk park: Wholly opposite, yet wholly complementary.
When You Go…..
Tickets, Ski School and Other Information
The best way to buy tickets for any of the four Aspen/Snowmass resorts is online at the Aspen/Snowmass website. Planning ahead and purchasing at least seven days in advance will save you 10% on your tickets. Same with ski school. Book at least 7 days in advance and you’ll save 10% over the walk-up rate. For more information on tickets, as well as discounts available with rentals and lessons, please visit the Aspen/Snowmass website.
There is a wealth of lodging options in Aspen, from condos to hotels to single-family homes. A good resource for narrowing down your choices and finding exactly what you want is the Aspen/Snowmass website. You can also find lodging information at stayaspensnowmass.com.
We have had good luck over the years with the Aspen Mountain Chalet, which includes a big, hot breakfast and has a great outdoor pool and indoor hot tub, as well as a stellar location. Our family has also been quite comfortable at the Molly Gibson. If you are going sans kids, the Hotel Lenado is lovely and their breakfast is divine. If you want nearly ski-in, ski-out accommodations at either Buttermilk or Aspen Highlands, you could check out the Inn at Aspen at Buttermilk or the Ritz-Carlton at Highlands.
Regarding restaurants, the choices are unlimited. We had lunch on-mountain at The Merry Go Round at Highlands and the Cliffhouse at the top of Buttermilk. Both had many tasty offerings and we didn’t break the bank. We were at a condo on this trip so we ate in at night with provisions from the centrally-located City Market. On other trips, we have found Brunelleschi’s Dome Pizza (Italian, not just pizza) and the Cantina (Mexican) to be quite family friendly and reasonable. New York Pizza, located on the Aspen pedestrian mall in a second-story location, has the best cheap eats we’ve found and we’re proud to say we once fed all four of us for $16.00 including a buck in the tip jar.
The one “splurge” my husband and I did indulge in was a night out at 39 Degrees, the bar at the Sky Hotel. The cocktail menu is creative and fun, the atmosphere is modern and warm with a roaring fire. It made for a nice date. Again, a Yin and a Yang: The family ski weekend and a date night rolled into one.
Portions of this post were originally published at The Denver Post’s Mile High Mamas on January 13, 2011 and Club Colorado: Ski and Ride Like A Local, the Colorado Ski Country USA blog.
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