Generally, I hold two truths about early season skiing to be self-evident. First, the conditions may be iffy. Second, my legs are going to hurt.
Nothwithstanding the October openings of Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, ski season on Colorado’s Western Slope doesn’t get underway until Thanksgiving. At Aspen, the season kicks off with the Women’s Winternational World Cup race and, some years, with not a lot of snow. This year is special. La Nina is blessing Colorado’s Northern and Central Mountains.
Our family has a longstanding love affair with Aspen Mountain and while it is not always the first mountain we ski in any given season (this year, Beaver Creek was first and also had great snow), it is always our first choice among the four fine Aspen/Snowmass ski areas. Not that we don’t enjoy the other Aspen mountains, it is just that the season can’t really begin until we’ve worn ourselves out silly doing laps off the gondola.
We made plans a couple of weeks ago that December 11 would be our first day at Aspen. Then the weather turned freakishly warm. It also turned dry. After some good November snows, the first week of December was pretty much a bust. We were starting to have some second thoughts.
All I can say is thank goodness we didn’t stay home. Saturday at Ajax was simply incredible. We awoke to a report of seven inches of new snow, with 10 inches in the past 48 hours. When we got on the mountain, I would have sworn there was a foot of brand-new powder.
The top of Aspen Mountain almost always skis well. It is the lower runs, especially those providing access off of the mountain which can give you trouble. Up on top, the skiing was of mid-winter quality, lots of fresh, not a lot of people, and the steeps off of Bell Mountain and Gentlemen’s Ridge were gorgeous. Light, dry, fluffy, rock-covering snow abounded.
Down low, the almost-always-icy Copper Bowl, Kleenex Corner and Little Nell were soft, at least in the morning. By afternoon, there were achieving a certain familiar hockey-rink quality, but I have skied them when they were a lot worse.
Franklin’s Dump, a double-black alternative to Upper Little Nell, was showing some rock and a lot of twigs, but was still skiable and enjoyable. As we watched a friend get tripped up on a twig, my husband solemnly (and obviously) intoned to our former ski racing sons, “those twigs are not breakaway.” (Eyerolls and perhaps an unspoken “whatever” ensued. Still, we know our teenage and pre-teen son love us. We take them skiing.)
But really, who can complain about a few twigs or a little ice? This was only December 11! While we kept saying to ourselves, “This snow is incredible. These conditions are excellent” we don’t have as much perspective as the locals do. In the afternoon, we met up with a good friend, who is also a Roaring Fork valley native. He confirmed that he had never skied snow so good, so early.
So thank you La Nina! Or maybe Santa Claus, bringing us a Christmas gift two weeks early. Whoever it was, we loved it. Keep it coming. In another couple of weeks, my legs won’t hurt and we’ll be skiing ’til 4:00.
When You Go….
In my opinion, there is never a bad time to ski Ajax (the name of the mountain, Aspen Mountain being the name of the ski area). Go early season, go peak season, go late season, but make sure you go.
That being said, Aspen Mountain is not for everyone, especially for families with beginning or tentative skiers. There is no green (beginner) terrain on Ajax. It is all blue (intermediate), black (advanced) or double black (expert). And these distinctions have not been dumbed down to flatter anyone’s ego. If it says it is an expert run, then it is an expert run.
And while the individual runs may not look long, by the time you’ve put together a combo such as Kristi to Gentlemen’s Ridge to Jackpot and down to the base, you’ve skied the entire 3,267 vertical feet. With no lift lines and only a 14 minute gondola ride from bottom to top, put several combos such as that together, go for it all day, and you’ll be in for one of the more challenging and fun ski days of your life.
For families with intermediate skiers, there are some excellent runs off of Ajax Express and Ruthie’s, both high-speed lifts. For families with mixed ability, I recommend Ajax Express. Those seeking more challenge can ski Sunrise/Sunset or Hanging Tree on the frontside of Bell Mountain (just make sure you cut back to skiers’ left and drop down before you’ve passed the Ajax Express liftline maze) and meet up with their intermediate loved ones.
The Gent’s Ridge chair is also a great alternative for families with mixed abilities. While a bit slow, this chair offers challenging terrain at the top with Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi putting your steep skills to the test while again allowing you to meet up with everyone else, who maybe skied Northstar or Copper, in the lift line.
As I stated above, coming down at the end of the day is Aspen’s Achilles Heel. While the mountain is rarely crowded, on peak weekends or holidays, with two-thirds of the mountain funneling down into Kleenex Corner, Little Nell (ice and all) can begin to resemble rush hour traffic in some far away city.
Luckily, there are a couple of alternatives. If you are worn out, or maybe too relaxed from a long lunch at The Sundeck, you can take the gondola down. Last-ride-down times are posted, so plan accordingly. If you miss the last ride, you’ll be skiing.
Another alternative is to ski the Ruthie’s and Shadow Mountain lifts in the afternoon. If you’ve been skiing the frontside of the mountain all day, you can access Ruthie’s via the short FIS lift. The Mine Dumps off of FIS are great expert runs in their own right.
Once you are on the Ruthie’s side, you can take a blue run, Strawpile to the Shadow Mountain base. Summer Road, also off of Ruthie’s will take you clear back to the gondola base via Lower Little Nell. If you end up at Kleenex Corner and don’t want to deal with Upper Little Nell take the Tower Ten Road across and end your day only two blocks away from the gondola base.
Because even though Aspen Mountain skis like a big mountain, it isn’t and everything is close.
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