Monday, February 07, 2011

Ski Trip to Aspen, Colorado

When my friend, Craig, invited me on his ski trip to Aspen, Colorado, I jumped at the opportunity. It has been five years since I have last been skiing and I've never been there. Since he was flying from his home in New Zealand, we met up last Saturday at the Denver Airport. After spending the night at the nearby Hyatt, we picked up our rental car at 6am for our drive over the Rocky Mountains. The sunrise greeted us with blue skies as we climbed the foothills outside Denver, illuminating the snowy peaks ahead. Crossing under the continental divide through the Eisenhower Tunnel (11,158'), we passed Vail and numerous other ski resorts on the western side of the Rockies.

Sunrise in the foothills of the Rockies.
My friend from New Zealand, Craig
View along Interstate 70
Sixteen miles outside Glenwood Springs, we entered the beautiful Glenwood Canyon. Carved by the Colorado River, steep canyon walls sprinkled with snow rose a thousand feet over our heads. Interstate 70 paralleled the river on an elevated roadway to protect the natural beauty. I had a frozen hand from sticking my camera out the window so many times to take pictures. We arrived at Snowmass at 11am. It is one of the four ski mountains around the town of Aspen, including Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and the original Aspen Mountain. The Winter X Games were wrapping up in Buttermilk that very day.

Elevated Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon
Thousand foot cliffs in Glenwood Canyon
Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon
We were staying in the Snowmass Village because Craig was attending an Anesthesia Conference. Conveniently, all the seminars were scheduled for the early morning and late afternoon, allowing him full days for skiing. Our place, Laurelwood, was in the Upper Village, right on the slopes and three streets above the mall with all the restaurants and shops. After checking in and picking up our skis, we were on the mountain before 1pm. After describing myself as a high-blue, low black-diamond skier, I almost fell on my first turn down the hill to the lift. How embarrassing!

Noah on his sofabed at Laurelwood
Craig is ready to ski Snowmass
The white bark of the Aspen Trees
Since Craig had only learned to ski last year and I had such a long lay off, we did a couple green runs off of the Elk Camp Gondola and Assay Hill to get our legs under us. Feeling more comfortable, we took the six-seat Village Express to the top of Sam's Knob (10,620') for some blue runs. We stayed on that side of the mountain for the rest of the day, only stopping for some hot chocolate at Sam's Smokehouse. It was a beautiful sunny day and there was a great view of the surrounding mountain ridges from the high-altitude restaurant. We skied until the lifts halted at 4pm.

Village Express lift to Sam's Knob.
Top of Village Express at Sam's Knob
Noah on Sunnyside
While Craig left for his evening seminar, I relaxed outside in the hot tubs right underneath our balcony. The smaller one was hotter but the other was the perfect temperature. When Craig got back at 7, we went for dinner at The Stew Pot. I was starving so I got a bowl of chili (the best) and the Old-Fashioned Beef Stew. They were delicious. Craig got the leg of lamb. After only two hours sleep the night before in Denver, both of us were ready to crash out by 8:30.

The Stew Pot in the Snowmass Mall
Chili at The Stew Pot
View from our Laurelwood Balcony
We woke up to heavy snowflakes and colder temperatures on Monday. After a few great runs from the top of Elk Camp (11,325'), I had to stop to put on some toe warmers. I wanted to try the off-piste Long Shot run, but I would have had to hike up to reach it and the visibility was very poor. We stayed at Elk Camp, exploring all the blue runs, until we stopped for a late lunch at Fuel. We did another long run from the top of Sam's Knob before stopping for the day. It was freezing! Craig has friends from Australia who have a house in Snowmass so we met them with several others for dinner at il Poggio, a fancy Italian restaurant. Craig's friend, Greg, called it the Commonwealth Dinner because everyone besides me was from New Zealand, Australia, Canada or South Africa. As an American, I was made an honorary member.

Noah on snowy trail off of Adam's Avenue.
Craig skiing down narrow trail off of Adam's Avenue
Major snow falling in the Snowmass Mall
The falling snow had almost stopped on Tuesday, but it was overcast and very cold with a high of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I made sure to add a third layer for warmth. We started the day going to the top of High Alpine (11,775') to ski the Green Cabin Run. I loved the fresh powder down the wide canyon, but Craig was exhausted trying to turn through it. He preferred the groomed runs so we split up until lunch so I could ski some more powder. I went to the top of Big Burn (11,835') and enjoyed the soft moguls of Sheer Bliss. Back up at Big Burn, I took the nutcracker lift that slowly pulled me up to the highest peak, The Cirque (12,510') where the sun slipped briefly through the clouds. I totally froze my nose on descent and had to warm it up with my scarf. After that, I covered my face with it for the rest of the week. Whenever I skied fast, it would freeze in the shape of my face.

Powder-filled Green Cabin at Snowmass
Craig about to go down his first ever Black Diamond run, Slot.
Campground Lift to Sam's Knob
After stopping for more delicious chili, I took Craig down his first Black Diamond run, Slot, over on Sam's Knob. It was steep but nicely groomed. I noticed that there were tons of people from all over the world working in Aspen. For dinner, I had a very tender steak at The Artisan in the Stoneview Hotel. It is further down the village so we were really short of breath on the hike back up the hill to our place.

The base of Aspen Mountain
Riding the Silver Queen Gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain.
Craig and Noah at Sundeck on the top of Aspen Mountain.
Wednesday was the coldest day of the week at zero degrees. It was nice and sunny once more, but the slopes were deserted as we skied down to the mall to take the free bus to Aspen Mountain. It is the original Aspen ski area that rises directly out of the town center and it is one of the tougher places with no green runs. We received some screwy directions on the bus and got a bit lost in Aspen locating the gondola. I had my first crash, slipping on the icy road in my ski boots. The Silver Queen Gondola was great, watching the town of Aspen shrink below us as we climbed all the way to Sundeck (11,212') at the top. Just outside the lift house, there were amazing views of the continental divide and the Highland Bowl at nearby Aspen Highlands.

Ruthie's Run, my favorite trail in Aspen.
Ice covered Aspens on Ruthie's Run.
Bottom section of Ruthie's Run at Aspen Mountain.
We stayed on the top quarter of the mountain for awhile, riding back up the short Ajax Express. We soon discovered one of my favorite trails of the entire week, Ruthie's Run, tilted with nice spots for building speed and great views. I exclaimed to Craig, "Isn't this amazing!" We skied it several times before heading down Magnifico Road to the Little Nell runs near the base of the mountain. I caught Craig on video in a nice wipe out as he shot past me. After a snack at Starbucks and some long distance tech support to my office back home, we headed back up the gondola to tackle our first black diamond on the mountain, FIS. Craig guessed that it stands for F**king Insane Slope.

The view of Aspen Highlands from the top of Aspen Mountain.
FIS Lift at Aspen Mountain
View of Ajax Express from FIS
Aspen has a unique shape with a narrow canyon, Spar Gulch, that runs down the center of the mountain to the base. It was fun, but icy in the afternoon shadows. Taking the gondola up one last time, we spent the rest of the afternoon near the top until the lifts closed. We were one of the last ones off the slopes. The other night at our Commonwealth Dinner, we met Victoria and her husband who own a cafe in the town called Victoria's. We stopped there for hot chocolate and a pastry after skiing. As we ate, Greg and his wife popped in as well. After taking the comfortable bus back to Snowmass, we relaxed in the hot tub where we were visited a couple times by a curious fox. We then went for a giant pizza at Taster's.

Copper run on Aspen Mountain
Silver Queen Gondola in the town of Aspen
Noah on the free bus back to Snowmass after a great day at Aspen Mountain
It warmed up for our final day of skiing on Thursday. With sunny skies we were able to see the beautiful scenery of Roaring Fork Valley beyond the peak of Elk Camp for the first time. I decided to hike up to Long Shot and meet up with Craig at the bottom of the 3.5 mile run in Creekside. I met two guys from Toronto on the 15 minute climb and we decided to stick together for safety reasons on the way down because we were the only ones on the isolated trail. It was great carving new tracks in the deep powder through the natural glades, but I started to regret skiing together about halfway down. This was their first day of skiing and I struggled to keep up, my legs worn out from five straight days. I was panting and sweating by the time I reached the Creekside lift.

Roaring Fork Valley
Hike up to Long Shot trail.
Picnic lunch up on the Snowmass slopes
After a picnic lunch (amazing cookies) on the mountain provided by Craig's conference, I took him to the top of The Cirque. On the way down, I decided to take a quick detour through Garrett Gulch, a black diamond run in a long narrow ravine. It looked fun at the top but it soon filled with huge exhausting moguls that really slowed me down. Worse, it popped out below the Big Burn lift where I was supposed to meet Craig and I had to hike back up a little ways. He had been worried when it took me so long to show up. We ended our last day at Sam's Knob, skiing the Black Diamond runs, Slot and Campgrounds.

The Cirque, the highest peak at Snowmass.
The entrance to Garrett Gulch, a narrow Black Diamond
Nasty moguls in Garrett Gulch at Snowmass
After returning our skis and relaxing in the hot tub, Craig and I went to the Aspen Airport to pick up the rental car and drive into town. We ate at the Hickory House. Everything was good, but their onion rings were the best I have ever eaten. I should have skipped the chocolate cake. I was so stuffed. The next morning, we woke up real early and got on the road to Denver by 4:30am. We made it back to the airport with an hour to spare for Craig's flight to Houston, but because of the Texas snowstorms, he had to take a flight to New York and missed his connection to Dubai where he had a nice room booked. I made it back to San Diego by 3:30 on Friday where Anna picked me up. An amazing trip!

Aspen at night.
Sunrise on the drive back to Denver over the Rocky Mountains.
Snowy Denver Airport
I had a busy weekend after I got home. I went wine tasting in Temecula on Saturday with Anna and her friends. It was in an area of Temecula, the DePortola Wine Trail, that I hadn't visited before. We started at Cougar Winery in the morning before going to Danza del Sol where we had lunch. Their 2008 Tempranillo (with it's hints of red licorice) was my favorite of the day. We ended up at the Robert Renzoni Vineyards where the friendly barman kept the girl's wineglasses full with extra pours. That night we had dinner at En Fuego with Anna's fellow law students. I ordered Chicken Mole for the first time. It had an interesting taste that I enjoyed, but I don't know if I will ever get it again.

Noah at Robert Renzoni Vineyard
Robert Renzoni Vineyard
On Sunday, we went to the Super Bowl Party at Suzie's house. It was great because she and a lot of her friends are from Wisconsin so we were all wearing Green & Gold and rooting for the Green Bay Packers. It was pretty wild when they won. There was so much food.

Super Bowl Party Spread
Greg Jennings celebrates Packers win!  He was on my Fantasy Team the last two years.

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