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ASPEN Inside and Out : Inside

On the resort's 50th anniversary, a local expert explains how to avoid lift lines and save money

December 08, 1996|GRACE LICHTENSTEIN | Lichtenstein, a former Rocky Mountains bureau chief for the New York Times, is an editor for the World Wide Web search engine Excite

ASPEN, Colo. — Contrary to what you might have heard, you do not need to stay in a $300-a-night hotel to ski Aspen. Nor must you own a $2-million chalet with sheiks for neighbors. Nor do you have to hire a private ski school escort on the slopes for a zillion yen an hour.

It is true that you might run into Jack Nicholson on a lift line. Or Martina Navratilova. Or David Robinson. Is that so awful?

Aspen does attract celebs the way mountains attract snow. It has been so, ever since the resort, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, cranked up its first chairlift in 1947. But the "glitz" label that magazines (whose owners have houses next to sheiks in Aspen) love to slap on the Colorado resort belies the fact that thousands of ordinary ski-happy Joes and Janes can have a great time there without borrowing from their 401(k)s.

I should know. I've been skiing Aspen for 24 years. Before I finally bought a teensy condo with a friend in the low-rent district of Snowmass Village, nine miles away, I stayed in a score of inexpensive condos or motel rooms, usually on package deals. You can do the same this winter, at prices that begin at $430 for seven nights' lodging and six days worth of lift tickets. That's about what you'd pay in Steamboat or Breckenridge, two other popular Colorado resorts. The difference is you've got a choice of four mountains in the Aspen area and you never have to ski the same run twice.

Moreover, there are secret ways to get the most out of an Aspen holiday that we regulars have kept close to our Polarfleece vests. At the risk of generating a lot of extra company this winter, here are a few of them:

* Come when the crowds don't: Almost every year my housemate and I spend a week skiing before the Christmas crowds begin to arrive Dec. 21 or right after they leave, around Jan. 4. The lift tickets are cheaper--$39 per day until Dec. 13, instead of the standard $56 per day--and lodging (for those without a teensy condo) always is. Room rates are as much as 40% lower before Dec. 20 and after March 22, and 30% lower in January. Package prices are about 30% lower than they are in the February-March high season.

Sure, the days are short, but you really don't want to ski your buns off the first few days at THAT altitude anyway. The air in early December and in January is a bit nippier than in March, but it's rarely frostbite cold. And the mountains are refreshingly empty.

Even in February and March there's no need to stand for more than five minutes in a lift line, even on Aspen Mountain. Popularly known as Ajax, this is the most famous of the four ski areas that comprise Aspen. It's the oldest, and the one with the steepest pitch. There are no green (easy) runs on Ajax, which rises directly above the town floor.

A 10-minute bus ride from the center of town alongside Maroon Creek is Aspen Highlands, the least-trafficked area (for more on Aspen Highlands, see the accompanying story). A 10-minute bus ride along the main drag, Highway 82, lies Buttermilk, the gentlest and lowest (the summit is at 9,990 feet) of the four. A 20-minute bus ride lands you at Snowmass, the largest in terms of acreage and the highest (the summit is at 12,310).

The Silver Queen gondola, which speeds you 3,267 feet to the top of the 11,212-foot Ajax in 14 minutes, is crowded from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Start your day earlier or later, or take the slow, scenic route up the hill via chairlift 1-A, a few blocks away. There is occasionally a crowd at the base of Lift 3, a high-speed quad right smack in the middle of Ajax, but if you plan a late lunch you can avoid that too.

At Snowmass, which has four distinct peaks and more than four times Ajax's skiable terrain, traffic jam time is around 10 a.m., when the ski school classes all converge on the bottom of the high-speed quad at the foot of Fanny Hill, Snowmass's schuss central. However, if you start your ski day at Two Creeks, the newest area of Snowmass you'll be so alone you'll wonder if a sudden flu has laid the town low. Or take the slow Burlingame chairlift on Fanny Hill, which will deposit you farther up the mountain.

* Stick to Snowmass: Yep, I'm prejudiced. I love to ski Snowmass and I love staying in this resort-and-nothing-but. It was created as a ski-in, ski-out village in the late 1960s and what it lacks in charm it makes up for in convenience. Most important, you get more for your lodging money. The slopes are lined with condominiums that are larger than their Aspen counterparts and reasonably priced (especially if four people share a two-bedroom, two bath unit.) Nor can Aspen match Snowmass' spacious, first-rate hotels such as the Silvertree and the Snowmass Lodge and Club. (Hotels in Aspen are either deluxe, such as the Little Nell and the Ritz-Carlton, or in the budget category.)

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