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SPECIAL ISSUE / WINTER GETAWAYS

ASPEN Inside and Out : Out

Nearby, three alternative resorts offer less glitz, fewer crowds

December 08, 1996|DAVID GONZALES

LEADVILLE, Colo. — It's your long-awaited winter vacation, and you're going big. You're on your way to Aspen, the Rockies' snooty grande dame of skiing. You've landed at Denver International Airport, loaded the family into the rental minivan and now you're puttering up Interstate 70 into the heart of the Colorado Rockies.

Stop right there.

Break free from the conga line of sport utility vehicles. Forgo Aspen's thronged sun decks. Instead, turn south on U.S. 24. Instead of ski shops and condos, you'll find wide, empty valleys, an abandoned mining camp clinging to the edge of an icy canyon, a jagged horizon.

As you crest Tennessee Pass, the journey away from Colorado's uber-resorts reaches its literal and figurative apex. Atop the pass is Ski Cooper, a ski area that exults in its modesty and homespun atmosphere.

Small ski mountains such as Howelsen Ski Area, Eldora Mountain Resort, Silver Creek Resort and Powderhorn Resort dot Colorado. But proximity to Aspen (as well as Vail, the most bloated ski megalopolis west of the Mississippi), accentuates the quirkiness and anachronistic charm of Ski Cooper, Sunlight Mountain Resort and Aspen Highlands.

And if you can't give up the vast terrain, gourmet restaurants and thunderous night life of the Goliaths of Colorado skiing, there are still good reasons to devote a day or two to one of Aspen's smaller neighbors: you'll encounter fewer crowds (locals often outnumber tourists), the atmosphere is not intimidating and poseurs lack an audience.

Ski Cooper

Pulling into Ski Cooper's parking lot, I'm immediately struck by its dissimilarity to Aspen. For one thing, parking is free. And the rambling ski lodge, with its wooden walls and yellow paint, resembles an old military barracks.

It's a fitting resemblance, since the first skiers to schuss down Cooper's slopes were members of the Army's 1Oth Mountain Division, the famed contingent of skiing soldiers who fought the Nazis in the Italian Alps during World War II. The division,which lived and trained at nearby Camp Hale, practiced downhill skiing on the slopes that now make up Ski Cooper.

Every March, the ski area hosts a yearly 10th Mountain Division reunion. One regular attendee is Dave Griswald, a former member of the 10th and a resident of nearby Buena Vista.

"When I arrived at Camp Hale in 1942," recalls Griswald, "I thought, 'Boy, this must be little Siberia.' I had to put my head back to look at the mountains, they were so high."

During maneuvers, the soldiers wore white uniforms and skis, carried 90-pound rucksacks and received rations-and-a-half to compensate for the cold and high elevations. They also installed the first lift on Cooper Hill.

Griswald stills skis regularly at Ski Cooper, having served the last 24 years as a volunteer with the National Ski Patrol. One of the best reasons to come to Ski Cooper, he maintains, is its snow. At Aspen and many other Colorado resorts, snow from the sky is augmented by snow from vast systems of hoses and nozzles. But not at Ski Cooper. "Ski Cooper is all natural snow," he says. "It's different from man-made snow; it's less ice-crystally."

Just as basic as the chemistry of its snow is Ski Cooper's terrain. Though Cooper claims that 40% of its 26 runs are intermediate and 30% are expert, many of its runs are as wide as football fields and about as steep, making Cooper a beginner's nirvana. Even so, the ski area's summit is at 11,700 feet, promising panoramic views of Mt. Elbert, highest mountain in the North American Rockies and its aptly named neighbor, Mt. Massive.

Though Ski Cooper is only 27 miles from Vail, the two resorts hardly seem devoted to the same sport. Why come to Ski Cooper? Let me count the ways:

1. While snowboarding at Cooper on a sunny day last spring, I encounter no lift lines. In fact, I hardly see anybody else getting on the lift before or after me. It's actually sort of spooky.

2. An adult, full-day lift ticket costs $25. For $50--which includes lift ticket, ski lesson, equipment rental and lunch--4- to 10-year-olds can join the Panda Patrol.

Says Ski Patroller Al Slavin, "Beginner skiers who come from Vail tell me that after skiing here, they can't justify paying the higher prices at Vail."

3. According to Slavin, who admits that Ski Cooper's runs are a little too gentle for his liking, memorable skiing for intermediates and better is only a Sno-Cat ride away. For $125, powder-junkies can spend a full day on Chicago Ridge, which looms over Ski Cooper. "Even after four or five days without new snow," says Slavin, "they'll have you skiing powder all day since the area is so huge."

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