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WESTERN TRAVEL

Affordable? Aspen? Yes!

Its ski runs are also for hoi polloi, who arrive in town in a well-used Subaru and mine the late-season deals.

January 21, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Aspen, Colo. — IN recent years, the Aspen Skiing Co. decided to change its marketing pitch. The new strategy: Convince the masses that they're welcome, despite the resort's long-standing reputation as the premier outpost of implausible wealth and snobbery in the Rockies.

The problem with such a shift is that, sooner or later, word reaches the likes of me. Economic profile of me: drives beater Subaru, makes well under six figures and has little use for a $25,000 carved bear.

So in late March, my partner, Julie, our 12-year-old Lab and I piled into the Subaru to make the roughly 900-mile trip from Pasadena to Aspen. Why drive? Because we couldn't afford to go if we spent an additional $500 to $1,000 on airline tickets.

So, was the skiing worth the hassle? Well, yes.

On our first day, we finished up by skiing Aspen Mountain's 3,200 feet from top to bottom, where we were each handed a glass of Champagne by a private jet service there that day to woo new customers.

We did what people of our economic stature do and chugged two flutes apiece, burped and went merrily on our way.

We'd been through Aspen before -- on a summer road trip in 2004 -- and glimpsed it during TV coverage of previous Winter X Games, which start here Thursday. Despite its well-earned reputation for wealth, we found the town charming, pedestrian-friendly and well-scrubbed, with many authentic Victorian buildings.

That, to us, was a striking departure from California ski towns. The skiing may be great at Mammoth or Tahoe, but planners in both places appear to have been aiming at capturing the charm of a Reseda strip mall.

So it was both the town and the skiing that brought us back to Aspen, which is about a four-hour drive west of Denver. The Aspen Skiing Co. operates four resorts in the area and, cumulatively, they offer 5,246 acres of terrain, with Snowmass almost the size of Mammoth. The hardest part of each day was deciding where to ski -- and if that's your biggest problem, then, of course, you don't have any problems.

The four resorts we visited were Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass. To simplify, Aspen and Aspen Highlands have the steepest terrain and are not for beginners; Buttermilk is the easiest and has a terrain park with some features and jumps the size of a small house; Snowmass is a behemoth, the kind of resort that takes at least two days to fully explore.

We started with Aspen Mountain because it looms just above downtown and has long enjoyed a reputation for chewing up skiers and spitting them out.

The funny thing is that the mountain is just not that large in terms of acreage but offers 3,267 feet of vertical. But it's tall. A single gondola ride takes you to the top, and you can ski all the way down without hitting any flat spots. The intermediate (blue) runs would be expert (black) runs most anyplace else, and a few of them -- such as Ruthie's Run -- are like speedways.

Next up: Aspen Highlands, a five-minute drive from town. The first thing we noticed was that it was empty. The second was that this is the locals' hill. It has a layout similar to that of Aspen Mountain but with a twist: You can hike from the top of the highest lift to the Highlands Bowl.

I didn't do it, out of principle, laziness and fear -- OK, mostly fear. Every time I glanced at it, the bowl seemed as though it were getting steeper -- and it was easily visible from our hotel, so I spent a lot of time glancing. The snow is reputed to be the best in the state, and I spent the better part of the 14-hour drive home trying to come up with a better excuse for not having tried it.

We landed at Snowmass on Day 3. The resort is the farthest from town -- a 20-minute drive or bus ride -- and the base area was a mess because Snowmass was building a new village to replace the old one, which was uncharacteristically blah for the area.

But the blah factor really didn't matter because the skiing was voluminous. At one juncture, we spent an hour doing laps on the remote Campground lift, which offered 1,400 feet of vertical on half a dozen or so blue and black runs. We saw maybe 20 skiers in that time.

Then we turned to the Big Burn, where many of the trees were thinned out in the late 1800s by a fire. A single lift rose 2,002 vertical feet in eight minutes, allowing skiers to descend on any of half a dozen routes -- bumps as well as groomed boulevards. A day could be spent on that lift alone, although it's but one of 19 primary lifts on the mountain.

The final resort was Buttermilk, which in recent years has become home to the Winter X Games. It has the gentlest terrain of the four resorts, and it's the only one where an intermediate skier can probably ski the entire place.

We showed up at 11 to find 3 inches of new snow. The runs beneath the Tiehack lift were still untracked. It's times like this that you learn not to ask questions and just ski.

The imperfections

SO, was this the perfect ski vacation? No.

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