Saturday, March 30, 2013

Aspen, Colorado: A Dream Come True

When I was 14 years old, I fell in love with skiing.  For the next ten years, I began taking road trips out to Colorado at least once a year to engage in this activity which brought me exhilarating joy.  While people take ski trips for a host of different reasons, my trips were about two things: the skiing and the camaraderie.  I also enjoyed visiting new places and skiing the unique terrain offered by the various resorts.  While I'm not exactly sure how it started, I had a growing desire to visit Aspen, Colorado to ski the legendary Aspen Mountain.  (I've had a similar fascination with Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Sun Valley, Idaho.)  But I grew up, got married, got a job, had kids and my quest to become a ski bum never materialized.  So my annual trips out to Colorado came to an end.

When Elly and I got married, one of the ways she has shown me love was her willingness to learn to ski, since she readily recognized how much it meant to me.  We even went to Steamboat Springs, Colorado on our honeymoon with the naive notion that I would teach her how to ski (she had never been before).  As you might guess, that was a disaster beyond explanation which gave our newlywed status an early test.

Five years later (2002), she was willing to give it another try.  Elly had earned a free stay at Taos, New Mexico through Pampered Chef and we went there on our second ski trip together.  This time we did it right, as she took three days of lessons while I skied solo.  Over those three days, Elly learned to ski and actually enjoyed herself on the mountain.  And when we weren't skiing, we were having a blast dining out and being tourists in a fascinating place we had never been before.  But I was reminded that while I love to ski, it's not nearly as enjoyable as skiing with someone...anyone.

In 2007, we had three children ages 8, 6 and 2.  We went to Keystone, Colorado with another family for Spring Break and had a wonderful time.  Not only was I able to ski with someone, those someones were precious to me (Elly and the kids).  However, I was reminded of how expensive it is to take the whole family skiing (transportation, lift tickets, ski rental, lessons, lodging, etc.).  My two oldest children seemed to enjoy it at the time, but haven't been as interested in making a return trip.  Each year when we would start thinking about Spring Break I would test the waters to see if the family would be interested in another ski trip and I would always get turned down.  This year was no exception.

In January, I joined my son Marek on a school field trip to the ski hill just outside of St. Louis (Hidden Valley).  We had a great time and it reminded me of how much I loved to ski and especially to ski with someone I love.  Little did I know at the time that I would make two trips to Colorado in the next two months to Steamboat and...ASPEN!

Which brings me to today.

I just finished my third day of skiing this week.  It was my third day of skiing with someone.  It was my third day of skiing with someone I love and that third day just happened to be my first day at Aspen.  It was the culmination of a romantic vacation and the realization of a dream that began over 20 years ago.

Now here's where some of you may want to stop reading.  I will now provide a fairly detailed account of the trip which you may find a bit tedious.  Those of you who have read my marathon race reports know what to expect.

Trip Day #1: Friday
Elly and I left Columbia at 7:20 PM and drove to Hays, Kansas.  (Hays holds a special place in our hearts as being the same place we spent our first night as a married couple on our way to Steamboat back in December of '96.)  We arrived at Hays a little before 1:00 AM and opted to spend the night at the Hampton Inn there (as opposed to the Comfort Inn which was our choice 16 years ago).  There were rumors of a snowstorm coming from the West and I was hoping to beat it.

Trip Day #2: Saturday
We woke up at 5:30 AM, ate breakfast and were on our way heading west down I-70.  But within minutes, my heart sunk as the snow had begun to fall and the temperature was dropping.  I was no longer optimistic that we would get to the mountains before the snowstorm hit.  My fears were confirmed shortly thereafter as warning signs stated that I-70 was closed at Colby, Kansas.  The interstate was now completely covered with snow, but we followed the tracks to the Colby exit where we were forced to exit.  It was a bit after 7:00 AM and we were in a town where there was absolutely nothing for us to do.  I put gas in the car and asked one of the employees there what to do.  He said, "Better get a hotel room.  The road will be closed for a long time and the hotels will get full."  Not what I wanted to hear.

We drove around and found a travel plaza that had a Starbuck's.  I hooked into their wireless network to get online, look at the weather map and observe the road closings between there and Denver.  The situation was pretty grim and wasn't looking good for us getting to our destination that day as the entire eastern half of Colorado was getting hammered by snow.  We weren't getting anywhere closer to Aspen sitting there in Starbuck's in Colby, Kansas so I decided it was time to make a move.  Another couple (from the St. Louis area) noticed us leaving and asked if they could join us.  We exchanged cell phone numbers and turned our makeshift caravan south into the barren wasteland of snow-swept Kansas.

We went directly south from Colby down a state road which had lots of snow on it.  We had to drive about 20 miles before catching the next east-west road which was U.S. 40 -- a road I had been on plenty of times on previous trips to Colorado.  Our spirits were lifted when we turned onto 40.  The road was clear.  Snow was coming down hard but we were able to turn west and head into Colorado and found that a few other cars had joined us.  Forty miles into Colorado we came upon the tiny town of Kit Carson.  We stopped at the only thing there that looked like it might have a bathroom -- the Kit Carson Trading Post.  Our new friends stopped along with another guy who was trying to get to Salt Lake City, Utah ("Utah Dude").  We relieved our stressed-out bladders and bought a few things at the Trading Post for the trouble and left hoping to head west into Colorado Springs.  Unfortunately, the road out of Kit Carson was closed.

Since there was really nothing there in Kit Carson (no gas station, no hotel), we again headed the only direction we could...south.  We drove 20 miles to Eads, Colorado where we were able to catch a road which went west and was actually open for travel - Colorado State Highway 96.  While heading west on 96, the wind out of the north picked up which made conditions extremely challenging.  At times, we could barely see anything in front of us.  Our caravan partners were able to plow ahead, but I pulled off the road as I simply could not see anything but WHITE.  The wind howled and rocked the car as we sat there waiting for the wind to die down or the blanketing snow to lessen.  Finally, a group of four cars passed going at about 10 miles per hour and I seized the opportunity and pulled right out behind them and was glad to see another car behind me who was driving at a similar speed and I felt some safety as I was able to see the car in front of me and this ragged string of cars plunged westward into the swirling snow.

We came upon a town which had a gas station and we had to leave our place in the caravan to gas up, grab supplies, kick ice off the bottom of the car and steady our nerves.  The temperature was 10 degrees and my guess is that the wind chill was about -20°F at this point.  It had taken us almost 3½ hours to travel the last 60 miles from Kit Carson and as we were getting ready to depart from this gas station, Utah Dude pulled up.  We saw each other and laughed as we knew what each had been through to get to this point.

From here, the conditions improved considerably.  Our friends from St. Louis called and gave a good report about what lay ahead.  They were able to make it to Highway 50 and said that Pueblo, Colorado was within reach.  We were still a long way from there though, but were encouraged that we might able to punch through this horrible storm and finally start making progress toward our goal.  Conditions improved considerably the closer we got to Highway 50 and Pueblo.  When we turned onto 50, we were back on a four-lane highway and things were looking good.  We were 8 miles from Pueblo when we saw flashing lights and a patrol car completely blocking the highway.  A semi had jack-knifed and the road was blocked.  I couldn't believe it.  We were 8 miles from Pueblo and had been through so much to get to this point in our journey and were derailed once again.  A truck driver who was also stopped there on the highway said that we could turn around and go back to the next town and take side roads into Pueblo.  We turned around in the median and headed back in the direction from which we had just came.  Aspen was west and north of where we were and we were heading east.

There was a town five miles east (Avondale) which we were able to go into and take back roads into Pueblo.  But those back roads were a bit scary as we saw numerous cars which had run off the road along this stretch.  Another funny thing occurred here as we passed a gas station and saw Utah Dude getting out of his car.  We honked and waved while he appeared to laugh at the humor of crossing paths once again.  Upon reaching Pueblo, we were relieved and exhausted.  The good news was that it was not snowing there and the sky looked clear to the west.  The not-so-good news was that I was unsure of where to go from there.  We stopped at a gas station to gas up and decide our next move.

Upon walking into the gas station, I was shocked to see someone I knew from Columbia buying something at the counter.  I said, "What in the world are you doing here?"  He was in the exact same situation that we were in as he was trying to get to the mountains and had obviously taken the same circuitous route that we had in hopes of getting around the snowstorm.  For some reason, this was encouraging to me that others had gone to similar great lengths as we had.

While we still had a ways to go, mountains to climb, heavy snow to navigate, I was energized by the knowledge that our goal was attainable.  On our way to Aspen, we passed the ski resorts of Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail and Beaver Creek.  We eventually arrived at our hotel in Snowmass Village at 10:00 PM and gratefully crashed into bed, weary from the long journey we had just completed.

Trip Day #3, Ski Day #1 (Snowmass): Sunday
The Aspen ski resort is actually made up of four different ski mountains: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.  Our hotel was located in Snowmass Village, right at the base of the gargantuan complex that is Snowmass.  (Snowmass is larger than Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk combined.)  Since Elly is still a pretty tentative skier, I figured that Snowmass would provide the best training ground to get her warmed up for the three days of skiing that we had planned.

We started the morning by riding the Elk Camp Gondola up mid-mountain and then took a green beginner run (Funnel Bypass) back down to the bottom.  This was a pretty long run and we were the only ones on it.  The snow was perfect and we both enjoyed the warm-up, though there was nothing warm about it as the temperature at the time was in the single digits with the windchill well below zero.  We spent the rest of the morning trying to figure a way to keep Elly's hands warm.  (We eventually bought some new mittens for her which seemed to help.)  Elly seemed to gain sufficient confidence on that initial green run as she was ready to tackle the intermediate blue runs from then on.  It being a Sunday, the mountain did get crowded in spots during the day despite the dreadfully cold conditions.  All things considered, we enjoyed Snowmass and felt that it was a great intermediate mountain.  We felt a little short-changed since we found ourselves going inside a number of times during the day to warm-up which limited the time we actually skied.

We made our way back to our hotel, cleaned up and hopped on a bus into Aspen to find a nice place to eat.  (Aspen has a great bus system which we took advantage of every day we were there.)  We asked around and were told we would find good seafood at Pacifica.  We found it and had a wonderful experience there (so much so that we came back again the following night).  When we got back to our hotel, it was just before 7:00 PM.  Elly went to bed and was asleep within seconds.  It took me about 30 minutes before I too succumbed to sleep.  I guess we were tired.

Trip Day #4, Ski Day #2 (Aspen Highlands): Monday
The forecast for today was looking good.  We took a bus to Aspen Highlands and were one of the first ones on the mountain.  And what a glorious mountain it is!  While Highlands is much smaller than Snowmass, it's also a lot less crowded.  It has some really nice green and blue runs which come down the lower part of the mountain which we enjoyed.  Our only gripe with Aspen Highlands is that it is a very narrow mountain with all of the runs feeding down into one run at the bottom which does get fairly congested no matter how small the crowds are.

The weather in the afternoon was ideal: clear skies and temperature right around 30°F.  We took advantage of it and got lots of great skiing in as we tackled most of the blue terrain that Highlands had to offer.  I especially liked ending the day with some steep intermediate terrain (Thunderbowl) which Elly skied extremely well.  We had hoped to experience the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro but it was booked for the day.  If we make it back to Aspen Highlands (and I hope we do), we'll definitely be making a reservation at the Cloud Nine Bistro.

We took a bus back to Snowmass to change out of our ski gear and then caught another bus to Aspen to return to Pacifica for dinner.  Just like the night before, we had a wonderful dining experience that included a hamburger, french fries, prawns, oysters on-the-half-shell, wine (for Elly) and beer (for me).  That's not the only way this night was like the previous one, we again returned to our hotel and immediately went to bed.

Trip Day #5, Ski Day #3 (Aspen Mountain): Tuesday
We woke up early and had breakfast at the Big Hoss Grill in Snowmass Village.  We both had the Eggs Benedict (which has become a ski trip tradition for me).  After breakfast, we caught the bus into Aspen and boarded the Gondola at 9:00 AM and again were one of the first people on the mountain.  The weather was warm and the sun was shining.  Elly was worried since everyone had been telling us how difficult Aspen Mountain is (there are no green runs at Aspen).  We found there to be plenty of easy blues at the top half of the mountain.  We got lots of skiing in on this our last day here, even though it got uncomfortably warm (45°F) in the afternoon.

We stopped for lunch at Bonnie's restaurant on the mountain and shared a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich and sweet potato fries.  We skied the legendary runs of Ruthie's Run, Copper Bowl, Gretl's and Little Nell.  We finished strong feeling like we had pretty much covered all that Aspen Mountain had to offer.  We really enjoyed skiing together.

We turned in our rental equipment and took the bus back to Snowmass.  We had a great dinner at The Stew Pot which consisted of cream of mushroom soup, a turkey sandwich and beef stroganoff which Elly washed down with a glass of wine (house cabernet) and I with a beer (Chimay Blue).  After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and got sucked into watching about six episodes of Storage Wars before calling it a night.

Trip Day #6: Wednesday
We woke up early and departed from Snowmass Village at 4:50 AM.  We had to navigate through quite a bit of snow from Vail all the way to Denver, with Summit County getting dumped on while we passed Copper Mountain.  Once we got through Denver, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the drive home.  We did stop in Hays, Kansas for a quick bite to eat at the nicest Wendy's restaurant I've ever been in.  We made it from Aspen to Columbia in exactly 14 hours and set a new personal record from Denver to Columbia in 9 hours, 50 minutes.

Post-Trip Thoughts
Elly and I had so much fun and but for the drive out had an ideal vacation.  We laughed, we cried, we skied, we ate, we slept and we just enjoyed one another's company for the duration of the trip.  We both loved Aspen and I came away thinking it's the type of place where I would like to return to on a future ski vacation.  Aspen's lift ticket system is the best I've experienced.  Not only do the lift tickets work on four different mountains, but the lift tickets themselves are just a credit card which you stick in any pocket and is automatically detected whenever you enter a lift queue.  No sticky tickets to attach and no waiting to be scanned by a lift attendant.  I also liked how some of the lifts had trail maps on the safety bar so that you could be planning your next run while riding up the lift.  Lastly, every Gondola car at Aspen Mountain had a decorative plaque in it which provided some Aspen history.  I thought that was a really nice touch.  If I ever make it back, I definitely want to ski more of Snowmass and also give Buttermilk a try.  That is all for now.

Thanks for reading.