For weeks we had watched the snow reports from Aspen, one of this country's - if not the world's - great ski resorts. We had reservations for a week at the end of January, and Aspen, along with much of the West, was suffering a snow drought.
Should we cancel what has become for us a much-anticipated week's trip to Aspen every January, or could we have just as much fun there even if the skiing wasn't up to the town's usual superb quality?
No one wants to waste hundreds of dollars on a vacation fiasco, but we decided to gamble and go ahead with out Rocky Mountain trip. We won the bet.
What we found was the snow conditions weren't as bad as we had feared. And we also learned that Aspen has a number of attractive alternatives to downhill skiing for the sports-minded vacationer. When we weren't on the slopes, we sampled cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, hiking and a swim in what is claimed to be the world's largest hot mineral springs pool at nearby Glenwood Springs.
For the winter vacationer Aspen also offers dozens of restaurants (some very good and not-so-very-expensive, at least by Washington standards); an active night life; a variety of shops selling, it seems, either skiing gear of art objects; the charm of its Victorian houses dating from the town's silver-mining days; and the beauty of its mountain valley setting.
As our two-engine Aspen Airways plane made its landing approach at Aspen airport after a 35-minute flight from Denver Jan. 22, the pilot announced that a light snow had begun to fall. The two-dozen or so passengers in the half-empty plane broke into applause, and my companion, Sandy, and I joined them.
We had arrived during Winterskol weekend, a local winter festival during the normal January tourist lull between Christmas and the February and March high season. Aspen seemed exuberant at the snowfall, which got steadily harder.
As Saturday night wore on and the show continued, Aspen literally howled with the raucous yelps from enthusiastic celebrants in the town's many bars and saloons.
The snow continued through Sunday- and into early Monday morning when it finally ended. The four ski areas that make up the Aspen skiing complex reported from 6 to 10 inches of new snow from the storm. It wasn't enough (for the rest of the week, the sky was cloudless and afternoon temperatures were in the warm 30s and 40s) but it helped.
In a normal year, Aspen's slopes can be expected to have a base of as much as 60 to 80 inches, but during the last week in January the ski areas were reporting bases of only about 20 inches at the top of the mountains and less on lower slopes.
The four areas officially reported skiing conditions for the week as generally "poor to fair," with some "good" trails, but maybe they were too hard on themselves. Almost all the lifts were operating, and the two days Sandy and I akied - once during the snowstorm at Aspen Highlands and later in the week at Snowmass - we were surprised at how good the skiing was. Another plus, there weren't lines for the lifts.
Still, there were rocks and bare spots to be avoided, and we didn't miss them all. At the top of a Snowmass chairlift above 11,000 feet, a sign warned: "Use extreme caution. Lots and lots and lots of unmarked obstacles." Reports from other skiers we talked to were mixed. Some though the skiing, particularly at Buttermilk and Ajax Mountain, was good; others were disappointed; a few, we were told, left for home a day or two early.
Many, like us, divided their time between the slopes and other outdoor activities.
We checked a list of alternatives published by the Chamber of Commerce and in a local Aspen paper. Dog-sledding? At $25 per person? Well, how often do you get the chance to dog-sled at home? Let's go.
Mountain Guides and Outfitters, just down the street from the Mountain Chalet where we were staying, arranged a half-day trip for us. Jan Masek, 35, who said he had been a Czech army pilot before coming to the United States in 1967 and had since, he said, been an Alaskan bush pilot and Colorado restaurant owner and manager before turning his dog-sledding hobby into a business, was to be our guide.
Shortly after 9 a.m. on a bright sunny morning, the temperature about 10 degrees but climbing, Masek picked us up in his battered yellow van, a dogsled on top. We climbed into the front seat, and 10 huge Alaskan Malamutes in the back immediately began sniffing and licking our necks.
It was good to know the dogs were going to be friendly. A couple of miles out of town, Masek parked his truck in a wooded area alongside an abandoned railroad bed paralleling the Roaring Fork River and unloaded the dogs and the sled. The railbed was to be our trail in the 10-mile, two-hour roundtrip.
Sandy and I were tucked onto the sled, a blanket spread across out legs and we were off with Masek's yell of "O-kay, Kaitoo!" Disillusion: Masek doesn't yell "Mush." (Kaitoo is the name of his lead dog.)
We skimmed down the trail at 4 to 5 miles per hour, eight bushy tails waving in front of our faces, Masek standing on the sled behind us, sometimes cursing, sometimes praising his dogs into action. We were told to lean left or to lean right to help guide the sled around a boulder or away from a cliff as we climbed above the river.
We stopped for hot spiced wine from a thermos. The blanket kept us warm, except for out toes, and we were told to keep wiggling them.
We passed cross-country skiers, cautiously slipped by a small waterfall almost iced over, emerged from the wood and skirted red rock cliffs - the dogs sometimes racing, sometimes slowing at Masek's commands - before we returned to our starting place.
The dogs, Masek told us, could go for 30 miles, but after 10 miles our legs were stiff from sitting in the sled. Still we were grinning from the fun, and our cheeks were rosy from the now-warm sun.
Back to the activities list. What next? How about cross-country skiing?
At 9:15 the next morning we caught a free shuttle bus that took us for a half-hour ride up a canyon road above Aspen to the Ashcroft Ski Touring Unlimited area. (The bus would return us to Aspen at 4 p.m.)
The scenery is spectacular. The Ashcroft office cabin is at 9,500 feet in a small valley surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks.
We rented skis, boots and poles for $7 each, paid another $7 each for a 3 1/2 hour lesson, and $2 each for trail fees (down from the usual $4 because only about a third of the area's 30 miles of trails had sufficient snow.)
Penny McIIwane, a New Hampshirite who came out to Aspen five years ago after college to get skiing out of her system but hasn't, was our teacher. She teaches downhill skiing, too.
There were eight of us in the class, and our first lesson was how to get up after falling. So we fell in place and practiced lifting ourselves up with our poles. It was to be a frequently used maneuver.
Then we learned the knee-bend slide that looks so graceful and easy when Olympic skiers are doing it but requires a great deal of balance, we discovered. Finally, we practiced stopping, our skis pointed together in front of us like a snowplow. McIIwane said we were a "fairly well coordinated" class and we were pleased.
The fundamentals down, we were led onto a gentle two-mile trail that leads across a wide meadow to the Pine Creek Cookhouse, an Ashcroft restaurant reached only on skis.
After lunch, we were dismissed from class to return to the bus at our own speed. We all had trail maps, and the trails are colored-coded as to degree of difficulty and are well-marked.
McIIwane suggested Sandy and I and some of the others attempt a more difficult trail for the return trip. Now, instead of the open meadows, we were passing through a forest of aspen trees, sometimes climbing up the mountainside and then descending, weaving in and out of the trees on the narrow trail.
We snowplowed to slow down, dropped into soft snow when we missed a sharp turn, laughingly slipped backward downhill when we got sloppy in our technique, panted from the exertion at the altitude. We were alone, the woods were quiet, the air crisp and fresh, our lessons had taught us enough to cope with the trail. It was exhilharating. We would come back for another day later in the week.
Many of the Aspen lodges have outdoor heated swimming pools. We used ours every afternoon. It is a novel experience and relaxing to tired muscles to swim in a 90-degree pool, the steam rising in thick clouds, while snow falls on your head and shoulders. It is also cold in freezing temperatures to run from a heated pool back to your third-story room.
We didn't have time to try all the activities Aspen offers, which include guided snowshoe trips, overnight winter camping, ice climbing, ice skating at the Aspen Ice Garden, ice fishing, snowmobiling, nightime sleigh rides to dinner, indoor tennis.
Aspen obviously is suffering from the snow drought. According to Jim Magill of Aspen Reservations, the town's January occupancy rate was only 30 to 40 per cent instead of the usual 70 to 80 per cent. Normally, Aspen is almost 100 per cent booked in February and March, and while reservations for that period are still in the high 80s or low 90s, he said, cancellations are coming in every day. Still we found restaurants, shops, movies and other tourist facilities in full operation. Some popular nightspots were even crowded.
Skiing at Aspen hasn't been up to par this year, but that doesn't mean the vacationer can't have good time. If the snows finally do come, so much the better.