THE FIRST TIME I went to Aspen was in 1965, when my first child was 6 weeks old, My husband, Bob, and I stayed that year in a lodge at the base of the Number 1 lift, and we skied in turns, because I had to come in after every other run to nurse the baby.
We've been back many times since and will go again this March. Our son and daughter are now teen-agers. Aspen has served us well over the years. To give some sense of its infinite variety, each member of our family has attempted to explain its appeal. Our accounts appear in the order in which we usually go down the mountain.
BOB: The Hotel Jerome
Aspen these days offers an impressive array of lifts and trails. When I first skied there in 1943, at age 5, the uphill facilities consisted of a rope-drawn sledge and, as I recall, a rope tow, neither of which my younger brother and I were permitted to use. We climbed up and skied down what then seemed an endless and terrifyingly steep slope (now covered by condominiums) while our father, on leave from ski trooper training near Leadville, Colo., skied the big mountain. Every 20 minutes he would sweep by executing fine christies, board the sledge and bump back up the mountain for another run. My brother and I continued to climb up and schuss down, neither of us having learned to turn at that point.
Five years later we returned, in the summer, this time to inspect the construction of two single chair lifts just being built to the top of Mount Ajax. (My father had an interest in a ski area outside Albuquerque and eventually built several chair lifts of his own.) That time we stayed at the Hotel Jerome, which was then the town's principal lodging, and spent the week traversing Aspen Mountain in a jeep, observing the construction of the lift towers and the stringing of the cables. The Hotel Jerome, as I recall it, combined seediness and elegance: High ceilings and tall Victorian windows overlooking the mountain were complemented by tattered carpets and flaking paint.
Many Aspen trips later, I stayed again at the Jerome, this time with my 12-year-old son. The Jerome was seedy and elegant as ever. I was taken by the bar, which (after the demise of the renowned Red Onion several years ago) became the last authentic survivor among Aspen's famous 19th-century mining saloons. Authentic, that is, in architectural detail. The bar that night seemed to be filled with New Yorkers dressed like cowboys and locals dressed like New Yorkers. All were crushed together in a mass impenetrable except by the cocktail waitress.
TED: Elevator Shaft
Of all the runs in Aspen, the one that has imprinted itself in my memory makes up the lower part of International/Silver Queen on Aspen mountain and is aptly named Elevator Shaft. Though its steepness can be seen from the bottom of the mountain, you can truly appreciate it only when standing at its brink, gazing between your ski tips, which suddenly seem to be perpendicular to the trail, your mind saying "Go" while your body says "No." What you will see is an elevator shaft slightly tilted off of the vertical plane and, to add to your terror, huge bumps that often rise above shoulder level--enough to slow down any hotshot.
I started down bug-eyed and stiff with fright, but slowly began to loosen up. A feeling of exhilaration came over me as I found that, out of necessity, I was skiing more proficiently and smoothly than I ever had before. I skied down in an almost unconscious state, stopping only once so my partner could quickly snap a picture of me during the momentous event (and before my hold slipped away). I have never seen the picture, but I suspect that from his position above me he probably had a very good view of my scalp and the town above which we seemed to be perched.
Although the descent was exciting, the best feeling was looking back up the trail from the bottom and realizing that I had survived.
HANNAH: Spar Gulch
I am no great expert on western ski resorts, but I loved Aspen. The last two years that we went to Aspen, we stayed in the Snowflake Lodge, not the classiest hotel in Aspen, but friendly, welcoming, and very close to downtown Aspen, though I guess everything is. I especially loved the heated outdoor pool. It was wonderful jumping into that hot water after running through the freezing air in my bathing suit. It seemed to be where everyone in the Snowflake Lodge hung out after skiing, and if there were any kids to be met, the pool was where you'd meet them.
Both years in Aspen I went to ski school at Snowmass, which was fantastic. They had a lot of classes, and I never felt that I was even slightly too bad or too good for the class. If I was, the instructors would move me up or down. Every five days of ski school there would be a picnic where we'd talk with our friends, eat and have great snowball fights. I learned a lot in ski school, and even now when I'm having trouble on the slopes, I'll remember something my ski instructors told me that really helps. One year my instructor owned a restaurant, so we did a lot of eating as well as a lot of skiing.
I have skied three of Aspen's mountains: Buttermilk, a beginner mountain; Snowmass, an intermediate mountain (though it has some pretty hard slopes), and Ajax, an advanced mountain with a few beginner and intermediate slopes. My favorite slope on Ajax is Spar Gulch, because when I first skied on Ajax, it was foggy, and I came down Spar Gulch inside a cloud, with fog so thick I could barely see my father about three feet in front of me. I was scared to death that I would ski off a cliff, and when I saw Spar Gulch again, on a clear day, I loved it because, although there were no cliffs, it was pretty hard, and I got down it in a fog.
There is a valley half an hour south of Aspen with good cross-country trails and a lodge that offers equipment for rental. There we went seven years ago on the seventh day--when our chastened muscles had regained elasticity and the daily round of lifts and runs and sumptuous meals had become almost as burdensome as the routine at home. (One does not rest on ski holidays, though alternative forms of exercise are helpful for end-of-the-ski-week sorrows.)
Happy the skier whose passion is speed. I'm of the opposite school and have always loved best to take the long, winding way down and around the mountain, stopping frequently to sniff the air and admire the dollops of snow on the evergreen boughs. I started my ski career with my mother's hand-me-down snowsuit and a head filled with scenes borrowed straight from "Hans Brinker" and "The Magic Mountain." What I imagined was Holy Wilderness, peopled with wind-burned ascetics--so I've never fully adjusted to the high-speed discos and the hot-pink his-and-her ski suits, the gouged mountain and the complex lift machinery.
But Ashcroft was timeless--like my fantasies. The track wound up the valley without haste, crossing and recrossing a stream so narrow you could step your skis halfway across and stand safely on both sides at once. Snow covered the stream most of the way, although here and there moisture had eaten the snow away, unveiling a gleam of still-running water. Thre were a few skiers ahead of us, rugged, snowy shapes, fast diminishing, and a few behind who eventually passed us. Most of them looked a lot like Hans Brinker grown up--with rag socks, baggy wool pants, and frosted beards. They were lean and rosy and had the look of pilgrims.
Oh, bliss, I had arrived at last at one of those rare places where imagination and reality intersect. And even greater bliss to discover (after only half an hour's gentle exertions) a little restaurant, accessible only by ski, with curtains, cheerful tablecloths, a horn concerto on the radio, and a menu redolent of the Bavarian highlands--bratwurst and schnitzel and lovely desserts. The sun shone all over the place, like a French horn announcing the arrival of spring.
I don't remember what came after. We ate lunch. We went back. Or else we went forward for a while and then turned home. We have never gone back, although we often say we mean to. Better to leave it there, straddling the stream. Some days are too precious to diminish by repetition.
So one season blends into another, and we're not sure, looking at the photographs, just which year it was. (It's the same with the summer vacations--all those pictures of us sitting on a rock at the side of some trail eating sandwiches.) In some the children are larger, and in some we look startlingly young. Only the mountains remain the same.