Skiing at Aspen-Snowmass, and a close encounter with Mikaela
by Rob Tiller
Last week Sally and I did a ski trip to Aspen, Colorado. We had some fresh snow early in the week, and it was sunny and cold for the rest of the time — excellent ski conditions! And we had a meaningful encounter with Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the greatest skiers in history, now at the height of her powers.
This year, as usual, we had only five days of skiing, and as usual, the first day was a bit of a question mark. Would we remember what we learned the previous year? Would we still have the necessary strength and gumption?
We started out in Snowmass, the largest of the four Aspen areas. We began by testing the steeper groomers, but soon found ourselves drawn to areas of fresh snow on the ungroomed trails. By lunchtime, we were fully back in business, carving harder on the steeps, doing bigger bumps, and exploring other demanding terrain.
At times, skiing is like flying, a powerful sensation of freedom and joy. At other times, such as working through a deep mogul field, it’s more like working on a complex puzzle. There’s a brief delight in fitting in a new piece, but no time to relax with a lot of loose pieces left.
Skiing a big mountain is an excellent laboratory for learning about your emotions, and particularly fear. Over the years, we’ve extended our range of competence, and we go for longer stretches without encountering situations that are seriously scary. But the big mountains are always holding something dramatic that we haven’t seen before. Now and again there’s a moment of “Uh-oh!”
Managing fear is integral to the sport. Once you’re up on the mountain, strong emotions can be paralyzing, but one way or another, you need to keep going and get back down. The mountain helps you learn to calm down enough to think about a particular threat, and consider options given your existing skill set. It teaches you where to look for some courage. Then you ski.
Anyhow, on this trip, we had a lot of blissful stretches, and very few uh oh moments. We did three days at Snowmass and two days at Aspen Highlands. I rented Nordica Navigator 85s, 172 cm, which exceeded expectations carving on the groomers, and were wonderfully responsive in moguls. They were a bit jittery at higher speeds, and not very forceful in chopped terrain. But they covered a wide range of conditions well, and I would happily ski them again. My Dalbello Panterra 100 boots did a good job communicating with my ski edges, and also kept my feet warm enough.
We stayed at The Inn at Aspen, which was actually at Buttermilk, rather than Aspen, where most of the restaurants and shops are. We liked our room, which was roomy and relaxing. The staff was friendly and helpful, and there were regular vans and buses to Aspen and the other areas.
Buttermilk is the most beginner-friendly of the Aspen areas, which probably accounts for the high proportion of families with children staying there. There were many cute little kids, and a few spoiled brats. A group of obnoxious seven-year-old boys were in the hot tub one day, splashing and shouting, and Sally gave them a serious talking to. Maybe they, or their parents, learned something.
Aspen has a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, which seems fair. At lunch one day at Snowmass, we heard that Justin Bieber had just left the lodge where we were eating a few minutes before. On one of our lift rides, a local told us about regular visits by Michelle Obama.
We aren’t big celebrity hounds, but we had one thrilling celebrity encounter: Mikaela! Now 24 (until next month), she was recently tagged by Sports Illustrated as “the world’s most dominant athlete.” She was at Aspen Highlands practicing off the Thunderbolt lift, where we watched her do parts of four slalom runs. By the fourth gate, she was flying! Each turn was a thing of terrifying beauty. She was the first skier ever to give me goose bumps.
At the bottom of the run, we (with only a couple of other civilians) stood nearby as she got out of her padded spandex and into normal travelling gear. She had six or seven identical-looking pairs of skis (Atomic Redsters) and an entourage of perhaps eight.
Mikaela’s dad, who was about my age, died very recently, and I’m sure it was hard for her. She seemed pretty serious as a coach gave her some feedback, but she flashed a big smile when she did selfies with a couple of young racers. We were standing close enough to speak to her, but I couldn’t think of anything to say, except, “I love you!”
Each evening, after hot tubbing, we took the shuttle into Aspen, and ate at one of its many fine restaurants. We had good success in finding delicious plant- based options at Acquolina (Italian), Mi Chola (Mexican), Jing (Asian), and Campo de Fiori (Italian), and L’Hostaria (Italian). We especially liked the Pyramid Bistro, a small place on the second floor of a bookstore, which bills itself as the world’s first nutritarian restaurant.