The Casual Blog

Tag: Aspen

Skiing at Aspen-Snowmass, and a close encounter with Mikaela


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.  untitled-4016

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.


Skiing at Aspen

My trusty ski boots

Last Saturday I got a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Raleigh, made the connection in Houston (barely), arrived in Aspen at 10:15, checked into the hotel, rented skis, bought a lift pass, and got onto the lift at Aspen Mountain at 12:15. It was a clear, cold day, and so windy that many of the lifts were closed. I spent the afternoon working off of the A-1 lift. The snow was good. Toward the end of the afternoon, I was charging down a bump run with rhythm and confidence, right under the lift, and I had the thought: this is how mogul skiing is supposed to look and feel. After years of trying, I had finally got it! And just then, at the bottom of the run, caught an edge and crashed. As the Bible says, pride goeth before a fall.

On Sunday I met up at Aspen Highlands with a couple of friends who live in Colorado and are strong skiers. They knew the mountain well, and took me down some of the most challenging terrain. I felt a new level of confidence, and only an occasional spasm of fear. After lunch, they began referring to taking “a little hike.” I finally figured out they were talking about the hike up the ridge to Highlands Bowl — a trek that took all my strength to finish a couple of years ago. This time was difficult, but not agonizing. When we reached the summit (12,392 feet), the sky was clear, and the view of the jagged surrounding peaks was awesome.

Monday morning Gabe Tiller joined our group at Ajax. His skiing was strong, and I worked hard to keep up. But I was not pathetic! Gabe called it a day mid-afternoon, because of a bad night’s sleep, but I hung in there until the lifts closed. Chuck and I took the gondola up with a fellow who was at least 80 (he’d started out as a ski instructor in 1950) and spent much of his life at Aspen. As Chuck noted later, if we’re still skiing in our 80s, this will have been the early part of our ski career.

We ate Italian that evening at L’Hostaria, where Jocelyn and Gabe sat to my right and left. They were entertaining, and the food was excellent. Tuesday we had ten inches of fresh, slightly heavy snow at Snowmass. My demo skis were DPS Wailer 99s, which were wide and had rocker tip and tail. They floated beautifully. I was flowing, and not wearing out my legs. It had taken a long time, but with several seasons of practice and new ski technology, I was skiing powder with true joy.

Wednesday it snowed some more, and we had first tracks on the virgin snow at Highlands. It was quiet and beautiful and exhilarating.

I’m sorry to say my Sony point-and-shoot expired, presumably as a result of one of my falls that left some snow in the circuits. It was a good little camera. My Aspen photos were casualties. The picture of my trusty Dalbello boots was taken with my SeaLife DC1400, an underwater camera. The boots are now four seasons old. They are hell to get on, and hell to get off, but communicate well with my edges and ski great.

Starting the weekend with some exercise and music

Late Friday afternoon I returned some phone calls, cleaned out my e-mail queue, checked my to-do list one last time, jammed some weekend work in my book bag, and did the short drive home. Sally had left for a tennis tournament, but had first fed the animals, so they were sleepy. I played the piano for a few minutes and moved to a different mind zone — a Chopin nocturne (D flat major), a Debussy prelude (La cathedrale engloutie), Liszt’s Sonneto del Petrarca 47. I also played J. Strauss’s Blue Danube waltzes in honor of the poor Danube, currently under assault by toxic sludge. I filled a small plate with some leftover pepper casserole and brown rice, warmed it in the microwave, poured a glass of pinot gris, and had a quiet, delicious dinner.

Then I walked over to hear the N.C. Symphony do the first fall concert of our series. It was a lovely fall evening, mild and clear, and I savored the walk. This is one of the pleasant things about living in downtown Raleigh. There were two new buildings going up along the way, and people on Fayetteville Street eating dinner at sidewalk tables or walking about.

I had an unusually strong sense of physical well being. It was a good week for exercising — no travel or serious time crunches at work — so I’d gotten up at 5:30 a.m. every day to either swim a freestyle mile (2x), do a yoga class, or take a spinning class (2x). Spinning is still new to me, and I’m still enthusiastic — it’s an amazing aerobic workout. The basic idea of stationary bike plus music, rhythmic movement, group activity, and a cheerleading coach previously struck me as not at all my style, but it is remarkably effective in (a) raising my heartrate, (b) making me sweat, and (c) leaving me feeling pleasantly endorphinized.

With fall in the air, I’m looking forward to winter, and skiing in Colorado, and I’m using ski thoughts for extra workout motivation. Last year the hour-long climb in the snow at over 12,000 feet up the narrow ridge to Highlands Bowl at Aspen Highlands taught my body a brutal lesson it won’t soon forget. I was, in truth, too whipped to attack the long double black diamond run from the top, but there was no alternative way down. I survived, but next year I hope to do more than merely survive such situations — to exult! That may be too much to hope for. It will always be difficult to go from a few hundred feet above sea level one day to vigorous activity at several thousand feet the next, but I’m looking to be in better shape next season and bettering my odds.

At a leisurely pace, it took 23 minutes to walk to the concert hall. (Afterwards I picked up the pace and got home in under 20.) I was interested to hear Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto. The composer was still a student when he made it, but it has the seeds of the more familiar and almost too gorgeous second concerto. It is certainly a virtuoso showpiece, and Jean-Philippe Collard played it with power and authority. I was mainly interested in the second half of the concert, a performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, a piece I was not familiar with. It was strange and beautiful, with novel and varied textures, and diverging moods. It approached the richness of Mahler. There were good loud places, where the brass expressed themselves fully, and a fine solo for the bassoon. I plan to get a recording and listen to it some more.