Just before the gondola door slid closed, a goggle-clad young man with a two-day shadow and baggy Burton parka slid his snowboard in the caddy and jumped aboard our car for the 18-minute trip to the top of Aspen Mountain. It was the Alpine equivalent of an airplane latecomer -- a scruffy one at that -- stealing the free seat next to you moments before takeoff.
But, as we soon learned in Aspen, looks are deceiving. "There's no one over on Gent's Ridge, but be prepared for a slow lift. And stay away from Ruthie's Run. They iced it over for World Cup [races], so it's skid city," said the Good Samaritan in X Games guise, a local graphic designer getting in a couple runs on his lunch break.
Let this be a lesson in convenience. Unlike so many mountain resorts, Aspen is easy-on/easy-off, appealing to flatlanders who can't handle a 9-to-4 powder day, to parents who need to bow to their kids' nap times with a hotel timeout, and of course to lunch-breaking townies. Arriving midmorning, my husband, son and I got a full afternoon of skiing in on a day when no one expected much more than hotel check-in and rental ski checkout.
The axiom "you get what you pay for" applies to Aspen. You pay plenty -- walk-up lift tickets were $101 per day last year (this year's fees won't be revealed until December). But what you get in return is generous: access to four ski mountains -- each with its own personality -- plus intermountain transportation and free ski valet. Meaning you can drop your Salomons and poles at the base of Aspen Mountain, tell the valet you're skiing Aspen Highlands in the morning, and stomp off in your boots for the nearest après-ski beer. In the morning, the hybrid shuttle bus will deliver you and your boots to a reunion with your gear at the base of the next ski area -- all gratis.
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Taking full advantage of the system, we three intermediates hooked up with my sister and her husband -- expert skiers who live near Aspen -- last January to attempt to conquer all four mountains in four days and got off to a "bluebird" start, local lingo for a cloudless day. Our overnight, the Limelight Lodge, even tossed in free beer and wine during happy hour, which we enjoyed from the piping hot tubs with views to legendary Ruthie's Run.
If Aspen Mountain, smack in the center of town, is the see-and-be-seen skier, Aspen Highlands, one valley west, is the jock, all muscular steeps and challenging deeps. Die-hards like to lap the Highland Bowl, reached after a 45-minute hike along a 12,392-foot ridge, a couple of times before lunch. The rest of us were happy listening to my brother-in-law's tales over raclette at Cloud Nine, a European-style mountain chalet that gets increasingly rowdy until the slopes close at 4 p.m.
Aspen, of course, isn't just about skiing. It's arguably America's most diverse mountain town. And I don't mean just Patagonia-to-Prada varied. The Wheeler Opera House stages concerts and screens independent films, some 80 restaurants roam the culinary range from cheap Asian noodles (hello, Noodles by Kenichi) to expensive New York Italian (a branch of Il Mulino recently opened), and the best-kept shopping secret is its resale boutiques -- especially Uptown Exchange and Susie's Limited -- crowded with high-society castoffs from furs to Ferragamo pumps.
By Day 3, we shifted headquarters to Snowmass. Up until recently, Snowmass was the resort you retired to once you had kids and dropped off the social radar. But that all changed with the opening last December of the Viceroy Snowmass, home to 173 stylish rooms with espresso machines, fireplaces and deep soaking tubs, plus Colorado's longest bar and a moody spa.
En route, we clicked off Buttermilk. Home of the Winter X Games, Buttermilk favors half-pipe boarders as well as local families teaching the tots pizza-wedge stops and french-fry turns. As a result, the mountain has a laid-back vibe friendly to beginners, which explains why we found the black-diamond Tiehack runs blissfully untracked.
In blending a little of Aspen's glamour, Highlands' athleticism and Buttermilk's bohemianism super-sized to 3,132 acres, Snowmass is the popular pick, expansive enough to entertain everyone from kiddie campers to mogul maniacs. In no-pain-no-gain spirit, we immediately lit out for Long Shot, leaving the crowds behind on the 10-minute hike to reach the top of the 5.3-mile descent.
No such luck in the expanded base village -- we grabbed the last few spots at packed Sneaky's Tavern -- but that's exactly what makes Snowmass so much more than a day-use area now. After a massage at the Viceroy, a dinner of Colorado striped bass at the hotel's trendy Eight K restaurant and a midnight hike under the stars, I collapsed on the down duvet, successful in my four-mountains-in-four-days quest, but wishing I had another four more to further the friendship.