Changes in Aspen

Aspen, Colorado is one of those places you expect to weather almost any storm – meteorological, economic, social or otherwise. In some ways, that’s true. Since the Second World War, Aspen has grown to become the playground of the rich & famous in America. It’s been one of our favourites for years. The quality of the climate and snow are legendary and, until recently, have been among the most consistent in the world. The accommodation & food have always been excellent. The people have been friendly and welcoming. All in all, a great place to be.

We’ve been there in boom-times & busts. In 1998, Aspen was riding high on a surging American & world economy. The gliterati were all there to be seen in the exclusive places. The doctors & lawyers held their conferences there. The well-off from around the world were all there in force. We went back in 2002 and were surprised how little had changed. The snow was still great, the food & hotels wonderful and people from all over were out there having a ball. But all that seemed to have changed by 2010 when we went there in February.

The last few years have been tough in America and for many ski-resorts the world over. I was expecting some visible changes in Aspen, but nowhere near what we actually saw. Somehow, the complexion of this ever-growing place has taken on an ugly façade and Aspen/Snowmass is all the worse for it. Failed property developments, incomplete construction sites and dilapidated & ageing infrastructure were only the beginning of what we noticed. People were uncharacteristically frugal almost to the point of stinginess. Retail shop-fronts were vacant and empty. Everything was discounted and the vendors spoke in hushed tones about the effects of the downturn.

Then there was the snow. When we got there, it was almost non-existent (in February!). The difference between the published snowfall statistics and the actual observable coverage on the ground was almost scandalous. The sun wasn’t shining but the snow wasn’t falling either. The skiing was interrupted by several lifts not running and the lift-lines were trivially small (if there were any at all). I’d never seen anything like it in a top-10 major resort in the high-season anywhere in the world over the 40-odd years I’ve been skiing on 4 continents.

The doctors’ conferences were still there but no lawyers. The television sets had been upgraded to HDTVs but the commercials were full of weigh-loss products, junk foods, legal services and automotive advertising. The doctors seemed more interested in skiing & drinking than attending their sessions. A famed physics researcher from CERN cancelled his highly-promoted lecture, disappointing an old friend of mine. The Russians were there in force but very few Europeans and almost no Asians. The Americans that were there were much more upper-middle class types than the rich & famous.

Strangely, Australians & New Zealanders were much more prominent this time than I can ever remember. It seems that Pepperidge Farms has been granted a licence to make and distribute the signature Australian cookies – Tim Tams. I even met an old high school buddy of mine from Melbourne there, quite unexpectedly. Another Australian, a former-life colleague of mine, was also there at the same time as part of a 6-week American vacation. This time, Liesa & I were not part of a minority demographic. If anything, we were part of the norm.

President’s Day weekend was the exception. People from all over America came to Aspen/Snowmass. Lift-lines grew longer and restaurants filled up. Unfortunately, the weather closed and quite suddenly and disrupted the travel plans of many. We heard from a local 4WD chauffeur than people were paying nearly US$1000 for a one-way trip into Denver when the local airport couldn’t cope. My high-school buddy missed boarding his flight home that Saturday due to crowds and logistical failures at Aspen airport; he was very “hacked-off”.

We were lucky enough to be there for a month. In mid-February, a 5-day snowstorm came in from the west. For 4 of those days, unusually damp snow fell over the Roaring Fork Valley and covered Aspen/Snowmass with almost a metre of new snow. On the last day, the climate turned much more typically Colorado-classical: cold days & much colder nights (-25C or colder), dry fluffy snow and lots of it everywhere. The moisture seemed to be sucked out of the top layer of the snow. The following day, Feb 23, was perfect by any definition: cloudless blue skies, no wind and a max temp of -7C. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had skiing and much more like the Aspen I remembered. One of the locals told me it was the best day on that mountain for 3 years. It was a privilege to have been there and certainly made our trip. Here’s a few pictures: 



There are several more (and higher-resolution) pictures from this trip elsewhere on this website.

I guess the contrast between the one perfect day and all the others was put into stark relief by all the other differences we’d noticed since we were last there. The gaudiness of the newest up-market developments seemed to have lost all of the alpine soul of the Aspen/Snowmass we knew from other trips. The older places were clearly not maintained to the standards of years past – broken toilets, shabby carpets and a general lack of cleanliness were the most obvious. The ‘best’ places were pushing the envelope on quantity rather than quality. The top restaurants were serving ridiculously large (even for American standards) portions of food that wouldn’t pass for acceptable in a bistro in Melbourne. Wine lists were enormous and the prices for the better French wines were astronomically high. Yet a modest local Italian place was selling a stunning Amarone (Masi Costasera) for less than we’d paid in Australia (or Switzerland, France & Italy). Of course, down the road in Aspen, that same wine was selling for 40% more…

It seems that Aspen has changed, and not for the better. We’ve come to expect the best of the best from the top-10 resorts in the world. The one perfect day and a few of the meals were definitely up to scratch. The best places disappointed. The newest premium places were clearly the result of over-financed, over-designed modern monstrosities that were emblematic of the times of excess in America before the global financial crisis. The weather, as we have seen in the current Winter Olympics in Vancouver, has deteriorated markedly.

We saw some of this in Chamonix at Christmas 2008 but we did not expect what we saw in Aspen – a country gone mad with flashy and ugly over-consumption, 6-litre SUVs and a tragic loss of connection to Alpine culture. No wonder the weather has changed. What else could it possibly do.

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About Fred Pugsley

Digital guy. Foodie, skier, voracious reader.
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One Response to Changes in Aspen

  1. Unknown says:

    Fred,As usual a great summary. Thank You.I visited sun Valley ID in the same period. Like Aspen, it too was slightly short of snow. All runs open and adequate grooming but the bowls were scrubby. I skiied a few great fresh snow days mostly SUNNY and COLD. It is ironic to return home and hear the weather with the name numeric forecast except in a different scale C v F.In my one day off skiing (nothing’s changed :-0) I read the NYT and the Wall St. J. and the negative sentiments expressed echoed the opinions off the street. I took a vox pop and had to go back and have a stiff drink (nothing’s changed :-0). Very gloomy; low volumes of visitation ; poor outlook etc.One particular thing about Sun Valley/Ketchum was the demographic. I was one of the youngest there – seriously! The opinions are that the rise in prices has driven the young tourist out. The reality from my observation is that there is a moribund culture that ignores unified marketing and PR and displays disparate entrenched attitudes from the various vested interests.The upside of this however is that there is an active group of people working in the chamber of commerce and PR etc. who can make a change. Personnel are changing and there is dramatic new investment in the facilities like the new gondola installed late last year. All that being said they (like Aspen/Sn.) have a long way to go.As far as the food goes… We visited some good restaurants. Decent to v. good food. Reasonable wine prices and great american style service. Tasted some great wine from Portland and Washington State. Perhaps I had different expectations from you? Ketchum ID Pop. 3800 maybe = Fargo N.D.Our accomodation was a dream. Lux 4 bed apartment with the hot-tub (Sun Valley’s gift to the ski industry along with the first chair lift) and a Caddy Escalade – 6.2 L V8 of course. It would have swallowed the Land Cruiser with ease. See you soonD.

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