The Aspen ski lift with serious steeps

Aspen’s Silver Queen Gondola opens up all 1000 vertical metres of the mighty Ajax mountain. On the limitless routes down you’ll find steeps, glades – and the occasional fake alligator. And Gaby Le Breton can’t get enough of it…

first rode Aspen’s Silver Queen gondola in January 1999, the day after I’d flown into town for a season. I squeezed into the POMA bubble for the near-1,000 vertical metre ascent and Aspen opened up below me. The Victorian streets first gave way to Spar Gulch, a broad gully that snakes between Ruthie’s and Bell Mountain, and then to the spruce-punctured Bell Mountain itself. Along the way, a couple of locals in the cabin entertained the rest of us by smoking joints, yet tutted if anyone fired up a mobile phone. Snowboarders were still banned, only granted access to Aspen Mountain (Ajax to locals) from April 2001.

During the two years I ended up staying in town, I came to share the Aspenites’ affection for the ‘gondy’. They would recount tales of the annual 24 Hours of Aspen race, which ran from 1988 to 2004 and initially saw individuals, and then teams of two, complete as many laps of the gondola as possible in 24 hours, clocking up to 75 laps or 74,700 vertical metres.

The race celebrated the fact the Silver Queen made lapping Ajax possible when it opened in 1986, transforming a three-lift, 45-minute journey into a 14-minute ride.

For her 20th birthday, the Aspen Skiing Company replaced the Queen’s retro bubble cabins with swanky new, mostly black, ones – though every fifth cabin is red, indicating it contains an MP3 player. Because it whisks you to Aspen Mountain’s summit, the gondola opens up the entire 273-hectare ski area, offering endless top-to-bottom variations of up to 4.83km each. Best of all, there are zero ‘easy’ runs: just under half are ‘more difficult’ with ‘most difficult’ and ‘expert’ making up the rest.

So, where to start? Sign up at the ticket office a day ahead for a free First Tracks guided run to get your legs in on Spar Gulch. This leads into Shadow Mountain, the lower half of Ajax, and the Little Nell run, named after the swish hotel at the base of the gondola. Then head back to the top, taking skier’s right from the summit, following One and Two Leaf. This winds through spruce groves into Copper Bowl, a natural half-pipe between Bell Mountain and Gentleman’s Ridge, which funnels back to the gondola.

Suitably warmed up, hang skier’s right from the summit to the double diamond steeps of Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi, before looping back under the Gents Chair (aka The Couch for its size and pace). Follow the spine of Gentleman’s Ridge for a handful of gladed runs that drop into Copper Bowl. Bingo Glades is a favourite, not least because of the sign warning skiers they’re entering an area of natural, ungroomed terrain, adding: “No in-boot ski pant skiers beyond this point.”

For those who love Aspen’s homespun culture, a legacy of its development in the 1940s as a Utopian centre for free thought, arts and culture, this humour won’t come as a surprise – it’s the town’s ritzy reputation that’s incongruous. Further quirkiness is apparent in the shrines that pepper Aspen’s four mountains, with nearly 60 on Ajax alone. Nobody knows who started creating the shrines 30 years ago, which are collections of mementos in the woods left by locals in honour of such heroes as Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix. The memorabilia ranges from licence plates to fake alligators.

Ask a mountain ambassador or ski patroller to show you some shrines before grabbing lunch at Bonnies. Then seek out the 19th-century miner Billy Zaugg’s log cabin, tucked in off the International run.

While here, hit the Cone Dumps bumps (named after the mine dumps below the snow) and Silver Queen double diamond, which drops you above the old Compromise Mine on Shadow Mountain. I can happily lap these for hours.

Finish with some glory runs under the gondola on Bell Mountain in the late afternoon sun, skiing to the Ajax Tavern.

A final tip: on a powder day, drop by the Element 47 restaurant in the Little Nell for a Three Little Piggies breakfast sandwich. Not officially on the menu, it can only be ordered on powder mornings (10cm minimum) and consists of slow-roasted shaved porchetta, smoked pork belly and sausage gravy on French toast topped with a fried egg. Lunch will not be required. FL