February 10, 2004
Imagine being a dog fed scraps from the table. Your owner has several dogs and you have to fight to get the choicest scraps. Then one day, you find yourself invited to sit at the table with your master and dig right into your own plate.
That’s what it feels like to spend a day with Ajax Powder Tours on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Suddenly, you’re no longer rushing around the front side competing for shards of powder. Now you are calmly approaching yet another 1,000 feet of untracked snow with a few friends and two guides.
It’s a different world on the backside for those who go for a powder tour. And while it is expensive for the average ski bum, it is worth it for anyone who truly loves to ski or snowboard.
That is right, riders are welcome on the backside, just not on the front side of Ajax. Go figure.
Anyway, if you can round up eight friends, then the cost drops.
The day starts with an early ride up the Silver Queen Gondola to the summit. There, groups are organized into three different 12-passenger snowcats with plush seats, big windows and good sound systems. Once everyone has a seat, the cats rumble down the road along Richmond Ridge.
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The ridge separates the areas known as Little Annie and Difficult. On the Difficult side, most of the terrain is Forest Service land while on the Annie side it is a mix of private and public land.
The tours operate under the jurisdiction of a permit from the U.S. Forest Service and they are allowed 1,200 skier days a season, although a recently renewed permit may allow that number to creep up a bit.
The area now served by powder tours was once approved by Pitkin County as a lift-served ski area called Little Annie. The ski area never got off the ground but the terrain remains the same today o ideal for intermediate and advanced-intermediate skiing and riding.
The Little Annie side is steeper, but in a slightly cruel twist, has the inferior exposure and the snow gets heavier faster. The Difficult side has an ideal exposure, but the runs are not challenging for an expert skier.
They are tons of fun, though. On either side of the ridge, the snowcat tours an average of 10 to 12 runs a day, depending on the group’s speed. Each run is untracked nirvana as powder tours only go when itis good.
While the area is not especially avalanche prone, the guides hand out avalanche beacons to each guest en route to the slopes, and the safety speech includes plenty of mentions of potential obstacles in the snow. The entire area was logged heavily 100 years ago and there are plenty of stumps to prove it.
The guides set up a basic protocol with one lead guide and one sweep. Everyone is encouraged to keep their turns as tight as possible to preserve snow and then, it’s off to the races with 1,000 feet of untracked bliss in front of you o about one-third the way down Ajax.
The guides are a big part of the experience and most are long-time Aspen locals with an intimate knowledge of the terrain and conditions. The manager of the tours this is year Bob Perlmutter, who has assumed the lead dog position from Murray Cunningham, who is happy to take a less administrative role and focus a bit more on skiing and riding.
It is always a good bet to follow close on the heels of the lead guide after climbing out the snowcat. A loose pecking order always develops as a cat full of powder puppies gets ready for another run, and thereis nothing wrong with falling in behind the lead dog, who always seems to take the sweetest line.
After making turn after turn, skiers gather at one of four or five pick-up spots (Aspenis best!) and then the cat ride back up takes about 10 minutes and suddenly everyone in the group is thinking the same thing, “Hey, let’s do that again!”
The terrain itself is mostly open faces, but some of the runs are through trees and glades, especially on the Little Annie side.
The group’s skill can make or break a day on the backside, so if possible, round up a group of 10 good skiers and riders and you’ll have your own snowcat for the day. It’s an awesome way to spend a special day like a birthday and once a group goes, that day will always be memorable.
Even if you go alone, youire bound to have a memorable day and come away knowing three or four more Aspen characters. Thereis always a mix of folks on a cat, from the most wealthy to the most homegrown.
Lunch is a big part of the day and food tastes fabulous after five perfect runs. During lunchtime, you gather around the woodstove in the tiny lunch cabin on top of the Ridge. You can savor the food knowing you’ve got more fresh tracks ahead. Hell, the whole world seems wonderful when you know you’ve got fresh tracks in your immediate future.
That’s maybe the real value to the powder tours o no more frantic scrambling all day for freshies. The snow is there, undisturbed, and you are out, far from the crowds, with a snowcat at your disposal.
Another cookie? Yes, don’t mind if I do.