20 Years of Snowboarding Ajax
A look back at the 2001-02 season when Aspen Mountain opened to snowboarders
It was billed as a generational battle, as an on-mountain culture clash, a safety hazard and “the end of Ajax.” But when the Aspen Skiing Co. finally opened Aspen Mountain to snowboarders on April 1, 2001 and then for the 2001-02 season, the result was an anti-climactic and copacetic mix of skiers and snowboarders at Aspen’s original and most iconic ski area.
In the two decades since then, the two styles have coexisted, shaping the on-mountain culture of Aspen Mountain into its mix of hard-charging downhillers on its rarefied expert terrain and an equally decadent après scene at the base.
The day after that sunny first Sunday of snowboarding, the Aspen Times’ headline read “Ajax Survives Rider Invasion” (the New York Times headline the same day read “Snowboards End an Era on Aspen’s Main Slope”).
Costumed boarders arrived to celebrate that first day, which began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and ended with a reported crowd of 2,500 skiers and riders on the hill.
“Aspenites learned Sunday that they can share their playgrounds without problems after all,” the Aspen Times news report opened. “The big stink about opening Aspen Mountain to snowboarders disappeared Sunday.”
The stink had played out for years in local letters and on chairlifts and barstools, increasingly heated following Skico’s announced decision in January 2001.
But by then, the arguments that snowboarders were dangerous, or that the “knuckledragger” crowd were somehow undesirable, was hard to sustain given how snowboarders had already integrated into most U.S. ski areas.
“There was an old guard saying, ‘Oh, they can’t stop, they can’t see, there will be crashes,’” recalls Larry Madden, who ran the Alternative Edge and Pride snowboard shops in Aspen for years before Ajax opened to boarders. “But at that point, it was inevitable. They finally woke up.”
Ajax was one of just five ski areas in the U.S. that had held onto snowboard bans, even as the sport had boomed since the late 1980s. It was the last hold-out in Colorado (Keystone had dropped its ban in 1996).
The years building up to the ban lift included pushes from both local and national snowboarders. A “Free Ajax” campaign spread stickers around the Aspen area and organized rogue after-hours snowboard groups on Ajax (the Aspen Times Weekly ran a photo in 2001 of eight shirtless riders with the “FREE AJAX” slogan painted across their chests).
On April 1, 2001, a group of anti-boarder skiers mounted a tongue-in-cheek protest by wrapping themselves in “caution” tape for the day. Another group sold commemorative “end of an era” T-shirts on the hill.
“Hey, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was overdue,” snowboard pioneer Jake Burton told the Denver Post when the announcement of the ban lift finally came. “But you have to respect a company that doesn’t let pride get in the way of a sound decision.”
Skico president and CEO Pat O’Donnell, himself an avid boarder, says at the time it was purely a business decision that would bring more customers to Aspen and fix a “completely muddled” marketing message that welcomed riders to three out of four local mountains.
“We really gave it a good run,” O’Donnell told the Times. “I just don’t have the luxury of keeping it a skiers-only mountain anymore.”
From counterculture to mainstream
The debate 20 years ago pitted buttoned-up, older skiers against baggy-pants kids on snowboards — stereotypes that have since faded as fashions have changed, Gen X boarders have grown old and ski and snowboard cultures have mixed over the past two decades.
Still, Ajax has retained its reputation as more of a skier’s mountain, though boarders have come to love riding it.
“In the ’90s, it was like we had this little underground, countercultural movement that was going on,” Madden recalls, linking snowboarding to the era’s rising youth culture of alternative rock and hip-hop.
News coverage of snowboarders in 2001 and 2002 drew parallels to Aspen’s youth movement of the 1970s, when long-haired, dope-smoking ski bums arrived and remade the mountains in their own scruffy image. Back then, it may have been a symbol of rebellion and youth culture, but these days it’s, well, just another way to slide down the mountain. You’d be hard-pressed to find a skier-snowboarder conflict on Ajax these days or a generational divide among them.
Madden, the former snowboard shop owner who still teaches riders at Buttermilk, chalks some of that increasingly copacetic environment to ski technology. Shaped skis and the late-2000s boom of fat skis meant skis could float on powder as only snowboards could before, while advances in snowboard tech essentially eliminated the difference between a ski turn and a snowboard arc.
Meanwhile, terrain parks once dominated by snowboarders throughout the 1990s started to attract more skiers. Halfpipe skiing made its X Games debut in 2002, ushering in a new era of freestyle skiing, which blurred the line between ski and snowboard culture.
Back then, it was a bid to bring young people back to Ajax.
As Jared Torrington, a then-22-year-old snowboarder and lift operator from New Zealand, told the Times on the last skier-only day on the mountain: “It’s just going to open it up to a younger crowd. I looked at the crowd (Saturday), and it was just a bunch of boring old men, you know?”
In 2022 you can describe Ajax skiers and boarders in many ways, but “boring” certainly isn’t one of them.
Sean Beckwith on Aspen Mountain Feb. 13.
The fun of snowboarding Aspen is it’s not really for you if you’re not good. I once had a friend from out of town — whose skill level at the time was Snowmass blues — say to me, “I heard Aspen isn’t a snowboarders mountain.” I wanted to say maybe not for you but just kind of shrugged my shoulders.
When I was at his skill level, I didn’t really get it either, but that’s mostly because I lived in Snowmass at the time. However, once you’re a seven-minute bus ride from the bucket and spend 90% to 95% of your season for seven seasons on Aspen Mountain, you can’t unsee its beauty. It’s like unseeing your parents having sex — only the opposite.
Here’s my Cliff’s Notes version of a snowboarder’s approach to Aspen Mountain — not specific lines, not which side of the mountain, not which lift, not which run and definitely not which stashes (shh) — that’s for you to discover. But, in the local spirit of “I don’t know if you’re a tourist or a cop or whatever,” here’s the bare minimum you need to know to ride Ajax.
I’ve kind of already hit on this, but I can be more specific. If you’re falling leaf, you’re going to hate your quads by the end of the day — if you make it that far at all. If that’s the case, stay on Buttermilk. Being apt on toe- and heel-side is essential, especially if you want to get to the good stuff. (And you want to get to the good stuff.)
Being able to get to a run is almost as important as being able to make it down that run. You may have to keep your speed to get over a catwalk or navigate bumps, and if not bumps, trees — and maybe all three during the same buildup before dropping in.
I’m not trying to scare you — well, maybe a little bit — but you have to know how to navigate Aspen Mountain, or else you’ll end up lapping Spar Gulch.
This is where it becomes difficult for people who like to stay on groomed runs. Obviously, you don’t want to be on moguls, so scout those runs from the lift and avoid them. You can only lap Ruthies or Ajax so many times before you have to go to the bottom, but that’s fine.
Don’t think you have to stick to the top of the mountain. The gondola gets you up in 15 to 20 minutes. Usually, the line moves fast, and I’m sure Skico will be back to packing gondolas.
If you’re riding with friends, you can usually get a private car, so use that respite to take off your buff, de-fog your goggles (don’t wipe the inside of your lens — it only makes it worse) and check out the mountain. You can get a really good look at so much terrain during that time, and it will help you know which route you need to use, which catwalks and/or bumps are necessary, etc.
Some of my favorite lines on Aspen I found just exploring, trying to get there and ending up somewhere else entirely.
That’s easy to say, but I’m serious. If you don’t like steep pitches, you’re going to have to unstrap and push, and you’re going to be miserable. Aspen is so fast that you can do more riding in an afternoon than you’ll get at Highlands or Snowmass.
You can boost all over the mountain, but you have to boost. If you pay attention, you’ll know when to carve and when to point and pray. My tip: Look for people you wouldn’t see in a rental shop. They usually have naturally tattered apparel and helmets without rental shop stickers.
If you can’t go fast, why the hell are you still reading? You’re going to end up stranded on the catwalk to Buckhorn, with people like me laughing at you from the chairlift. Again, if people in front of you stop turning before the straight, you also should stop turning.
The way you know you got your turns-worth is easy:
-Did you slash into a stash?
-How about going down a rabbit hole — or two — and coming out covered in snow?
-You could’ve gone so fast the wind was louder than the music in your earbuds.
-Did you laugh like a lunatic on your fourth consecutive trip down free refills of Dr. Pow?
-Did you meander and meander and then find a sanctuary (or shrine) to everything that is right with a tree run?
-Oh, oh, oh: Do you remember than one that was like a luge lined with aspen trees?
Here are a couple of my favorites:
-Pumping the brakes as hard as you can at the bottom of that one steep part. Oh, shoot, what was it called? I forget, but I liked that.
-That one time I followed my buddy down some random slope and found a fun little drop off. I could never get back there, but when we finished, we just sprinted back in line. It was soooooo good. I can’t believe nobody had been through yet.
-That run when we came up and could see the entire town. We just stopped to take it all in. I mean, I was tired and needed to stop, but there’s not too much better than staring at Aspen on the edge of a mountain and then putting your head down and burning your thighs until you reach the bottom.
You never say it’s your last run of the day; it’s just a feel thing when you get to the base.
I can’t tell you exactly how to ride Ajax; that’s a personal question. All those little thoughts, feelings, experiences I vaguely just described happened over many winters by simply going out as much as I could before, during, between and after work.
Forgive me if I’m not more forthcoming with my knowledge of Aspen Mountain, but you don’t get that by reading a magazine. You get it through trial and error, unstrapping and pushing, finding a nook that led to a cranny, looking under rocks and hitting a few along the way.
You know at the end of “Avengers: Endgame” when Sam asks Cap if he wants to tell him about Peggy and Cap responds, “No, no I don’t think I will.”
You want to know about Buttermilk, Highlands or Snowmass? I’ll point you in a few directions.
But Aspen Mountain? My Silver Queen? Nope. Those memories are just for me.
– Sean Beckwith
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Bubble dining — plus a couple of yurts — are carrying the momentum of the indoors-outdoors private dining experience in Aspen this winter season.