Aspen Times Weekly: Closing day culture

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Daniel Bayer/Aspen Skiing Co.Cover design by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – You just came off the hill after what may have been your last run of the season. It was sick up there – almost 11 inches of fresh powder overnight – and you’re smiling because you know that for the last five months, you chased the snow like a cop chases crime: determined, flashy and aggressive on all fronts.

You are stoked; not just because you came out to explore the Aspen fantasy life of pictures and movies, but because you finally get to be a part of the event all your friends have amped you up for – an occasion everyone counts down to from their very first turn of the season, and an experience you know will remain in your memory for months, perhaps even years to come.

You change out of your gear and into the costume you crafted out of an old T-shirt, jeans, painters tape and a blue and red striped hat. From the street you can hear the overflow of people cheering – energetic and loud against the repetitive thump of a bass womping in and out between open doors, and for a moment the anticipation overcomes you.

The man at the door greets you with a wristband before stepping aside to welcome you through. Almost immediately you spot your favorite bartenders, slinging drinks in full costume and tossing bottles between one another like players on a ball field. Upon getting a drink, you look to your right to see a man dressed in a Winnie the Pooh onesie, and to the right of him a man donning a cow suit.

At last, you think to yourself, you are home.

Weaving in and out between crowds of animals, gapers, Stoli girls and a grand supply of Waldo characters dressed to match the party’s “Where’s Waldo, Bro?” theme, you meet up with your friends just in time to hear DJ Dylan and special guest Jesse Seely of Chicago dueling it out on the boards with a super-sweet matchup.

Knowing that it couldn’t possibly get any better than this, you turn to face your buds and throw your drink in the air. Just as the beat drops a body-shaking vibration, you yell out a scream to toast the final day of the season; one celebrated by endless days of shreddin’ the gnar, unforgettable times with friends and living out an adventure that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.

This is closing day; the day when all the kooks come out to take their final runs, dance in expression of their desires and get weird until hours after sunset. It’s a time when everyone says their goodbyes before traveling back home to see the family, or boards a plane to take a vacation across the country. It’s a celebration of passion beyond responsibility, successes or material gains, and a time when locals acknowledge more than any other day in the year the significance of the line we all know verbatim: “This is Aspen. Things are always different.”

“One of the most defining characteristics of closing days in Aspen is that for the most part, they are undefined,” said Dylan Regan, longtime local and DJ on the scene at the Sky’s closing party on April 14.

According to Dylan, who got his DJ start back in the late ’90s by throwing house parties in Snowmass and selling mixed tapes to bars around town, closing days have generally been notorious for chaotic and over-the-top celebrations, yet traditionally unorganized as a whole.

In the event of a closing day party, he recalls, planning is usually left in the hands of the merchants who run the venues at the base. But when it comes to outlandish costumes and people skidding on ponds with handcrafted boats, the real party, he says, is left in the hands of the partygoers themselves.

Such is the case with the town’s most sought-after closing day party, Aspen Highlands, where people from far and wide come to experience the mayhem firsthand.

But how exactly did the closing day party evolve from gangs of skiers gathering to toast a season’s end to a week-long affair shaped by theme parties, pond skimming, neon-crazy, ’70s retro-costume-wearing debauchery?

For Dylan, who was asked by local radio station KSPN 10 years ago to DJ a promotional party at the base of Highlands on closing day, the celebration began with humble beginnings and has since grown larger with each passing year.

“There was a guy by the name of Jeff Picasso who ran the base spot at Highlands, and it was him who had the idea to elevate the party and really brainstorm something big,” Dylan said. “People have typically always worn ’70s outfits to the party, but over the last five years it really blew up, with thousands of people wearing costumes and dancing around on a rubber deck, the floorboards bouncing up and down like a trampoline and sending people and speakers flying all over the place.”

Thus, Dylan believes, the birth of Highlands closing came to be, and before long other mountain venues – like Ajax, Snowmass and Buttermilk – began tailoring their closing day events to parallel the somewhat accidental tradition the Highlands party evolved into.

Now, closing day events have become a staple of our community, inviting celebrations like Bacon Appreciation Day at Buttermilk, where event planners host bartending competitions and serve up drink and food with everything bacon to skiers and snowboarders; the Snowmass Base Bash with the Schneetag competition, where participants build floats and then attempt to skim over a standing pond; and the latest at the Sky, where a theme party arranged by a group of party planners from Chicago specifically gave thanks to all the people in the hospitality industry who put in their hard work to make the season another memorable one.

“I’ve been coming to Aspen the past five years just for Highlands closing day alone,” said Joe Quade, creative director of Lunatics of Bam in Chicago and forerunner for this year’s Ajax closing party at the Sky Hotel titled, “Where’s Waldo, Bro?” “Highlands is always a wild party, but after last year’s lack of snowfall and ending decision to move closing day up a week, not as many people showed up and it kind of threw off the vibe.”

Quade teamed up with his college buddy Wes Kubica, a fulltime bartender at 39 Degrees, to revive the closing day excitement and pin down a destination that would elevate the atmosphere and make for a lasting memory for those who leave town at season’s end. He claims the idea to be a vehicle for locals to have fun in the biggest way imaginable.

“We wanted to do it in a way that would amplify the party scene in Aspen to something you might find in a club in downtown Chicago, with a costume theme, sponsors, cases of CO2, videographers, DJs spinning tables, party favors, satellite bars and tons of energy,” he said.

And thematic to all degrees it was, as hundreds of Waldo lookalikes showed up after a day skiing Ajax to get loose at what ended up being one of the biggest parties of the year.

“On the first day of the season I’m already getting excited for the last day of the season,” said Kubica, “and if there ever was a party that was organized to the core – one that screamed fun and allowed people to be their goofy selves – the Waldo party was it, and we are already looking forward to going bigger next year.”

When was the first-ever closing day celebration? Is there a year that stands out as the best ever? How has the closing day culture changed?

Many newcomers, myself included, hold nostalgic curiosities for what skiing was like back in the day; the free-spirited hippies, the drug-influenced Beatniks and the ski-gang scoundrels who made Aspen the place it is today. We tend to wonder, do we dress up because we want the old days back, or do we dress up because in some ways, the old days never really left?

If there is one person who beholds the truth to these newcomer curiosities, Klaus Obermeyer – the 94-year-old ski pioneer and spirited yodeler – is the man with all the answers.

Aspen Times Weekly: When was the first closing day party you can remember? What was it like?

Klaus Obermeyer: The first closing day party I remember was in the spring of 1948 – that was before grooming was brought to Aspen. We had a lot of fun in spring snow and had a few drinks on the bottom of the Little Nell lift. Closing day is always nice to catch up with friends, get some final turns in, laugh out loud and have fun.

ATW: In your opinion, what is the origin of the closing party? Which mountain was the first to have a celebration?

KO: It was Aspen Mountain naturally because it was the first mountain that had lifts! Everyone who worked and skied there were always excited to have an end of the season celebration.

ATW: How has the culture of the closing parties changed or evolved over the years? Have people always worn retro clothing and funny-looking costumes?

KO: The culture hasn’t changed a whole lot – we celebrate with friends the wonderful winter and enjoyed our last day on the mountain. It used to be that you wore what you always wore skiing, perhaps a little less clothing because of the beautiful spring sunshine. And then it came you would spot a few costumes, such as a bear outfit, which was funny. Nowadays, it’s quite a spectacle to see all the creative and different outfits people are putting together to celebrate this day. I say, go for it!

ATW: Which year would you pick to be the best closing day of your skiing career? What made it so memorable?

KO: For me, it is an equal celebration each and every year to put in the last run to close the season. Each season is special for different reasons, but I must tell you, I am thankful for every day I am out skiing in our wonderful mountains of Aspen – remember, every day you don’t ski you don’t get back.


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