At the heart of Snowmass: Villagers commemorate 50th | AspenTimes.com

At the heart of Snowmass: Villagers commemorate 50th

When Jesse Caparrella helped open "Snowmass-at-Aspen" 50 years ago, the 584-acre ski area featured five chairlifts, one restaurant and cost $6.50 for a lift ticket.

As the resort celebrates its 50th anniversary this season and has evolved into Colorado's second-largest ski area, generations of Snowmass fans will tell you the 3,300-acre mountain still maintains that small-hill charm.

Each year since 1967, skiers and snowboarders return for the sheer bliss — yes, that's even the name of a run and a ricotta-topped pie at Taster's — and love for Snowmass' family-oriented, something-for-everyone style.

Snowmass now boasts 20 people movers to whisk folks around its 3,332 acres, which range from groomed greens to powder-filled double-black diamond runs. Eight dining establishments — from gourmet cuisine at a rustic cabin to ski-in ski-out food truck fare — quench peoples' needs off the snow.

IN THE BEGINNING

"It was something where once I got out (to Snowmass), I didn't want to go back to the other mountains," said Caparrella, who served as the ski area's first lift supervisor.

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No matter where Caparrella traveled or worked through his near 60-year career with Aspen Skiing Co., the 79-year-old says he cannot stay away from Snowmass.

"It's the best place in the world when you get to go to the top of the mountain everyday and make the first run down," said Caparrella, who is the namesake of the "Whispering Jesse" run.

Snowmass mountain manager Steve Sewell, who moved to the village in 1973 when he was 21, considers himself the luckiest man in the world.

"I love this hill," Sewell said. "What keeps me coming back is No. 1 I love to ski, and No. 2 the ski business. I can't think of a better way to earn a living."

Retired pro snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, who shred these slopes more than any as a teenager 20 years ago, belongs to another generation of Snowmass enthusiasts passing along the torch.

"Snowmass was my go-to for everything — for riding the halfpipe, for hitting the jumps, for free riding and also powder days," said Bleiler, an Olympic silver medalist and four-time X Games gold-medal winner. "I have really good memories of being on AVSC at Snowmass, riding with the boys."

Bleiler, 36, called the village home from ages 12 to 22. And while she's no longer an official resident, there is "still a warm spot" in her heart for Snowmass.

"If I could live anywhere, it would be Snowmass," said Bleiler, who now resides in the Aspen Business Center. "For people like me who want to be out in nature, that's where you want to live."

A FAMILY AFFAIR

While people cherish Snowmass for a number of reasons, one theme at the heart of the resort is "family."

Sure, the town markets itself as a family-friendly destination, but Snowmass' sense of community extends beyond the reach of any pamphlet or poster.

Snowmass is synonymous with family for Whitney Gordon, whose parents founded the popular Gywn's High Alpine restaurant just in time for the 1979-80 ski season.

Before skiing Snowmass at the age of 2, Gordon would try to get around inside the restaurant with skis on.

Today, the Snowmass native manages the mid-mountain restaurant where her 5-year-old son, James, plays inside just as she once did.

"We always said we wanted it to feel like you were being welcomed into our home when you joined us for breakfast or lunch, and it is still our goal to make each and every guest feel like a part of our family," Gordon said.

"We have one of the most tight-knit and supportive communities in the world that consists of not only the locals who I grew up with, but an ever-returning, loyal clientele who have become part of our family.

"Some are four generations that started with grandparents or great-grandparents visiting Snowmass and then sharing it with their families.

"It is so fun to see them come back every year."

Gwyn Knowlton, the namesake of the 37-year-old restaurant, said she and her husband feel "so proud and lucky" to watch their daughter's passion for Snowmass and the family business.

"George and I have been very lucky to have raised our family in Snowmass," Knowlton said. "They carry our love of the mountain, skiing and the outdoors to our next generation."

'SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE'

In thinking about the ski area and its trails, the notion of family reappears in part because Snowmass' terrain runs the gamut and offers a little something for everyone.

Dave Durrance, son of skiing pioneer Dick Durrance, lived in the village for 22 years. The younger Durrance said what continues to make Snowmass stand out among other resorts is its incredible variety.

"Snowmass can accommodate, in such a nice way, so many skiers — and I don't mean just the numbers, because it can handle more skiers on a given day than the other three areas combined," Durrance said of nearby sister resorts Aspen Mountain, Highlands and Buttermilk. "Snowmass just can accommodate anybody's ability. There's wonderful skiing for anybody, and skiing where you can just keep discovering."

A number of skiers and snowboarders echoed Durrance's sentiment, including Bleiler, who dubbed Snowmass "the mountain that's best for everything."

"I've skied around a lot of other areas," Caparrella added, "and for a family to come into Snowmass, I really think it's the place to ski."