Opening day: An annual holiday in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Opening day: An annual holiday in Aspen

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Much like a holiday made especially for towns like Aspen, opening day of the 2014-15 ski season rekindled the annual celebration at the base of Aspen Mountain that had the young and old sharing a familiar bond made of skis, boards and snow.

With the sun shining over 6 inches of new snow in the past week and a 13-inch base for most of the open terrain, the brisk 20-degree temperature kept much of the untouched snow fluffy and forgiving.

As the clock ticked closer to the 9 a.m. opening, the amount of hugging, high-fiving, hooting and hollering and ear-to-ear smiles kept growing, much like the line of customers that stretched from the gondola to East Durant Avenue.

Jeff Hanle, director of public relations for Aspen Skiing Co., said the excitement was palpable.

"It's great to see people stoked to get on the hill," Hanle said. "It seems like every year, people forget this is a ski town and this is the core of what makes this town. Yes, we have great culture, art, music and dining, but this is a ski town and today is when you see that come out."

On Saturday, Aspen Mountain became the great equalizer. It seemed like all walks of Aspen life were represented at the gondola Saturday morning, and all were there to share the bond of returning to play in the snow. Despite faces being hidden behind helmets and goggles, friends could still recognize each other through their wintry costumes and celebrated the day with genuine joy.

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Michael McKeon, of Aspen, was at the front of the gondola line at 6:45 a.m. and was one of the first to ride up the mountain at 9 a.m. sharp.

"We made first chair last year, as well," McKeon said. "We get to say we were the first to touch the mountain off the gondola in like, regulation time. If you compare this to when you're a little kid on Christmas morning waiting to open his gifts, opening day for skiing blows that out of the water. This is like all the holidays packed into one. The mountain is the gift I want every year."

James Harvey was part of the first group to ride the gondola with McKeon. Harvey lives in Snowmass Village, and although he's only been in the valley for two years, carries a "ski-or-die" attitude like many Aspen natives.

"They called me 'Robot' last year," said Harvey, who broke his arm at the Snowmass skate park six weeks before opening day in 2013 and had to have reconstructive surgery. "Aspen Valley Hospital knows me very well. I had my arm in this mechanical brace, so everybody called me Robot on the mountain. No way that was going to stop me from hitting the slopes, but it's good not to be the robot this year."

Mike Flynn has experienced 47 opening days at Aspen Mountain. The first one still resonates with Flynn, now a retired Aspen school teacher.

"It was 1968, and there was 3 feet of new snow the day before the mountain opened and they opened everything," Flynn said. "Today is the start of another six months of skiing. It's what we do in Aspen. This is it. Opening day is the start of winter and it surpasses everything else."

Cole Sharpe works for Skico and was helping load the Silver Queen Gondola. When he showed up just before 8 a.m., there was already close to one hundred people lined up to ski.

"It wasn't too crazy this morning," Sharpe said. "Just a bunch of hooligans running around excited like kids. Trust me, I'd have been right there with them if I wasn't working."

Also near the front of the line were Cindy Burke and Cindy Lamar, who both live in Snowmass and were already on their second opening day of skiing in 2014 after visiting Vail on Friday.

"It was surprisingly uncrowded, and the snow was fabulous with 530 acres open," Burke said of Vail. "Opening day anywhere is so fun. I'm more excited today because this is my hometown."

Lamar said it's always a thrill to get on the mountain before the masses shred the untouched powder.

"Just getting up the mountain early, getting on that corduroy, feeling the wind in your face, having a beautiful day like this and knowing more snow is to come is the best," Lamar said. "Corduroy is that perfect little bit of snow that you get to ski on before someone else ruins it."

"The coolest thing about opening day is seeing all your friends," Burke said. "It was great to show up at 7:15 a.m., and there were guys making breakfast sandwiches on their Bunsen burner for everyone. That was a lot of fun. You can really feel the connection to the community here."

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com