Skico ponders tweaks at Aspen Highlands’ popular Cloud Nine |

Skico ponders tweaks at Aspen Highlands’ popular Cloud Nine

The party scene at Cloud Nine, near the top of Aspen Highlands, has been known to get wild around mid-afternoon, so much so that ski patrol members often provide rides down the mountain for patrons who can't ski or snowboard down on their own.
Lauren Glendenning/The Aspen Times |

Aspen Skiing Co. wants to tweak the experience at a phenomenally popular on-mountain restaurant at Aspen Highlands without knocking anyone off cloud nine next ski season.

For the second time in four seasons, Skico says something must be done to temper the party atmosphere and ensure the safety of all patrons dining at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro and other skiers on the mountain. Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said the company also wants to ease Highlands ski patrol from the burden of babysitting some diners at the second seating of the day.

Cloud Nine was remade in 1998 to offer a high-end, European-style lunch. The concept was a hit from the start and Cloud Nine has enjoyed surges over the years as the go-to place on the slopes. It offers a seating at noon and another at 2 p.m. Reservations are almost always necessary.

The music cranks up during the second seating and “the fun begins,” Hanle said. Partiers often spray the crowd with pricey bottles of champagne. Some women dance on tables in ski boots and bikinis as the wait staff fight their way through the crowd just to keep up with service. Many guzzle booze as well as pour it into their friends’ mouths.

Cloud Nine has gained a well-earned reputation as a cool place to be, and the popularity has soared in the past few seasons, according to Hanle.

“There’s certainly more and more people going up there for the party scene,” he said.

That reputation attracts some people without the ability to ski or ride a snowboard to the restaurant, located at 10,825 feet in elevation at Highlands.

Some foot passengers ride the Exhibition chairlift to mid-mountain, then walk to Cloud Nine even though no foot traffic is allowed above Merry-Go-Round Restaurant during operating hours. Other patrons have tried to hire ski instructors specifically to get them to Cloud Nine, according to Hanle. In other cases, skiers and snowboarders will go to Cloud Nine and party, then realize they don’t have the ability to negotiate the terrain back to the bottom, he said.

The restaurant closes at 4 p.m. as the ski patrol is doing its final sweep of the mountain. Hanle said it isn’t uncommon for patrons to waive down a patroller or to capture attention by their actions. The patrol also regularly converses with the Cloud Nine staff as part of the sweep.

People exiting the restaurant will sometimes claim they lost their skis, they suffered an injury or — in a few cases — acknowledge they drank too much, Hanle said.

“We get a lot of people who get up there and can’t get down,” he said.

So they ask for a ride down. Snowmobiles or toboggans were used for years to haul patrons down. Skico switched to snowcats two seasons ago.

“We pretty much bring the cat there every day,” Hanle said, clarifying that he meant every busy day, such as weekends and weekdays during busy periods. “People think it’s a free taxi ride home.”

He checked a file at his computer and read off numbers — “one, two, four” — representing people that needed rides down on recent days.

Hanle stressed that not everyone gets wasted while drinking alcohol at Cloud Nine. The place has such a good party atmosphere that it creates perceptions. “I think because of the rowdiness of the scene, there’s an assumption that everyone is drinking too much,” he said.

The staff has gone through TIPS training, which helps alcohol servers recognize potential alcohol-related problems and teaches them to intervene in a responsible way. Skico also has intervened to try to curtail the party scene in the past. In February 2012, it removed hard liquor and limited sales to beer, wine and champagne during lunch. Skico also imposed a three-drink limit at that time but that has since been eased, Hanle said.

Skico is reviewing the scene again and considering options. No single event spurred the review, according to Hanle. Instead, the impetus is a concern that patrons get off the mountain without hurting themselves or other skiers and snowboarders they encounter. Hanle said there is no evidence that patrons of Cloud Nine have a higher rate of accidents.

Skico staff will have an “extra presence” at Cloud Nine this weekend, the last of the season. Hanle stopped short of calling it extra security. Sunday is closing day for Highlands, which always spurs a raucous party.

For next season, Skico will consider if people who do not possess the skills to ski or ride a snowboard down the mountain should be allowed to go to Cloud Nine or if they should be charged a fee to ride a snowcat down. The company will not consider making a snowcat ride down mandatory for patrons of the second seating, Hanle said. It’s too soon to tell if an optional snowcat ride will be offered, he said.

“In all likelihood, there will be changes next year,” Hanle said.

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