Winter in Aspen: There’s a guide for that | AspenTimes.com

Winter in Aspen: There’s a guide for that

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in Winter in Aspen, The Aspen Times' guide to local recreation and entertainment. Pick up your free copy today on newsstands throughout town.

Imagine a fresh layer of powder below you, unbroken glades ahead of you and a bright, blue sky above you. This is just another day in Aspen's backcountry — or, as we like to call it, paradise.

Adventures in the backcountry are some of the most sought-after wintertime activities for locals and tourists alike.

Whether you're an intermediate or expert skier, we recommend arranging a trip with one of Aspen's many reputable guide services, whose members know the mountain better than they know the back of their hand.

ALL HUMAN-POWER

Aspen Alpine Guides has led 100 percent human-powered outdoor adventures around the local mountains since 1987. In the wintertime, the company offers snowshoeing, cross-country ski instruction and tours and backcountry skiing, which guide Stephen Svoradi said is probably the group's most popular request.

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Aspen Alpine Guides leads excursions throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and all the way up to Crested Butte, Leadville and Vail. Trips range anywhere from half a day to several days, depending on guests' preference.

While athletic ability and endurance are factors in determining how challenging a trip should be, Svoradi said they aren't issues for most people.

"The most important thing is to have a good, basic level of fitness," he said, while noting that cardiovascular fitness at sea level and at high altitude are not the same.

And with an average client return rate of more than 80 percent while pushing 20 years as a business, it's safe to say Aspen Alpine Guides is doing something right.

"We really try to give instruction rather than just guide," Svoradi said of the company's nearly 40 guides. "It's about how and why we do things, not 'just follow me.'"

While Svoradi may be a backcountry expert himself, he said a highlight of the job is getting to take people into the backcountry for their first time and reliving the experience with them.

"Some of my favorite moments are first arriving in the high alpine area with just fresh, untracked snow," Svoradi said.

LEARN, EXPLORE

Aspen Expeditions — the region's oldest and largest mountain-guide service — is for newcomers and veterans alike.

The group's extensive outdoor program has trips for all levels of skiers, from its intro to backcountry ski tours to its lift-accessed backcountry descents.

Aspen Expeditions takes excursions on the backside of all four local mountains — Aspen, Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass — as well as Aspen's neighboring peaks, including Mount Sopris, Mount Hayden and Castle Peak.

Backcountry skiing aside, Aspen Expeditions also offers avalanche courses and hut trips.

The level-one avalanche course involves an introduction to the avalanche phenomenon, terrain, decision-making and rescue, while level-two training teaches clients about snowpack formation and metamorphism.

For those seeking a more relaxing backcountry experience, Aspen Expeditions has three hut trips: standard, all-inclusive and — its most lux — the epicurean hut trip, which includes a private ski guide, chef and ski gear.

Because where but Aspen can one escape to a hut in the wilderness and still indulge in a five-star experience?

CATS ALLOWED

For a more relaxed yet equally powder-filled backcountry experience, Aspen Powder Tours may be for you.

The snowcat guide service took off as one of the first commercial cat-skiing operations not only in Aspen, but industrywide in the late 1960s, according to manager Bob Perlmutter.

Aspen Powder Tours leads snowcat trips up the backside of Aspen Mountain three times a day, seven days a week, depending on conditions.

"If it's a go, we go — we only cancel trips if we have to," Perlmutter said. "And our guests who know this are thankful that we do."

A day in the backcountry with Aspen Powder Tours averages 10,000 vertical feet of skiing with nearly 1,200 acres of wilderness terrain as its clients' playground.

"Our philosophy is simple: Ski powder; have fun," Perlmutter said. "It's not intended to be this hard-core, gnarly backcountry experience. It's going out looking for high-quality powder turns and having fun."

Similar to Aspen Alpine Guides, Aspen Powder Tours' 90 percent repeat clientele is a testament to the group's success.

Scott Forbes, a freelance writer who lives in Denver, is one of those returning customers. Forbes, who's skied since he was a child at nearly a dozen ski resorts, said Aspen Powder Tours "is always the best experience, bar none."

"Aspen is the standard by which all others are measured, in my mind," Forbes said. "It's a first-class experience and the highlight of every season."

Ready for the highlight of your season? Book soon, as spaces fill fast. Christmas through early January is the busiest time for guided tours.

erobbie@aspentimes.com