Winter, winter, chicken dinner

Michael McLaughlin and
Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Several hundred skiers lined up at the Silver Queen Gondola before the 9 a.m. opening of Aspen Mountain. Those that hit the mountain on Saturday were greeted by six inches of new powder.
Michael McLaughlin/The Aspen Times |

You could feel it in the air long before the Silver Queen gondola began shuttling skiers to the top of Aspen Mountain.

The anticipation of the opening day of ski season flowed through several hundred skiers gathered at the base of the mountain. Like any other opening-day sporting event, excitement was everywhere.

It could be seen on the faces of the skiers waiting for that first run of the season, to the workers who nervously watched the clock tick toward the 9 a.m. start time.

By the way, Mother Nature was ready, too. A light snow began to fall at 8:59 a.m. Early conditions declared a 16-inch base and 6 inches of new powder.

The expectations for opening day were not only met—they were exceeded with outstanding powder snow and top-to-bottom skiing.

Angus Graham and Blake Snyder were in line decked out in colorful attire, with Graham donning a purple wig and Snyder staring people down behind his green costume mask.

Graham, who lives in Bethel, Maine, made the trek to Aspen just for opening day. He brought his portable stove and fired up a couple of fried-egg sandwiches on the gondola deck while waiting for the season to open.

“I had to be here,” Graham said. “As a skier, I didn’t have a choice. Come on, man—it’s opening day in Aspen. Why would I want to be anywhere else? I’ve always wanted to ski Aspen on opening day.”

At the front of the gondola line was Damien Williamson, an Aspen resident enjoying his ninth year in the Roaring Fork Valley. Williamson was at the gondola at 7:30 a.m. and staked his claim as the first person in line for the 2013-14 season.

Williamson said he’s first in line almost every powder day he skis, and opening day is no exception.

“This is what we do and why we live here,” Williamson said. “Having 6 inches of new snow at the top was a little extra motivation. There’s been a great vibe in town all week. You can literally feel the energy.”

Right behind Williamson was Mike McKeon, an Atlanta native who now lives in Aspen. He switched from skateboarding to snowboarding for the past couple of years and now officially had snow fever.

“Aspen has been buzzing all week,” McKeon said. “I can’t get this grin off my face. Boarding is all I’ve been able to talk about. I’ve got a feeling this is going to be a great winter.”

There was a similar anticipation for many of the Aspen Skiing Co. employees working around the gondola. Several said they couldn’t sleep Friday night from the sheer excitement of the start of another season.

It’s a good sign when employees are high-fiving before starting work.

Joan Spalding, or as friends call her, “Gondola Joanie,” was back helping people load onto the gondola for her 18th season. She seemed to know every other person and greeted many by their first names.

“I know so many wonderful people here,” Spalding said. “I love my guests. This feels like a family reunion for me.”

Skiers celebrated as they entered and exited the gondola. At the top of the mountain, people were hooting and hollering as they hit the new powder.

With the Silver Queen Gondola and the Ajax Express and the Gentleman’s Ridge lifts running, Aspen enjoyed 215 acres of near-perfect powder conditions.

Aspenite Jud Hawk, 16, was planning a drive to Loveland Pass this weekend, but when word got out that the mountain was opening early, he stayed put.

In 2012, Aspen Mountain opened on Thanksgiving Day with lower-mountain access only. Hawk said he was glad to see the top of the mountain open.

“It’s nice to have an opening at home — and powder on the first day,” Hawk said.

Matt Peruffo, who made the trip to Aspen from Glenwood Springs with his friend Micah James, said Saturday’s conditions were better than expected.

“I thought we’d be skiing hard-pack groomers all day,” said Peruffo, who skied Arapahoe Basin in Summit County on Wednesday, where by midafternoon, rocks were appearing.

“Not like this,” James said, pointing at the snow on Aspen Mountain from Ajax Express.

Trish Schreiber, who has been working as a ski instructor in Aspen since 1991, said the early opening bodes well for the rest of the season in Aspen.

“When you can get October snow, and people find out that we’re opening early, it just makes a difference to the bookings. It’s huge,” she said.

Skico public relations director Jeff Hanle was another person with an ear-to-ear grin as he watched hundreds of happy people head off to play on the snow. Hanle said the opening-day vibe could be felt throughout Aspen.

While Hanle was having breakfast Saturday morning across the street from the gondola, the owner of the restaurant thanked him for the increased business.

“He said he had 10 times as many customers as he would have if the mountain was closed,” Hanle said. “Opening day has a ripple effect in Aspen. It gets people excited. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning and not have to wait for the next football game to come on.”

He said the combination of an early opening and new powder snow had everyone jacked up to hit the slopes.

“The stoke factor is high right now,” Hanle said. “The anticipation has been building, especially after the snow we had in October. Right now, it’s all hands on deck. We’re here to make sure everything runs smoothly for our guests. It’s going to be a great season.”


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