Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I first spotted it on a full-moon night, a beautiful, wide, glorious-looking ski run, one that was tied directly to the 10th Mountain Division. That was four or five years ago, on a winter drive to southeastern Colorado, and in that one glimpse from near the top of Tennessee Pass, a personal crusade was born that finally reached fruition last week.
My entire life has been spent in and around Aspen, a large part of it on Aspen Mountain, so it was impossible to imagine that I might be out of place at a small area such as Ski Cooper. I had on an Eider parka with complementary Eider pants and a pair of Atomic boots, all from Stapleton Sports. In Aspen, I’m just another stylin’ dude, headed up the gondola. At Ski Cooper, I was a colorful curiosity, a guy to keep your eye on. “Better see what he’s up to,” a suspicion I didn’t help by requesting a pair of rental poles. The girl behind the counter, smiling like she truly enjoyed her job, wondered aloud if I had everything else I needed, right down to sunscreen. “Are you sure,” she asked?
It’s hard to say where the customers come from. Some from Leadville probably, and I suspect more from Minturn and the Eagle Valley. I mean, if you had a choice between the crowded slopes of Vail or the total freedom of Ski Cooper, you’d have to think about it.
Like any good tourist, I grabbed a trail map, which almost rattled out of my hand in the strong wind, and headed up the hill on what they call the 10th Mountain Chair. There looked to be a good little run named Corkscrew next to the ski area boundary, and I figured that was a decent place to start, given an existing familiarity with a local run of the same name. In reality, it was a tree trail, more akin to Hidden Treasure on Aspen Mountain and like a gaper, I missed the entrance, requiring a traverse through the trees on set-up crud to get there.
Dodging the narrowly spaced trees put my “frozen-slush” skills to work, and eventually I skied to the bottom of the area’s other chairlift, a non-high-speed triple. A smiling young lift operator, who could easily have been family, wanted to know “what the hell” I was doing over there on that trail, “in these conditions, anyway?” We had a good laugh, and when I asked where the moguls were, he cast me a sideways glance, the kind with a half-closed eye on the near side, and said he didn’t think the snow would soften up that much, not unless the wind quit.
The few moguls I found had incredible rhythm and hadn’t been hit hard enough to get the downhill “chop” on them, the kind that rattle your teeth, like on Summit. It didn’t necessarily matter that they were rock hard. If I’d a been there the day before, I could’ve ripped the place apart in the spring-soft snow and left with a deep tan, but you take what you get.
We can’t deny that we’re spoiled here, having world-class Aspen Mountain out the back door with its great lifts and incredible terrain. Many serious local skiers have reached a level of sophistication, a way of traveling that speaks to recreational professionalism, a die-hard philosophy that comes across as arrogant to many outsiders, and probably with good reason. I may be one of ’em.
There is something refreshing about a place like Ski Cooper, where sitting in the cafeteria, one cannot tell skiers from gawkers, not without looking to see who has on ski boots, and brand is not necessarily connected to quality or “cool.” The employees, just like here, are incredibly friendly and will give you the best service they possibly can. The best part, I suppose, is that Ski Cooper reminds us of our intrinsic skiing roots, particularly as they relate to the 10th Mountain Division. That’s why I went.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.