Gwyn’s High Alpine comes of age
Like returning to a welcoming home after a long day, making our way into Gwyn’s High Alpine, my favorite on-mountain restaurant, during my early ski-school years felt just as welcoming.
Popping out of my bindings and pulling off my goggles, I would shuffle along in a clumsy little parade of boot-clad, snow-covered ducklings waddling in behind our instructor. I fondly recall the sensation of finally reaching the double doorway, the warm, yummy air and a welcoming smile from Gwyn herself that would often greet us upon entering as we habitually clambered down the stairs to collapse at our usual table.
This year, Gwyn’s High Alpine is undergoing a very substantial makeover that will be unveiled this ski season. During its closing days last season, it paid homage to the early days of the restaurant with vintage prices and throwback parties. And as I roamed through the familiar spaces one last time in April and watched my son play with Gwyn’s grandson, the way my sisters and I had played with Whitney and Tracey decades ago, concern washed over me. Would this beloved icon lose its charm? Would it ever feel the same again?
As a little ski-schooler, I can remember thawing out and coming round amidst the sounds of the cheerful chatter on the ski-school level at Gwyn’s High Alpine. I can still hear the endless procession of boots clomping down the staircase and the now-vintage Pac Man machine’s perpetual “wakka wakka” reverberating in my mind. And I recall how, despite always burning the tip of my tongue, that first taste of hot chocolate so deeply warmed my chilled core. After a hearty hotdog boost, we would crawl around under the tables and between the tourists in search of loose change. If lucky enough to find a coin, we would pool our new found wealth along with the extra quarters received back in change from the $5 bill that paid for our $4.50 ski-school lunch. Then we’d hop the rope into the patrons line to purchase a pack of Mentos.
Receiving the “I saw that” wink from Gwyn, we would scurry off, up beyond the panoramic “plane level” and to the “hang-glider loft” where the older, cooler kids sat near the boisterous ski instructor’s table. There we would try to barter our candy for a chance to sit in the presence of their awesomeness until George would shoo us back down to the little kid level. It would seem like our lunch break lasted for hours, and the place was an on-mountain home.
Since the 1979-80 ski season, Gwyn and George and, in time, their daughters Whitney and Tracey, have run Gwyn’s High Alpine with innovation and a hard-core work ethics in an atmosphere of athleticism and gourmet cuisine.
And maybe because for decades it has been a family-owned and operated business — the last privately run, on-mountain restaurant — it has earned it’s respected reputation. For this reason, generations of visitors and residents alike now return year after year.
My sister Kalli fondly recalls how, at around the age of 9, she would join her best friend Whitney as the family would head up to High Alpine on their snowmobiles before 6 a.m. She reminisces how “if both Whitney and Tracey had a friend with them, Whitney and I would get to hold on to a rope and be pulled up behind the snowmobiles. It was similar to water skiing, except that it was dark out and we were heading uphill with snow spraying in your face and the smell of two-stroke filling your nose. You never knew when you were going to hit a bump, and of course this was before kids wore helmets. If you crashed, you skied in the dark down to the bottom of the run where George would meet you with the snowmobile to try it again.”
As highschoolers, we continued to frequent High Alpine, which was still our restaurant of choice on Snowmass Mountain. We would share zucchini sticks, celebrity sightings, bowls of that amazing chili and apple strudel and enjoy meeting up with regular visitors and old friends — all in a half-hour break, connecting on top of a mountain.
I’ve continued my patronage over the years, on occasion upgrading my dining experience to the elegant Gwyn’s. But I usually seek out the ideal mid-level corner seats with a spectacular view, or maybe find a chair out on the deck in the spring, where I can’t help but overhear the comments of how this place had become a must-do for many a visitor. And, of course, no saving seats as well as proper helmet etiquette.
I’ve loved spending time there, observing how the past and future of Snowmass are still so interconnected in that space. Last season, sitting and taking in the awe-inspiring views, I overheard some of the original town’s developers, now in their 70s and 80s, as they discussed future projects while commenting on the incredible gladed runs that they had just skied. They ruminated how there is an art to fusing man-made structures, which will not only appeal to a large and sophisticated tourist audience but also welcome locals. It’s not easy to build and still blend aesthetically with our sensational environment.
While the mountain setting doesn’t change, Snowmass Village and its character are ever changing. Therefore I was apprehensive about how it may feel to walk into this iconic on-mountain staple while it is undergoing a major renovation this summer. But yesterday, to my great relief, I witnessed first hand what can happen when positive efforts to preserve historic character are handled with care and tact; and I observed local synergy at it’s best as Gywn, George and Whitney worked in concert with Aspen Skiing Co., contractors and designers.
The enthusiastic reactions to it’s progress were palpable. This is the first time, in a great while, that I’ve observed in earnest a local landmark maintaining its original character and yet coming-of-age. It is a model that we might consider as we shape the future of Snowmass Village, one project at a time.
The character that draws us here can easily be lost within a few short years, particularly in a town as transient and ever-evolving as ours. If we are not painstakingly diligent, the very things that we and our visitors love about Snowmass can be forever lost.
There is value in working within the contours of the mountain-landscape and acknowledging the community roots that now run generations deep. It protects us from the disconnect that can happen when we forget exactly why we are here in the first place. Our true destination after all is the mountain, and we stay because of the community.
So it’s gratifying to see that a landmark such as Gwyn’s can be substantially updated without losing its unique character and charm; and I look forward to once again being welcomed into the warmth of this on-mountain treasure.
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