Aspen Highlands a gem of an area among more posh resorts

It takes three maddeningly long, slow chairlifts to reach the most spectacular summit chairlift ride in North America. But the long trip up Colorado's biggest lift-served vertical drop (3,800 vertical feet) is worth the trip. I am on the Loges chair, the fourth and final leg to the 11,800-foot pinnacle of Aspen Highlands, the odd-man-out of the famous ski town's four ski areas. ``The Highlands'' is the only one not owned by the Aspen Skiing Company (ASC). This makes it akin to a Detroit automaker not owned by General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler.

Like founder and still owner Whip Jones, the Highlands has been something of a rebel from the start. In a town known for its internecine warfare, Aspen Highlands has won its share of battles with the establishment. Some time ago, it litigated its way onto Aspen's four-area lift pass (with the ASC's Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, and Buttermilk). But now relations with ASC under its new president, Robert Maynard, seem relatively good. And tourists are showing a renewed appreciation of Highlands' fine mountain.

The locals, of course, have always appreciated the Highlands. This is perhaps the last American mountain where you can occasionally get a free lift ticket for spending a couple of hours stamping down the snow in places too steep for mechanical grooming. Its history includes legendary skiers like Fred Iselin and Stein Eriksen. And its current ski school director, Bob (Smitty) Smith, who succeeded Eriksen some 15 seasons ago, has helped to bring even experts back to ski school by including a free all-day ski lesson with purchase of a Monday lift ticket.

But being odd man out, the Highlands has not been able to keep up with today's modern destination ski resorts and their super-high-speed lifts, lavish hotels, and posh apr'es ski spots.

Just before my fourth and final clunker of a chairlift ride, I think about Aspen Highlands' challenge to keep pace. Below me is super skiing - steep bowls and chutes far beyond my limits, but also some fabulous cruisers. ``The Golden Horn'' offers some of the country's best giant slalom-type terrain. One of the things that makes it so great is little traffic compared to resorts overflowing with ``super-quad'' chairlifts and jacuzzi-filled health clubs. The other thing is the atmosphere - somehow a tad out of the way, compelled to be a little rustic.

Yet improving business and becoming a ``destination resort'' in its own right is a test of survival as perceived by the folks at Highlands. Hence their plan for some of those new lifts and a new 300-unit luxury hotel at the base. That, in fact, is the latest stake in the long and colorful history of Aspen's growth-antigrowth tug-of-war. (Will the Highlands be allowed to build more than 20 units a year after the initial 120? That's all the county's slow growth code allows, but the Highlands says it needs to build faster to make the project workable.)

Now, I'm on that clunker chairlift to the stratosphere. On my right are the Maroon Bells, awesome, glistening white twin peaks that look close enough to touch. In the distance to my left lies the undeveloped Little Annie ski area on the backside of Aspen Mountain. And beneath me is a skiable ridge, slide-prone chutes falling off on both sides like snowy elevator shafts.

Suddenly the chairlift dives into a ravine before abruptly rising toward the peak. I suck in my breath and look around at the incredibly silent, winter-bound beauty. In a moment my skis and I will be enveloped in it.

``This is what skiing is supposed to be all about,'' I tell myself. Not quad chairs and hot tubs. Yet the Highlands people say that without the growth in numbers that accompanies the extras the future is not bright for this maverick area.

So I am a little ashamed of myself as I start down the mountain, for wanting it ``both ways,'' for wanting neither side to win but for all sides to appreciate and somehow preserve a jewel like Aspen Highlands. After all, how many are left? Downhill course with a wrinkle

Imagine skiing through a trio of turns in a snowy bobsled run at 60 miles an hour, and you may have an inkling of what this season's second-to-last World Cup downhill at Beaver Creek, Colo., Saturday was like. Famed former downhiller and now course designer Bernhard Russi designed it with Vail/Beaver Creek's World Ski Championships next year in mind. This race marks the centennial course's official debut.

About two-thirds of the way down the course, the skiers hit a serpentine channel 450 feet long, with 30-foot-high walls banking to 45 degrees, 20 feet across at the bottom, 60 feet at the top. Racers must figure out whether to stay in the trough or bank off the walls. I skied ``Rattlesnake Gulch'' at slow speeds when it was half filled with snow, and I agree with former downhiller Cindy Nelson of Vail, ``It is not a place to make mistakes.''

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