Tony Aspen gets a rude jolt: sassy snowboarders on its hill

Long a skiers-only enclave, the resort opens as an 'integrated' peak. Locals adjust, warily.

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As the gondola glides above the roofs of old Victorians and new condos to the top of Aspen Mountain, visitors see sights unimaginable a year ago. Wide, single curves zigzag through the powder below. Alongside skiers schussing downhill on two boards, the occasional snowboarder slides by on one.

For the first season ever, Aspen Mountain, long a skiers-only enclave, has opened as an integrated peak, without fistfights between skiers and boarders in lift lines, but not without a little silent seething.

The historic rivalry between skiers and "shredders" may have faded elsewhere, including Aspen Skiing Co.'s other three mountains - Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass - but not on the town's eponymous peak. Its rugged moguls, cliff-like jumps, and powdery aspen glades have been off limits to boarders. If Aspen has a reputation for being glitzier, stuffier, and stodgier than other ski resorts, Aspen Mountain is the glitziest, stuffiest, and stodgiest of all.

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"You've got old-school up here, and they just don't like to see change. That would be my opinion," says Ralph Sheehan, who works at the Sundeck restaurant on the top of 11,212-foot Aspen Mountain. "I'm one of them, you know."

So are most of his patrons, many of them grizzled, gray-haired locals gathered around a soaring gas flame. Some wear the fur-lined, one-piece ski suits that boarders, in low-waisted jackets and baggy pants, disdain. Despite the lifting of the ban, skiers still vastly outnumber shredders here. With lots of challenging black-diamond terrain, Aspen Mountain still attracts mostly experts, and mostly skiers.

As the sun hangs over the snowpacked peaks of the Elk Range, a handful of snowboarders recline in plastic Adirondack chairs on the Sundeck patio, enjoying the balmy 40-degree weather, oblivious to the fact that some may not want them here.

"Everybody's been really nice," says Shellie Strahle, of Auburn, Calif., who never knew there was a snowboard ban. Still, she says, she misses the jumps and halfpipes at other mountains.

"I'll be happy if I can find my terrain park," she says.

Maybe people ought to be more easygoing in a resort dedicated to having fun, but this is a place that always seems split in two. It's a town divided between locals and tourists, between people who live in "starter castles" on elite Red Mountain and those (including lawyers and public officials) in subsidized housing - and between the grown-up hippies who flocked here during the 1970s and the celebrities, corporate tycoons, and dotcom barons who followed.

Now, it's also a town divided between those who slide down the snow on two boards, and those who use just one. After the announcement lifting the ban, local newspapers filled with vitriolic letters to the editor. "The only good snowboarder is a dead snowboarder," one wrote. Some old-timers swore they'd never come back. Skier complaints ranged from "those crazy kids on snowboards" to more nuanced naysaying about wider turns, broader carves, and sliced-up moguls.

"If there's a difference, we can't say age, because it's cross-age, cross-gender these days," Mr. Sheehan says. "You can't say it's kids on boards, because that's not true. I think the mentality [is different]. The boarder probably sees a finer edge of thrill than the skier, who might look for tranquillity. That's the difference."

Industry watchers see another difference: the past and future. The National Ski Areas Association found snowboards accounted for about half the resort visitors aged 18-24 last season. Some predictions show that by 2005, 60 percent of everyone on the slopes will be on snowboards.

"If you don't want to take heed of that, if you want to be like an old factory," Aspen Skiing Co.'s president and chief executive officer Pat O'Donnell says frankly, "you're probably gonna end up with the other bleached bones of corporations that didn't take heed."

Add to that the company's marketing troubles. It couldn't get across that Aspen Mountain banned snowboarders, but that Aspen's other three mountains didn't. The skiing company even tried to change the mountain's name to Ajax, its old nickname, to distance the resort. It didn't stick.

Last winter, the company's managing partner Jim Crown emerged from a day-long ownership meeting on the mountain and stood beside the stony-eyed Mr. O'Donnell (a snowboarder himself who for years pushed the company to lift the snowboard ban). The pair gripped a snowboard together and smiled for the cameras. After peak season, they said, they would lift the ban, leaving just four major resorts - Taos, N.M.; Mad River Glen, Vt., and Deer Valley and Alta, Utah - reserved for skiers.

Shredders took the news with quiet glee. Just three weeks earlier, a coed group of snow poachers had painted the two-word rallying cry "Free Ajax" on their bare chests, hiked up Aspen Mountain by moonlight, and snowboarded down.

Now, the "Free Ajax" bumper stickers around town read less like a manifesto than a simple statement of fact. The hostility is fading, says Larry Madden, owner of Pride snowboard shop and a ban-lifting advocate.

"People are starting to get over it and are moving on," he says. Tougher economic times, even in Aspen, are sending a wake-up call. "Everybody seems to be a little bit more concerned about important stuff, like the survival of the town," he says, "rather than who's standing on what form of recreation."

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