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Rediscovering Aspen Skiing and Nightlife

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

The ripple effect of Aspen’s eminence and high price tag has kicked off the gentrification of formerly low-income, mostly Hispanic towns like Basalt and Carbondale, which today have nearly $1 million average home prices and attract people from all over the country. Aspen residents now head to Carbondale the first Friday of each month for the First Fridays Art Walk, in which the whole downtown is closed for gallery openings, and parties pour into the streets. Architect Michael Lipkin had a major impact on the area’s development, founding and building a planned community called Willits. Twenty-two miles from Aspen, Willits is a New Urbanist town similar to Florida’s Seaside, which was created by classmates of Lipkin’s from the Yale School of Architecture. “The concept was to develop a community where everything is within walking distance,” said Lipkin, who moved to Aspen from Manhattan in the 1980’s.

Willits now has 1,800 residents, and represents a brand of sane and sustainable development. There’s a lake, soccer fields, and a running path winding through a long park. At its end is a traditional gridded “downtown”—complete with a general store serving gourmet sandwiches and sporting on its brick façade a fading painted replica of an award-winning Conoco ad from the 1950’s. Next door is a strip of restaurants, above which sit two floors of New York–style loft apartments with million-dollar mountain views. Among them is the stylish Nouveau American restaurant Crave, which stole its chef from Aspen’s venerable Hotel Jerome.

I would have stayed, but I had dinner plans back in Aspen at a new restaurant called Social. Situated in the same downtown building as long-standing Aspen favorite Elevation, Social is also owned by the same team, which includes Gunnar Sachs, son of legendary international playboy Gunter Sachs. A sleek lounge with banquettes, silver globe chandeliers, and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack sitting behind a glass wall, Social serves tapas-style plates—the Kobe meatballs, Boursin-cheese mashers, and caramelized-onion jus were just the ticket for me. Social’s affable manager and co-owner Denise Walters—a wicked snowboarder who just completed her third move to Aspen, this time from New York—then took me downstairs to Elevation, where we continued to eat, and drank an açai martini that’s so delicious the bartender has to hide the Brazilian nectar because the staff keeps sneaking off with it.

All around us, people were talking about where to go next. Some were heading to the bar at Matsuhisa, the Nobu restaurant owned by billionaire Aspen resident Michael Goldberg. I’d been hearing about Goldberg’s three-year-old music club, Belly Up Aspen—the town’s first contemporary-music dance venue, which brings in world-class acts (MSTRKRFT, Seal, Cake) year-round. Just then my phone rang. It was Mooney, who was having a drink a few blocks away at Pacifica Seafood & Raw Bar. When we got there, the painter Pascarella, a bearded man with a knowing smile, was being toasted on the occasion of his gallery opening. More martinis were had until someone at the bar, recognizing Mooney, came over and offered us tickets to the show at Belly Up. Minutes later we were there, thumping along to the strobe lights and electronic music. In the corner above the dance floor, tucked into the back of the booth, was Goldberg himself, a giant of a man (his brother is the hulking pro wrestler known simply as Goldberg), surrounded by beautiful women.

The place was still rocking around midnight, but I had to be up in a few hours. I was going to meet Mac Smith, the head of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol.

The sky was dark when my alarm went off. I checked my e-mail to find that Lois Smith Brady and the others who had promised to join me on the Bowl had canceled. I dressed and stumbled into the Highlands shuttle.

The streets were almost empty, the lights from the Sno-Cats the only visible movement on the mountain. I made my way to the bowels of the Highland base building, following the smell of coffee to the patrol conference room. About 20 people—varying in age from their twenties to fifties, all but three of them men—were gathered around, buckling their ski boots and eating muffins. These were the elite of Aspen, the chosen few who survived Mac Smith’s infamous boot camp and were then selected for the most highly regarded patrol in Colorado.

Smith has a huge gray walrus mustache and long eyebrows, one of which turns up and the other down. At exactly 7:55 a.m., he strode into the room with a long lope and leaned against the back wall. Soft-spoken but businesslike, he jumped straight into a rundown of fences and signs to mend, and a follow-up report on a “lost missing person yesterday,” who was found and then somehow lost again. Then he turned it over to his staff snow-and-weather expert, a barefoot, gnomelike man with a ZZ Top beard and taped toes, who spoke for nearly half an hour about trade winds and pressure systems, then finished by saying, “That’s about all I have.”

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