This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
ASPEN — Come get your sweat on in Aspen.
Surrounded by wilderness, public lands and ski resorts, the City of Aspen is angling for opportunities in the surging world of backcountry skiing, hoping to establish itself as the North American capital for human-powered play.
With a calendar heavy with uphill races and events and a deep stable of conservation-minded locals eager for hard-earned fun, Aspen is trumpeting an “uphill economy” plan as a way to ignite the Western Slope’s outdoor recreation industry and build its next generation of visitors.
Imagine big-name outdoor companies setting up research-and-design hubs in Aspen. Imagine a new generation of vacationers coming to Aspen every season for an array of beginner-to-expert hiking, pedaling and uphill-skiing adventures. The so-called uphill economy plan has simmered in Aspen for years and is now emerging as a pillar for the city’s financial future alongside the booming backcountry ski movement.
“I am very committed to diversifying local economy in a way that attracts businesses and jobs and people who can help us preserve our small-town culture,” said Aspen’s outgoing three-term mayor Steve Skadron, who envisions a network of connected outdoor businesses spread across what he calls Colorado’s “underutilized golden triangle” between Aspen, Vail and Grand Junction.
“Perhaps something we do here can be the model for opportunities for our neighbors in coal country who need something as we ultimately transition away from coal. This is far beyond Aspen,” Skadron said. “This is becoming a conversation about Western Slope economic development. My dream is to have the entire Western Slope embrace human-powered uphill fitness. There is an opportunity for us to complement each other’s assets.”
Skiers climb a designated uphill route at Aspen’s Buttermilk ski area on March 31, 2019. (Phillip Supino, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Aspen is a well-established playground, with some of the world’s most celebrated slopes. The city is joining a host of other entrepreneurs and communities hoping to tap a growing population of users whose recreation does not follow the traditional lift line.
By enticing adventurers who don’t mind a little work with their thrills — think of skinning skiers, singletrack-crawling mountain bikers and trail runners — Aspen is hoping to stake a claim in the growing world of human-powered, fitness-based recreation.
“Alpine skiers are getting bored. They are sick of crowds. They are sick of traffic. If the largest motivation is running away from something, there’s a problem to be solved there,” said Erik Lambert, who, alongside business partner Jeff Woodward, is searching for a snowy mountain to anchor a first-of-its-kind ski area, with all the trimmings of a resort, minus chairlifts. “There hasn’t been a significant change in skiing since the emergence of snowboarding and terrain parks. I think people are ready for a cultural shift.”
No place more ready than Aspen
And few communities are better poised than Aspen to take advantage of that cultural change.
The Roaring Fork Valley has nurtured a vast recreation infrastructure over the past half century. More recently it has grown the nation’s top ski mountaineering races with the 24-mile Power of Four races drawing hundreds of skiers in the winter and mountain bikers in the summer.
The Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race between Crested Butte and Aspen is just as popular. Every full moon, hundreds of skiers climb to the top of Buttermilk ski area for food, drink and music at the Cliff House. Every Friday morning, dozens climb to a mountaintop community breakfast. Busy Saturdays can see as many as 300 uphill skiers at Buttermilk, enjoying Aspen Skiing Co.’s progressive policies that pretty much allow uphill skiing at any time at all four resorts in the valley.
The valley’s collection of more than 60 miles of groomed Nordic trails is one of the largest in the nation. Its summer hiking and backpacking trails are some of the most popular in the country, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer.
The uphill-economy plan taps the city to help foster improvements to the already-robust human-powered recreation offerings around the valley. Maybe those improvements involve the Aspen-based 10th Mountain Division Hut Association or the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Council.
Maybe they include the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association identifying new summer hiking and biking trails. Maybe they involve promoting Aspen Skiing’s uphill and open-boundary policies. Or working with the Forest Service to protect wild places through permit systems and transportation plans. Or helping the Aspen Chamber Resort Association better market Aspen’s vacation appeal.
“Rather than come up with our own objectives, we really want to amplify the best ideas from these organizations in a way that supports our cultural and economic development goals around uphill sports,” the city’s long-range planner Phillip Supino said. “We are not interested in recreational development for development’s sake. It’s not about more trails. It’s about the right trails. It’s the classic ‘If you build it, they will come’ approach.”
If Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley can refine their appeal to a broader audience that seeks not just lift-served turns but the more laborious uphill pursuits, the region’s ability to attract outdoor companies interested in research-and-development and product testing “becomes a no-brainer about brand association with our community,” Supino said.
“They see the benefit from being able to put our community on a pedestal with their products,” he said, noting that the city has already begun courting businesses that seem eager to work with Aspen. (The North Face, for example, just hosted a large group of media and retailers in Aspen to highlight the company’s latest innovations.)
Uphill economy considers Grand Valley business
The city commissioned a deep survey of outdoor enthusiasts to find out more about potential visitors who are both backcountry skiing veterans and newcomers eager to explore the world of uphill skiing. Almost 2,000 people responded.
By championing the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado’s rural mountain towns, “we can really push the prosperity happening in some communities to other parts of the state,” said Robin Brown, the head of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership that is touting the Grand Valley’s recreation amenities and affordability as a lure for new businesses and residents. She hopes to piggyback Aspen’s courtship of outdoor companies, offering her amenity-rich valley as a manufacturing hub for growing outdoor businesses. So the company with the headquarters in Aspen, maybe they have warehousing and other services in Grand Junction.
Brown is helping her valley lure more businesses with the development of a foreign-trade zone stretching from Glenwood Springs to Montrose to the Grand Valley. The foreign-trade zone designation allows businesses to lower the duties paid for imported raw materials and not pay those duties until they sell products. Brown said the designation — along with a customs office at the Grand Junction Regional Airport — would help her recruit manufacturing and outdoor businesses, as well as help grow the region’s existing outdoor industry, which includes manufacturers like chairlift giant Leitner-Poma and bike companies DT Swiss and MRP.
“Grand Junction is the Western Slope’s only metro area and it should be the Western Slope capital,” Brown said. “We have the room and resources to grow. There are a lot of synergies that can be developed on the Western Slope.”
Rich Burkley, the head of strategy and business development for Aspen Skiing, said the company’s embrace of uphill traffic has more to do with Aspen’s culture and community than it does with making money.
“This just seems to fit organically with the community culture,” Burkley said. “We do not look at this with any kind of monetary perspective.”
Two backcountry skiers — Woodward and Lambert — are looking at the backcountry as a business opportunity. They envision a backcountry ski area with all the trimmings of a resort — ski patrollers, avalanche mitigation, gear rentals, lessons, guides and a base lodge with food and drink — but with one key tweak: no chairlifts.
The pair’s novel Bluebird Backcountry plan launched a year ago with a survey that quickly harvested more than 2,300 responses. The pair’s plan is heralded by not just backcountry veterans but resort skiers eager to learn more about skiing beyond boundary ropes without the daunting danger of playing in avalanche terrain. The Bluebird Backcountry survey is driving the plan, with a revelation that the most influential motivation for people heading into the backcountry is escaping crowds.
Last month Woodward and Lambert joined the historians and skiers who are working to build a backcountry hut near the historic North London Mill below Mosquito Pass near Alma. One hundred skiers and split boarders — most with limited backcountry skiing experience — paid $50 each for guided skiing around the pass. The gathering helped refine the Bluebird Backcountry plan. Lambert and Woodward are working with Winter Park ski area to carve out a section of the resort after its lifts close for a weekend of backcountry skiing. The late April event, if finalized, will offer rentals, lessons and “free range” skiing around the north end of the resort for $50. (Winter Park’s Mary Jane ski terrain will be offering lift-served skiing through May 12.)
Bluebird Backcountry has grown its list of interested skiers to more than 2,500. It has recruited 30 volunteers who are helping Lambert and Woodward hone their plan.
“We are growing a movement,” Lambert said. “We think what we are proposing is like the climbing gym of backcountry skiing. We want to create a safe and fun place for skiers to learn.”
Users grow, but not the number of guides
Doug Stenclik has seen the Cripple Creek Backcountry shop he opened in 2012 grow into one of the nation’s top retailers of backcountry ski equipment, with shops in Aspen, Vail and Carbondale. He’s seeing tremendous growth in backcountry traffic on Forest Service lands — he estimates 30 percent a year for the past several years — without significant growth in the number of guides or permitted guiding operations.
That’s scary. That means more people are putting themselves in risky situations without enough training to recognize and mitigate those risks. The two Roaring Fork Valley ski mountaineering veterans who died in an avalanche while training for the Grand Traverse near Crested Butte in February were clients of his shop.
“As a retailer it’s one of my biggest conflicts. We are equipping a lot of people so they can go into pretty dangerous terrain. How can we do every bit of our part to help them and push them in the right direction?” said Stenclik, noting that his shop regularly offers Know Before You Go workshops and hosts Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters for clinics and after-work avalanche safety talks.
“Backcountry is certainly the fastest-growing niche in skiing. The progression is that if you can go uphill and you can use your gear, you start heading out the gates and into avalanche terrain. I don’t think there’s a good conduit set up for that transition yet,” he said. “What we see in Aspen are a lot of guide services that can take the $700-a-day tourist out, but I think there’s a more cost-effective way to do that and that is going to be a huge demand.”