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February 21, 2016updated Aug 08, 2017

Colorado: The Rocky Road High

By Lauren Jade Hill

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

Driving around the excellent ski runs in the Rockies can take up valuable skiing time – those magnificent mountains just get in the way. Gabriella Le Breton takes to a private plane to hop among four top resorts and maximize the thrills on the slopes.


When you fly into Aspen, the views of Roaring Fork Valley are spectacular: Independence Pass slices through the Continental Divide in the background while Aspen Mountain lies like a sleeping bear in front. Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass are so close you feel you can reach out and touch them as you descend.

Client relations manager for Atlantic Aviation, Kim Bracher meets me on the snow-dusted tarmac of the mountain airstrip and ushers me into the fire-warmed lounge, advising that I drink plenty of water as we’re at an altitude of 7,820ft. Through a window she points out a batch of peaks topping 14,000ft (14ers to locals) and the gladed runs of Buttermilk, just the other side of the strip. “You can find powder stashes in the Tiehack trees days after a dump,” she confides.


Happily, I’ll be seeking out those stashes very shortly, having touched down in Aspen an hour after stepping off the slopes of Vail. Separated by just six minutes’ flying time (Visual Flight Rules), Aspen and Vail have long enjoyed a friendly rivalry. While Aspen lays claim to a charming Victorian town and 5,547 acres of skiing dispersed across four distinct mountains, Vail offers 5,289 acres in its single ski area, on top of which your lift pass gives access to an additional 1,832 acres of neighboring Beaver Creek. Vail fans love the convenience of its lively, car-free center and various village base stations while dedicated Aspenites point to their exceptional cultural and foodie scene. Both resorts guarantee manicured trails, superb backcountry terrain and attentive service on and off the mountain.

Personally, I’m content to be testing out the slopes of both ski icons as part of the ultimate Colorado ski safari. I struck upon the idea for my airborne adventure while mapping out the 470-mile drive from Vail to Aspen and on to Crested Butte and Telluride. As it dawned on me I’d spend some 10 hours on the road, I realized I could cover the same distance in 45 minutes by jetting into each of those resorts’ private airports. It was, in ski bum terms, a no brainer.

My air trip started in Vail, and following in the footsteps of many a Vail aficionado, I transferred directly to the Sonnenalp. The hotel is owned and run by the Faessler family, who opened their first guesthouse in the Bavarian Alps in 1919. Inspired by Vail’s energy and optimism, the Faesslers recreated their traditional Bavarian house in the heart of the blossoming resort 60 years later, complete with gemütlichkeit, that Germanic cosiness, warmth and comfort.

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Vail’s extensive ski area is accessed by a handful of base village lifts, including Gondola One, a four-minute stroll from the Sonnenalp (although the hotel’s Skihaus concierge is at the base of the lift). Vail delivers more groomed terrain than any other resort in the world, spread across the Front Side of Vail Mountain, its seven Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin.

When the first day of my ski adventure dawned crisp and bright, I rode the lifts straight up to Buffalo’s on Front Side to admire sweeping views of the vast area before whizzing down Vail’s longest black run, the four-mile meandering Riva Ridge. Then it was time to lap the gentle Back Bowls (ideal for those looking to build powder skiing skills) before moving to the steeper, more challenging Blue Sky Basin to get my ski legs back.

Leaving those powder-filled bowls after a few days was tough but Doug Paley, owner of my next pillow for the night, puts my mind at rest when he strides into the Aspen airport lounge. Meeting me with a firm handshake, Paley exudes vitality and passion for the mountains. President of Aspen’s Mountain Rescue organization, Paley has lived here for 15 years and rents out his sprawling Snowmass home, Pioneer Canyon Ranch.

Set in 40 acres of private grounds in the heart of a 300-acre ranch, the spectacular property comprises seven bedrooms, a private apartment, contemporary living and entertaining areas with floor-to-ceiling windows, hot tubs, steam rooms, games rooms – I could go on.

Paley is a hands-on kind of guy, eager to meet guests and introduce them to his favorite runs on Snowmass (he’ll give you a run for your money through the freshly gladed terrain on Burnt Mountain), and show them around the Mountain Rescue Center. He’s wholesome, sun-beaten proof that there’s more to Aspen than plush boutiques and oxygen canisters in hotel minibars – locals ski and play hard, and appreciate the beauty of their surroundings.

Ideally, one should spend a day skiing each of Aspen’s four mountains, with an additional day for Snowmass, which alone boasts more skiable terrain (3,332 acres) than most North American resorts. Even doing so, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface by the time I’m in the air again, bound for Crested Butte. However, I’ve timed my flight to catch the sunset as we fly past a golden Mount Sopris, over the Raggeds Wilderness and into the open valley of Gunnison, and private mountain cat-skiing awaits me in the “Crusty Butt.”


The handshake that greets me at Gunnison is even firmer than Paley’s –Moose is a gentle giant who knows every Colorado fish by name and judges my ski boot size and DIN setting by eye.We reach Scarp Ridge Lodge, a beautifully restored 19th-century miner’s hall in central Crested Butte, in time for salted plum margaritas at the tiny Dogwood Cocktail Cabin in town before an amazing supper, cooked by the talented chef Ashley in the open-plan kitchen and dining room.

After an excellent night’s sleep (each of the Lodge’s five suites benefit from an automated oxygen delivery system to counter-balance Crested Butte’s 9,115ft altitude), it’s time for the highlight of my trip: cat-skiing on Mount Irwin.

Like Scarp Ridge Lodge, Mount Irwin is owned by Chad Pike, the vice-chairman of real estate giant Blackstone Europe. Pike’s snowy playground is set in the West Elk Mountains, 12 miles from town, and comprises 1,000 acres of chutes, glades, bowls and steeps doused in 600 inches of snow each winter.

We reach Irwin aboard “The Tucker,” an eight-foot-high supersized snowcat with four sets of articulating tracks, reclaimed timber interiors, leather seats, a minibar and plasma screen. Once there, having soaked up views of Pyramid Peak and Maroon Peak, we spend two days bouncing down virgin powder pillows, meandering through pine trees and whooping for joy down untracked bowls.

Lunch and après beers are enjoyed in the old Movie Cabin before evenings at the Lodge, luxuriating in the spa, rooftop hot tub and cinema. As tempting as it is to stick purely to Irwin, head guide Steve Banks encourages us to ski
with him on Crested Butte Mountain Resort (all ski guiding is included in the price of exclusive use of the Lodge), and we’re rewarded with one of the best resort ski days I’ve ever experienced. The resort might lay claim to less than half the skiable acreage of Snowmass, but it’s every advanced skier’s dream, with 85 percent of marked trails rated as intermediate, advanced or expert and 542 acres of double diamond terrain.

All too soon, it’s time for the final leg of my ski safari – Telluride. I’ve saved the most dramatic landing for last: set on a plateau in the San Juan Mountains at 9,078ft above sea level, Telluride’s airport is legendary for the slight dip in its runway, threatening to pitch the unwary down a 1,000ft drop to the San Miguel River.

The jagged peaks of the San Juan mountains are more reminiscent of the Alps than the Rockies: sheer terrain that delivers extraordinary views and challenging skiing, where acres of steeps, bumps, glades, chutes and powder bowls await.


A 10-minute drive from the airstrip, Telluride is a cluster of Victorian miners’ buildings wedged into a box canyon encircled by rugged peaks. This is where Butch Cassidy staged his first bank robbery. It’s also where I discover my ski nirvana: Telluride delivers some of Colorado’s most abundant hike-to backcountry ski terrain (the lung-busting hour and a half hike up Palmyra Peak rewards me with some of the best terrain I’ve ever skied); jaw-dropping scenery; excellent on-mountain dining; virtually empty pistes and line-free lifts.

New in town this winter is Dunton Town House, a five-bedroom former miner’s home located a snowball’s throw from the gondola. The Town House bears all the quality hallmarks of its sister property, Dunton Hot Springs, with the added bonus that it’s in the heart of one of Colorado’s most vibrant ski towns, which is threatening Aspen’s culinary crown.

As I sip a Telluride Brewing Company ale in the Last Dollar Bar, candles reflecting in the 19th-century stamped tin ceiling, I muse on the rich rewards my Colorado ski adventure has brought. A ski air trip is definitely your ticket to maximum exploration. Kim Bracher’s words from Aspen come back to me: “If Telluride is hit by a big storm, you can always grab a jet and be back here in time for après ski.” Now there’s a thought…



Eagle County Airport

Twenty minutes’ drive from Vail, the Vail Valley Jet Center ( offers 20 acres of ramp parking, heated hangars and full US Customs Services for international flights.

Contact Paul Gordon, president of VVJC, +1 970 524 7700

Aspen/Pitkin County Airport

A 10-minute drive from downtown Aspen, Atlantic Aviation ASE ( offers 24-hour surveillance, heated hangars and a concierge service.

Contact Fred Mosher, general manager, +1 970 920 2016

Gunnison Crested Butte Airport

Located 40 minutes’ drive from Crested Butte, Avflight Gunnison ( offers ramp and tie down parking, hangars and courtesy transport.

Contact Chris Flynn, general manager, +1 970 641 0526

Telluride Regional Airport

A 10-minute drive from central Telluride, Telluride Airport ( is one of Colorado’s most scenic, set at 9,069.7ft above sea level.

Contact Richard W. Nuttall, airport manager, +1 970 728 8601


Sonnenalp Hotel, Vail; from $3,500 per night for the Castle Peak Suite. Contact Stefan Schmid, general manager, +1 970 479 5468,,

Pioneer Canyon Ranch, Aspen; from$20,000 per night for exclusive use. Contact Doug Paley, owner, +1 970 710 1044,,

Scarp Ridge Lodge, Crested Butte; from $17,180 per night for exclusive use, can accommodate 10 guests. Contact Tyler King, global sales director, +1 970 349 7761

Dunton Town House, Telluride; from $1,800 per night for exclusive use. Contact GarethMartin, house manager, +1 877 288 9922,,


Sweet Basil, Vail; 193 E Gore Creek Drive, serving innovative modern American cuisine since 1977. Reservations advised. +1 970 476 0125

Element 47, Aspen; 675 E Durant Ave, Aspen; chic restaurant in The Little Nell Residences serving throughout the day, from Powder Day breakfast specials to gourmet tasting dinners. Reservations advised. +1 970 920 6330

Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, Aspen Highlands; atmospheric cabin serving authentic Austrian mountain food for lunch and boisterous après-ski from 2pm onwards. Reservations essential. +1 970 923 8715

Soupçon, Crested Butte; 127 Elk Avenue, Ste A; tiny candlelit restaurant in a former miner’s cabin serving exceptional French-American cuisine from chef patron Jason Vernon. Reservations essential. +1 970 349 5448

Sheridan Chop House, Telluride; 231W. Colorado Avenue; classic Western steak house, specializing in locally sourced beef and bison. Reservations advised. +1 970 728 4351

The 10th, Mid Vail; a contemporary mountain restaurant at the top of Gondola One, serving Colorado produce prepared by local chef TimMcCaw. Reservations advised. +1 970 754 1010

Alpino Vino, Gold Hill, Telluride; adults-only Italian-style mountain restaurant and après-ski venue. North America’s highest restaurant, accessible by snowcat for dinner. Dinner reservations essential. +1 970 728 7560

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