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​Playgrounds: The Funky Ski Town That is Aspen, Colorado

When most Americans think of ski vacation, with dry and bottomless Rocky Mountain snow, the first place their mind goes is likely Colorado. Home to over 30 ski areas, a ski community that goes back generations, and backcountry lines to rival those found anywhere else, skiers like Colter Hinchliffe have plenty to look forward to each winter.

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Born and bred in the mountains surrounding the bustling ski town of Aspen, Hinchliffe was raised with skiing in his blood. He was put on skis by the age of three, but it was really the pull of the huge peaks around him that shaped his skiing career and influenced his style that brings freestyle skiing to big mountain lines. Whether it’s lapping the Ajax Gondola, shredding Highlands Bowl, or venturing deep into the Elk Mountain backcountry beyond the resort, Hinchliffe loves coming home after winters on the road filming with TGR.

According to Hinchliffe, the Ajax Gondola is key to a good time in Aspen. Justin Mayers photo.

The Aspens were starting their annual change in color to a majestic gold as we caught up with Hinchliffe, and he shared some of his favorite moments from skiing in his home range.

Capitol Peak First Descents:

While nowhere near the tallest peak in Colorado, the 14,131-foot summit of Capitol Peak might be one of the most majestic in the state. With its iconic and aptly-named Knife Edge ridge, reaching the summit is a technical challenge even in summer. Come winter, those challenges become exponentially harder, but Hinchliffe seeks them out hungrily.

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Like any good Coloradan, Hinchliffe spends his summers pushing his limits in the vertical realm, spending days working on rock climbing projects in nearby areas like Independence Pass. He says, “Climbing really helps me in the ski mountaineering realm, mostly with the rope and anchor systems being familiar territory rather than second guessing the systems. It really helps to be efficient and confident with the ropework when you’re trying to move quick, manage risk, and stay cool calm and collected. Climbing also really helps me deal with the exposure that comes into play when skiing lines like Capitol. Just being used to that feeling of being on a wall in a no-fall zone, and being comfortable, not letting the fear block your brain from focusing on what you need to do rather than focusing on bad thoughts.”

Rock climbing all summer prepares Hinchliffe for mega missions come winter. Colter Hinchliffe photo.

Thanks to high altitude and a typically touchy snowpack, Colorado’s ski mountaineering season tends to come late. Like May-July late. In 2015, after an especially good late season, Hinchliffe teamed up with some friends to return to Capitol Peak’s North Face, a scary-steep and cliffed-out face that resembles something out of the Alps, or even the Canadian Rockies. It’s the kind of ski line where bringing a rope is not only a good idea, but imperative for safe passage. Finding the right conditions for a safe descent also prove to be like playing a cat-and-mouse game. They will be good, then it will be too hot, then it might snow again, and reset the whole cycle.

Hinchliffe had been up there before, scoring the first descent of a line called the Plank with fellow Aspen local Jordan White (who is the youngest person to ski all 54 of Colorado 14ers). Capitol’s North Face so intrigued them that they vowed to return and find a cleaner path down the face. The new line, dubbed Peg Leg, proved daunting.

After climbing through the night, the team summitted a few hours after sunrise, and realized that the line might not be skiable from the top, so they rappelled off the summit to reach the upper snowfield. What followed were some the scariest but most fulfilling turns of their lives, skiing 60-degree slopes above hundreds of feet of exposure in the beautiful morning light. However, they were not down yet.

On the final rappel, Hinchliffe, fumbling with his ropes, dropped his ski over a 400-foot cliff. Luckily, he was able to find it at the end of his rope, damaged but still skiable. The team linked turns down the corn snow runout back to Capitol Lake and celebrated.

Inbounds Action – Ajax and Highlands Bowl

Outside of ski mountaineering and rowdy big mountain descents, Hinchliffe loves a good lift-served pow lap as much as the rest of us. Luckily, Aspen has that covered. With four major ski areas in the valley, Aspen Mountain, Aspen-Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands, there is something for everybody, every day.

Hinchliffe says his perfect day skiing pow would something like this:

“My ultimate powder session would be on one of the few chairs that I love riding in the world, like Wildcat at Alta, Deep Temerity at Highlands, or the gondola at Ajax. Just a free-refills, snowing-hard, nobody-there type of day, with a handful of friends. It’s that sleeper pow day feeling where there’s no big hustle.”

It's the kind of thing that he still finds day in and day out on his home mountains and chases with a fervent passion. Hinchliffe sums it up: “Aspen’s ski scene is all about having fun no matter how you wanna do it. Whether it’s top-to-bottom gondi laps all day, one and done to après, ski mo to the top at 6 A.M., or rolling the dice on Tonar, it’s all legit and keeps people stoked!”

A Party Town With A Ski Problem

With annual events like the X-Games, one of the rowdiest closing day celebrations in the industry, and a fun-loving local population, it’s not surprise that Aspen knows how to have a good time after long days of skiing.

One of Hinchliffe’s favorite moments might the annual closing day festivities at the local resorts. While it may signal the end of one season, it by no means signals the end of the fun. He tells us, “Everyone always talks about Highlands closing. It really is nuts. Crazy vibes. The deck bounces under the weight of the whole ski community dancing in unison. It’s incredible.”

While Highland may be the famed party he shares a local’s pro tip, “I tend to actually have even more fun the next week at Ajax closing. Somehow the skiing is always better. And we spend a lot more time skiing (and drinking) instead of just drinking at places with good views. At the end of the day after Ajax closing we used to all end up at the Sky Bar (now in the middle of a full rebuild, sad) where there was a pool, a dj, bartenders that would hook it up, and all the best buddies. We would party in our ski boots till the sun went down. Half the time we would end up in the pool with our boots on. And that time of year, late April town is empty so we could take to the streets like complete wild animals and no one would care. Those are some of the best parties I can remember!” 

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“Duck!” my partner, Ben, told me as he tightened the rope that connected us. I buried my head into my chest as a waterfall of heavy, cold snow cascaded around me. It collected everywhere there was space: in between my sunglasses, down my jacket, and in my helmet.  "Is this what a river rock feels like as water flows undisturbed by its presence?” I thought to myself as I waited for it to end.My existence on this wall of ice on the final pitch of the Chevy Couloir on the Grand Teton was