(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series that profiles area residents who live for riding the mountains.)
Kyle McLernon’s father objects to the title of “ski bum” for his son.
“He said, ‘You’re not a ski bum! You’re a chef!” McLernon laughed Friday, arriving at Aspen Highlands after a chat with his dad.
True, in the kitchen he’s Chef McLernon. But on the hill in Aspen he’s been known as Kyle “The Party Reptile” for the last three decades.
He picked up the nickname from a fellow kitchen worker, shortly after he moved here at age 17 for the winter of 1982-83. Like a lot of juvenile nicknames, it came about simply because it rhymed. And, like a lot of juvenile nicknames, it stuck.
Now 49, McLernon still skis fast and charges moguls — nimbly negotiating them as if his skis are an extension of his body.
And after upwards of 2,500 days skiing the local mountains, McLernon retains a teenager’s enthusiasm for shredding and an expert’s technical skill. Some longtime residents might bemoan the way Aspen’s changed over the decades, but McLernon isn’t one of them.
“They can change the town and they can change the lifts, but they can’t change these mountains and that’s what keeps me here,” he said.
But McLernon caught the skiing bug long before he moved here. He grew up in Vermont, where his dad ran the Snow Lake Lodge at Mount Snow. He started skiing at age 3 and skied freestyle on Haystack Mountain as a kid.
His older brother was a professional freestyle skier as a teenager. The Reptile was inspired by watching his brother negotiate bumps.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, I want to ski like that,’” he recalled.
At 16, he took his first ski trip to Colorado and visited his brother in Vail. Coming from the burly weather and icy ski conditions of the Northeast, McLernon immediately fell in love with Rocky Mountain skiing. He moved to Aspen a year later, and he’s made a mountain-town living ever since — working seasonal restaurant jobs and racking up 100-plus days a year on the mountain.
During his first winter he earned a ski pass and some pay as a dishwasher in the kitchen at Sam’s Knob on Snowmass. He’s worked his way up the local culinary ladder since then — this winter he was the breakfast chef at the Hotel Lenado — but that first gig at the on-mountain restaurant was the best he’s ever had in one way: his schedule had him working three days on and then six days off.
“That left plenty of time for skiing,” McLernon smiled.
He left for school at the Culinary Institute of America in the late ’80s but moved back to ply his trade here when he graduated. His career’s important to him, he said on a ride up Loge Peak chairlift, but skiing is his passion.
“I like cooking and making people happy,” he said. “But, man, I love to ski.”
Some highlights over his 30-year ski bum run have included the powder heavy winters of 1983-84 and 2007-08, along with feature photos in Powder magazine in 1992. That year, he was photographed for the magazine plowing through powder on the backside of Aspen Mountain, and for its annual calendar ripping down Perry’s Prowl.
One ’80s moment of infamy, he recalls, was when ski patrol tried to flag him down for speeding down Copper Bowl. He tried to outrun patrol, crashed and got his pass pulled. Luckily, back then, Aspen Highlands had a separate ski pass — so he migrated over there for ski days until his privileges were reinstated.
This year, he missed the 100 ski day mark because of a mid-season sprained ankle and a concussion. On the latter injury, he had hit a stump coming down Glade 1 on Aspen Mountain. When he got to Little Nell, his broken ski stabbed into the snow and ejected him high into the air, and then onto his head, breaking his helmet.
“Well,” McLernon said, when asked if that accident changed the way he skied, “I got a new helmet.”
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