There was a time not long ago when January was the breathing space between Christmas frenzy and spring-skiing madness, a cold, lonely and dark remnant of the quiet years.
Wintersköl, a relatively minor event in the never-ending calendar of Aspen celebrations, originated as an attempt to breathe some life into the dead time when the weather was cold and dry and Aspen was the last place tourons looked to visit in January. The welcome mat was placed at our doorstep.
The now-extinct Wintersköl parade was the event of January, aimed at attracting visitors in an off-season and reminding themselves that the world was not dead even if the town was. Freddie Fisher, an icon in his day, dragged a piece of toilet hardware down the streets during the Main Street parade, mocking the “celebration” with his parade “float.” The parade he disdained is now as absent from our memories as the man who first perfected silver plating for an Aspen leaf. The welcome mat is tattered and unneeded.
January is now a transition, not a time out, as fleeting as the one minute “rest” triathletes get changing shoes from the bike to the run. As the calendar fills, Wintersköl and its parade has faded to background noise competing with the proliferation of other events seeking the last few empty slots in the Aspen calendar. Even the Winter X Games are business as usual, a TV show for locals who know that the best views are from the family couch.
Gay Ski Week, once a cutting-edge statement of prideful coming out has gone family values mainstream under the weight of local public acceptance. The women’s ski and march has likewise gone from resistance and controversy to acquiescence, drawing bigger names as speakers and fewer marchers as if to say the truth goes without saying. The once empty streets of January are crowded enough to revive the straight-shot Frankenstein for a possible 38th vote.
As a mathematical proposition, the coldest day of the year can be expected around Feb. 1 just as the hottest day is usually near Aug. 1. The nights are shorter and colder but the earlier sunrises take the sting out of even the grayest day. This particular winter is colder and snowier than recent years yet the OK Boomer in me recalls the 20-below ski days running one lap at a time between indoor snack stops.
Still, zero degrees is not nothing — the freeze/thaw cycle has driven noticeably more locals to wearing ice grippers on their shoes recently. Smuggler Road, thawed and refrozen, the lower base switchbacks polished to downhill racecourse standards, has taken me down twice, the only falls I can recall in 40 years of running there. The cushy, grippy Styrofoam surface is gone from the lower quarter of the run to the deck. A once country road runs like a city street for the first half mile on the way up and a half pipe coming down. Caution and dog poo bags abide.
Real skiers knew this time of year as home to the best skiing with the driest powder and sweet cream top to bottom, a dividend after the hectic work and over-amped party lifestyle of the holidays. The newest advances in clothing and heat supplements together with the increasingly “mild” days make it possible to indulge in top to bottom laps without the need for frostbite checks and frequent indoor thaw-outs. The best Januaries may be right now, imperiled outdoors by climate change and indoors by the increase in economic activity that backs up traffic on Main Street twice a day.
The spirit of January, the dead days when there was time to ski, hibernate and do some California dreaming on such a winter’s day, joins the long-gone ski splash, Gay Ski Week outrage, fixed-grip chairlifts and empty parking spaces in our mental history museum. The pine beetle prospers as do local businesses with the demise of the 20-below nights. We’re more accessible, with warmer (or less frozen) weather welcoming more visitors to cheaper lodging. We’re seen less as a piece of Siberia and more as a well-managed ski/festival experience.
Get it while you can, my local friends. Be careful of the warm days for which you wish — as the wish may come sooner and last longer than you hope.
Mick Ireland is on his way up Buttermilk as these words begin their journey from screen to print. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.