THROUGHOUT NEARLY EVERY period of its history, Aspen has managed to distinguish itself. Its origins as a frontier mining outpost that rose to a glittering late-19th-century city set the stage. The overpowering geography of the surrounding mountains that first supplied the silver helped birth the modern ski industry. Beyond that, its people have always complemented the place, from the World War II generation’s endeavors to create a resort that nurtured the body, mind and spirit to the next generation’s quest to enshrine the values of a high-minded community into local government policy.
All of that history informs the present day; in the words of former Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Kinsley, the revolution has matured. “We stormed the Bastille 40 years ago,” Kinsley says, referring to a class of “young punks, mostly” in the 1970s, who “had a lot of fun and created our own little government.” The place is the product of an extraordinary sequence of events. And, it begs the question: Does the revolution remain in good hands? Storming the Bastille is one thing, Kinsley notes. It’s quite another to maintain the sewer system afterward.
Predicting how future historians will view the present is always risky business, but that too must be asked. What are the defining characteristics of this era? A convergence of factors—the community, the geography and the history—have united to give rise to a new generation that has seen the extraordinary become ordinary. If the dream consists of a life full of physical possibilities realized, cultural pursuits attained and community values upheld, then it has become common to live it here. Normal Aspen, where the mayor competes in endeavors like the 40-mile ski-mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen, known as the Grand Traverse, is not normal elsewhere.
Its residents are left wondering what to aspire to next. For many, finding the answer has never been difficult. There is always a new objective in view from the top of Independence Pass or Highland Bowl, some combination of peak, ridge and valley, accessed in a new or interesting way that hadn’t been thought of before. The community provides fertile soil turning ideas into results.
When Ted Mahon moved to Aspen in the mid-1990s from New York, “I came here for one season, just like everybody else,” the acclaimed mountaineer says. Soon, the access—both to the physical routes and personal relationships with people who could conquer them—made it clear that Aspen was not just a temporary stopover. “The proximity to the outdoors, the tight-knit community where everyone knows each other—that lends itself to goals,” Ted says
Living close to those pursuing great outdoor achievement means one can see firsthand what it takes to get there. It’s inspiring to learn that, despite the audacity of the projects, “these are, in some ways, ordinary people,” he says. Pretty soon, one starts to say to himself, “I could do that too.”
Along with wife Christy Mahon and Chris Davenport, Ted skied the state’s 100 tallest peaks; he competes in ultrarunning races such as the Hardrock 100 and has competed Nolan’s 14—linking together 14 peaks over 14,000 feet in the Sawatch Range—in just over 55 hours. And he has a day job, working as an instructor on Aspen Mountain, while Christy is the development director for Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Darcy Conover and Adam Moszynski have set foot on 93 of the Centennials—the state’s 100 tallest peaks—as well. Now they are shooting for the Bicentennials, meaning the 200 tallest. Their go-to move is to explore ridgelines emanating from the top of a pass, getting away from the trails and the crowds. “There is always a plan F,” Conover says.
The transplanted East Coasters landed in Aspen after college, working nights in the town’s restaurants and bars so they could ski and play all day. Now in their mid-30s, they have a 2-year-old daughter and a 3 ½-year-old clothing company—Corbeaux, which specializes in base layers—they run out of their Aspen townhome.
“There is no way we could have done this anywhere else,” Conover says, referring to starting a clothing company with little business experience or fashion industry knowledge. But being in Aspen meant they were in the midst of a “concentrated amount of highly driven people.” So they started taking meetings with anyone—from wealthy executives they met through their restaurants to outdoor-gear-industry reps making their way through the valley—who might be able to help them as upstart entrepreneurs.
Any perceived imbalances or inequities in such social situations can be smoothed over in the Roaring Fork Valley, Conover says, because mountains work as humanizing equalizers—a steep hike or ski subjects all entrants to the same factors and challenges.
They also see the out of doors as crucial to their creativity. “Our best brainstorming sessions are always when we are out in the mountains. If we get to a block, we’ll say we need an adventure day. That’s when we solve everything,” Conover says. “That couldn’t happen if we were staring at each other in a boardroom.”
John Gaston, who is back in Europe this winter competing for the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team, notes that a spirit of progression infuses the town. “It can be slow or rapid, but it’s really hard to move here and not progress,” he says, who founded Strafe Outerwear (and was later joined by his brother, Pete Gaston). “It’s hard to immerse yourself in these mountains, this community and not feel that drive.”
John, originally of Rhode Island and Connecticut, but a lifelong visitor to the Rockies, spent his winter breaks and weekends as a University of Colorado student around Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands, trying to emulate his favorite big-mountain skiers from the latest Teton Gravity Research or Matchstick Productions film. Endurance mountaineering and skiing, with the lightweight, too-easily-breakable gear and clothing, originally ran afoul of his big-mountain sensibilities.
Now 30 and training for ski mountaineering races against a field of elite European competitors, he strives to rack up 10,000 feet of vertical in a single training day, when a typical workout might combine five ascents of Tiehack with another climb to midmountain at Aspen Highlands.
“Things have really snowballed, absurdly,” he says. Highland Bowl was the bridge that turned a dedicated skier into a ski mountaineer. John became obsessed with the diversity and durability of the ski terrain; the hike up was just about the access.
After an injury sidelined him for a winter, John became more interested in ski-mo and endurance sports. Encouraged by his brother and noted endurance athlete Max Taam, he threw himself into competitions, winning the Power of Four with Pete in 2012 and with Taam in 2013. A win, also in 2013, at the U.S. Ski Mountaineering championships in Jackson, Wyo., sent him on the path to a competitive career that he wants to see through until his mid-30s. After that, he plans to slow down and get back to skiing just for fun, sharing the sport with his son, who turns 1 in May. He is also excited to see Strafe continue to mature as the mainstream ski industry begins to embrace touring and uphill.
John sees Aspen Highlands and the experience of the bowl as a lynchpin in his life. It is always right there—a short lift ride away and off he goes on a hike surrounded by 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks. He doesn’t have to take off on a daylong excursion to feel the power of an elevated sacred place.
“We take this stuff for granted, but as an outsider, you are blown away,” John says. “I knew I needed that in my life. I feel a lot of people have gotten themselves into a similar situation.” And that might be just what sets Aspen apart.