I never understood the appeal of vacationing somewhere cold. I grew up in the top half of New York state, where snowfall was routinely measured in feet and temperatures often had minus signs in front of them come winter. As far as I was concerned, these were conditions to escape, not run toward willingly.
Now I live in Los Angeles; I haven’t seen snow here once in 17 years. And, although I’m still wildly suspicious of freezing temperatures (which, in L.A., is anything below 60 degrees Fahrenheit), an invitation to take part in Aspen Gay Ski Week (AGSW) was too good to pass up.
Launched 42 years ago, AGSW is the country’s original gay ski event and the catalyst toward LGBTQ equal rights in the state. In 1979, AGSW’s founders lobbied the city for legal protections after a local bar ejected some gay skiers for same-sex dancing. The group succeeded and a non-discrimination ordinance passed—the first of its kind in the state.
Since 1996, AGSW has been produced as an annual fundraising event for AspenOUT, a local non-profit focused on combating bullying and promoting tolerance.
This year, Aspen Ski Co., the company that owns and manages the resort, created its “Give a Flake” campaign to raise awareness for both the environment and LGBTQ equality. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, the country’s first openly gay state leader, also issued a proclamation that recognized AGSW as having “long been at the center of the LGBT civil rights movement.”
From banners on every lamppost to special sales from local retailers, Aspen certainly does roll out the rainbow-colored carpet for its LGBTQ visitors. But, if we’re being honest, skiing isn’t really something you just take up casually. Lift tickets, ski lessons, equipment rentals, all the clothing necessary to stave off frostbite: These are not insignificant expenses. Add to that Aspen itself, well-known as a playground for the affluent with its multi-million dollar homes and picture-perfect streets lined with stores like Prada, Dior, and Gucci.
It’s inclusivity at its most exclusive. And, as you might expect, AGSW attracts a mostly male, mostly white, mostly over-30-and-able-to-afford-it crowd.
That said, even someone who had never skied before, like me, found the extravagant, often over-the-top, experience to be a blast:
4 PM: I arrive at the Limelight, the host hotel for the event and my home for the next few days. This dog-friendly 126-room modern riff on a ski lodge offers guests a heated outdoor pool, two hot tubs, ski valet/lockers, gourmet breakfast each morning, and free shuttles to all four local ski areas.
5 PM: The Limelight is also ground zero for the daily après-ski when hundreds of bearded, flannel-clad gay men infiltrate the hotel backed by a thudding bass beat. My room—one of two with an interior view of the lobby—affords me the opportunity to scope out the attendees ahead of time, like picking out my dinner from the lobster tank at a seafood joint.
The lobby is packed. I grab a drink, settle into an overstuffed leather seat, and watch the elaborate game of musical chairs taking place: Everyone circles the room, moving from guy to guy, just hoping he has something to sit on when the music stops.
7 PM: My friend Jason, who has joined me for the weekend, and I set out into the brisk mountain air in search of some dinner. The trees are strung with twinkling lights that illuminate the immense, fluffy snowflakes that swirl around us. A few hundred yards away, a half dozen guys—Ralph Lauren models from the looks of them—bellow with laughter as they pelt each other with snowballs, a scene equal parts Norman Rockwell and Nelson Rockefeller.
We decide to duck into Meat and Cheese for a quick, shared meal of Colorado pork chop covered a creamy mushroom sauce and served with dirty rice, and acorn squash with farro risotto and a brown butter sauce. (What can I say? Apparently we like rice.)
We finish off the night with a mile-high slice of cake from The Hotel Jerome, which opened in 1889, making it the oldest hotel in Aspen.
8:45 AM: I arrive via shuttle at Buttermilk, one of the four mountains that make up the Aspen Snowmass resort. The sun shines brightly overhead and warms the face of the mountain. People of all ages pass by me, beaming wide smiles as they head to the trails. Everyone keeps telling me I’m going to have a blast skiing. I’m skeptical, but who knows? Maybe they could be right.
11:45 AM: I have signed up for ski lessons, and my instructor, Jacques, has the patience of a saint. I have spent more time in the snow than on it. As I tried to stand up (yet again) with the knock-kneed grace of a newborn giraffe, I couldn’t help but wonder what sadist first strapped two planks of wood to his feet and then pointed himself down a mountain. Just as I manage to get myself upright, a pair of toddlers come ski figure eights around me.
12:30 PM: I finally start to get the hang of things and can manage to ski down a slight decline without falling. I feel like Gus Kensworthy. I can’t wait to pick this up tomorrow.
8:30 AM: I stand up from the breakfast table and wrench my back, not so severely that I’m unable to move, but bad enough that my time on the slopes is over. Later, when I tell people that a chair did me in, they will think I mean a chairlift and I will let them.
12 PM: I amble over to the base of Aspen Mountain for the sold out Costume Competition, one of the highlights of ASGW. The event brings out the entire town, many of whom are seated at tables set with bottles rosé, Tito’s vodka, and mixers. Drag personality, Sister Helen Holy, emcees and introduces each of the (mostly) scantily-clad competitors who ski down the very steep final run of the mountain dressed as shirtless Robin or shirtless cowboys or shirtless cupids. I spend most of the time drinking and hoping that the must-be-freezing, half-naked hot guys and girls don’t fall in the snow on the way down. I’m happy to report none did.
8:45 PM: Tonight’s main event—a dance party—takes place at the ski lodge atop Aspen Mountain. We’re told by those in the know to arrive early since the Silver Queen gondolas start running up to the venue at 9pm. In fact, a modest queue has already begun to form, but before long my friend and I, plus a third guy we don’t know, hop on our gondola for the 15-minute ride to the top.
Within seconds Jason has forgotten I exist and turns all his attention to his new friend. They flirt shamelessly. Soon they are sharing a blanket and I’m not seeing any hands. “Would it bother you if we kissed?” I try to figure out if I have the upper body strength to pry open the gondola doors and leap to my death. Kudos to whoever is in charge of safety at Aspen Snowmass: Those things were shut tight.
Fun tip: Try to snag one of the red gondolas. They have bluetooth connectivity so you can play songs from your iPhone and drown out the noises coming from the people sitting across from you.
9:15 PM: Since cannabis is legal in Colorado, I decide to self-medicate. You know, because of my hurt back. I wash two 1906 “Bliss” peanut butter cups that have been enhanced with “four mood-lifting plant medicines to produce euphoria and a chatty, optimistic feeling” according to the company’s website.
9:45 PM Hurt back? What hurt back? Feeling good, I find myself a cute guy to dance with. Then we snuggle up next to the roaring fireplace and I eat about two dozen sliders.
7 PM: It is our last night in Aspen and Jason wants to take me to his favorite restaurant, Cache Cache. We sit at the bar and dine from the lounge menu, a tactic that will save you quite a bit of money over a table in the dining room. We order a piping hot and decadently rich mac-n-cheese with truffle and a ricotta crust (above), as well as a salmon tartare—one of the best I’ve ever had—served with serrano chile crème fraîche, avocado, sea trout roe, and housemade potato chips.
9 PM: Jason and I arrive at the indoor water park at the Aspen Recreation Center for the final event: the Pool Party. As I look around at all the bare bodies, I realize how bundled up we’ve been for most of the last four days. After a run down the waterslide and a couple trips around the not-so-lazy river, I wedge myself into the hot tub and decide to make some new friends.
Before long I find myself chatting with an older, white gentleman named Jim who has been coming to AGSW from Adelaide, Australia, since the 1970s. I ask him how he feels the event has changed over the years.
“Well, of course it’s gotten bigger. And, for a couple years it got pretty commercial,” he tells me, referring to the years when Logo sponsored AGSW. “But, Aspen is expensive, so it draws a different crowd than some of the other ski weeks. A better crowd.”
I wonder what he means by “better” but swim away without asking him to elaborate.