I live in Aspen, Colorado, and I am always looking for an excuse to go hiking or climbing, even at my ripe old age in my mid-70’s.
July 20 is my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate with a hike. The only questions were where to hike and with whom should I hike? The problem this summer of 2019 is that we had so much snow last winter and spring, there is still too much above about 12,500 feet to go up high, safely. Of course, I’m not the only one wondering where to hike. It is no secret that Aspen is nestled in the Colorado Rockies, with the Elk Mountain range and its fourteeners fully in view. Although synonymous with skiing and home to one of the area’s most pristine ski resorts, Aspen also offers the full range of hiking, from paved hiking trails to difficult mountain summits. Located along the Roaring Fork River, Aspen sits at an elevation just below 8,000 feet. The town was named for the high abundance of aspen trees in the area. An iconic uphill hike that is a real workout starts in Aspen town and goes up to the top of the ski mountain we call Ajax, formally known as Aspen Mountain. It is a tough trek because it involves 3200 feet of uphill in only about 4 miles, and it gives no real break all the way up. Strong, younger folks who are acclimated to the altitude do it in 1 ½ to 2 hours. I would be happy in double that time with the way I stroll up mountains. I am fortunate to have a friend in Jacq Shear who loves hiking my “smell the roses” style (i.e. at my speed). She keeps herself in great fitness condition which is a real asset ascending 3200’ on foot instead of in the Gondola. During the summer, Aspen Ski Company runs the Gondola all day on Sundays only. Most folks buy a day pass and take it to the top where there are all kinds of activities ranging from frisbee golf to a live bluegrass group and plenty to eat and drink. The views from the 11,100-foot top are stunning in all directions, so on Sundays it is a hopping place. When you’ve had enough paradise, you can Gondola right back down.
Jacq and I planned to meet our spouses at a set time for lunch on the top, so we got to trailhead early. There are several ways to go up the mountain; two of them start at a popular steep and rocky trail called the Ute Trail. Most people hike a mile-long portion of the trail straight up about 900 feet to a big rock and then head back down. But from that rock you can continue on another 2300 feet up to get to the Ajax summit.
We chose to head off to the main ski slope just above the famous Little Nell hotel and work our way up, initially on switchbacks and then following trails right up the ski slopes. Most reviews call the trek uphill a “…lung-buster, rated difficult. Be prepared to sweat—a lot— and bring more water than you think you’ll need.” I second the water recommendation, but some insect repellant and plenty of suntan lotion are also on the required list. I don’t have photos of the blow-by-blow hike up, but this photo is what we looked like as we approached the top – in good shape. We were hot, but Jacq chose lots of cover to protect from the sun, especially at that altitude. For me, Banana Boat SPF 30 has always worked just fine.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the good fortune of being in condition to do such a hike and to be rewarded with the views that are so special when on top of a mountain. Since any summit is a high point, you can turn a full 360 degrees and see views in every direction. I also felt great physically, the kind of feeling you get when you have stressed your body to the edge of its abilities: legs feel strong, like walking on springs, and the whole body moves with a muscular ease. We had lunch on top, drank a bit of wine, and took the Gondola down with a touch of buzz from the combination of wine, altitude and beauty. For me, there’s no better birthday!