Aspen thrives after allowing ‘Rider Invasion’ 20 years ago

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ASPEN | It was billed as a generational battle, as an on-mountain culture clash, a safety hazard and “the end of Ajax.” But when the Aspen Skiing Co. finally opened Aspen Mountain to snowboarders on April 1, 2001 and then for the 2001-02 season, the result was an anti-climactic and copacetic mix of skiers and snowboarders at Aspen’s original and most iconic ski area.

In the two decades since then, the two styles have coexisted, shaping the on-mountain culture of Aspen Mountain into its mix of hard-charging downhillers on its rarefied expert terrain and an equally decadent après scene at the base.

— ‘Rider invasion’

The day after that sunny first Sunday of snowboarding, the Aspen Times’ headline read “Ajax Survives Rider Invasion” (the New York Times headline the same day read “Snowboards End an Era on Aspen’s Main Slope”).

Costumed boarders arrived to celebrate that first day, which began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and ended with a reported crowd of 2,500 skiers and riders on the hill.

“Aspenites learned Sunday that they can share their playgrounds without problems after all,” the Aspen Times news report opened. “The big stink about opening Aspen Mountain to snowboarders disappeared Sunday.”

The stink had played out for years in local letters and on chairlifts and barstools, increasingly heated following Skico’s announced decision in January 2001.

But by then, the arguments that snowboarders were dangerous, or that the “knuckledragger” crowd were somehow undesirable, was hard to sustain given how snowboarders had already integrated into most U.S. ski areas.

“There was an old guard saying, ‘Oh, they can’t stop, they can’t see, there will be crashes,'” recalls Larry Madden, who ran the Alternative Edge and Pride snowboard shops in Aspen for years before Ajax opened to boarders. “But at that point, it was inevitable. They finally woke up.”

Ajax was one of just five ski areas in the U.S. that had held onto snowboard bans, even as the sport had boomed since the late 1980s. It was the last hold-out in Colorado (Keystone had dropped its ban in 1996).

The years building up to the ban lift included pushes from both local and national snowboarders. A “Free Ajax” campaign spread stickers around the Aspen area and organized rogue after-hours snowboard groups on Ajax (the Aspen Times Weekly ran a photo in 2001 of eight shirtless riders with the “FREE AJAX” slogan painted across their chests).

On April 1, 2001, a group of anti-boarder skiers mounted a tongue-in-cheek protest by wrapping themselves in “caution” tape for the day. Another group sold commemorative “end of an era” T-shirts on the hill.

“Hey, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was overdue,” snowboard pioneer Jake Burton told the Denver Post when the announcement of the ban lift finally came. “But you have to respect a company that doesn’t let pride get in the way of a sound decision.”

Skico president and CEO Pat O’Donnell, himself an avid boarder, says at the time it was purely a business decision that would bring more customers to Aspen and fix a “completely muddled” marketing message that welcomed riders to three out of four local mountains.

“We really gave it a good run,” O’Donnell told the Times. “I just don’t have the luxury of keeping it a skiers-only mountain anymore.”

— From counterculture to mainstream

The debate 20 years ago pitted buttoned-up, older skiers against baggy-pants kids on snowboards — stereotypes that have since faded as fashions have changed, Gen X boarders have grown old and ski and snowboard cultures have mixed over the past two decades.

Still, Ajax has retained its reputation as more of a skier’s mountain, though boarders have come to love riding it.

“In the ’90s, it was like we had this little underground, countercultural movement that was going on,” Madden recalls, linking snowboarding to the era’s rising youth culture of alternative rock and hip-hop.

News coverage of snowboarders in 2001 and 2002 drew parallels to Aspen’s youth movement of the 1970s, when long-haired, dope-smoking ski bums arrived and remade the mountains in their own scruffy image. Back then, it may have been a symbol of rebellion and youth culture, but these days it’s, well, just another way to slide down the mountain. You’d be hard-pressed to find a skier-snowboarder conflict on Ajax these days or a generational divide among them.

Madden, the former snowboard shop owner who still teaches riders at Buttermilk, chalks some of that increasingly copacetic environment to ski technology. Shaped skis and the late-2000s boom of fat skis meant skis could float on powder as only snowboards could before, while advances in snowboard tech essentially eliminated the difference between a ski turn and a snowboard arc.

Meanwhile, terrain parks once dominated by snowboarders throughout the 1990s started to attract more skiers. Halfpipe skiing made its X Games debut in 2002, ushering in a new era of freestyle skiing, which blurred the line between ski and snowboard culture.

Back then, it was a bid to bring young people back to Ajax.

As Jared Torrington, a then-22-year-old snowboarder and lift operator from New Zealand, told the Times on the last skier-only day on the mountain: “It’s just going to open it up to a younger crowd. I looked at the crowd (Saturday), and it was just a bunch of boring old men, you know?”

In 2022 you can describe Ajax skiers and boarders in many ways, but “boring” certainly isn’t one of them.

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