by greg fitzsimmons | February 25, 2014 | Lifestyle
When a full moon rises over the mountains, town indulges its playful side.
A full moon crests over the east side of Aspen’s backyard, Independence Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide
One night, on the eve of a full moon, two local women meet two visiting Texans at an Aspen bar. It’s clear the men are genuine; the conversation over cocktails is authentic—sans pickup lines or sleazy jests. “So what do you girls do around here for fun other than hang out at Eric’s?” one of the guys asks in a Texan twang.
The local women look at each other and shrug. “Well, tomorrow night is a full moon, and we’re skinning up Buttermilk Mountain for the full-moon party. That’s always fun.”
“What’s skinning?” asks the other Texan.
Explaining that you can glue skins on the base of your skis to hike uphill, an invitation for the next night’s full-moon party is extended. Exchanging phone numbers, the locals and Texans part ways. The next afternoon the women receive a phone call: “Hey, we rented skis and skins. We want to join you. But, we don’t know how to set up the skins….”
Everyone meets at dusk in the Tiehack parking lot. The women give the men a quick debrief on how to ski uphill, while locals load sleds with firewood and Fireball, and, once locked and loaded, the crew starts skinning toward the top of Buttermilk. The Texans are aghast as the huge moon crests over the mountains to the east. “I can’t believe you do this,” they say to no one in particular. Their excitement is contagious; their stoke warms the assembly line of skiers. The locals reaffirm what they already know: A full moon over the mountains is worth celebrating.
On this particularly bright night, I’m fortunate to be part of a long-standing Aspen rite of passage. I reach up and turn my small Black Diamond headlamp off with the press of my finger. The tips of my skis disappear for a second, my eyes adjusting to the natural light. A massive moon looms overhead. The snow underfoot glows. The slip and slide of friends’ skins on cold December snow is audible, as I opt to forgo earbuds during tonight’s ascent. The sky is clear, the wind nonexistent. A group of us, about 25 in all, are ascending toward the dark summit of Buttermilk Mountain beneath the bright moon and encompassing night skies.
Laughter erupts behind me as we slog uphill on the skin track. Old friends talk shoulder to shoulder as they hike up. Conversations bounce between stories of travels to far-off places, reminiscing about days gone by, upcoming plans for the winter months, and family.
Skiing on full-moon nights is a tradition handed down through generations.
There’s an earn-your-turns ethic that runs deep in Aspen. The sweat equity built during the climb makes the return on investment even richer on the way down. With the bootpack up Highland Bowl, the 10th Mountain Division dating back to WWII, and the network of huts that surround Aspen—going uphill is part of Aspen’s DNA. As such, on these winter nights—when the moon is so big it will stop you in your tracks—Aspenites migrate uphill toward the cabins, warming huts, and crackling fires atop Buttermilk Mountain. Circled around bonfires and passing bottles of whiskey, they celebrate the moon and this amazing valley we call home.
Once we’re at the peak of Buttermilk, the fire melts a hole in the snow the size of a foxhole. Flames jump off wood schlepped uphill on sleds. Every now and then, when the urge is too strong to ignore, guys and girls tilt their heads upward and howl. Architects and attorneys, ski shop employees and moms, honor the moon in a guttural and animalistic way. It’s a tribe of locals reveling in the moonlight and partaking in an age-old Aspen tradition.
Every 29.5 days the moon opens up above our mountains, so huge and ominous that the synthetic illumination of streetlights pales in comparison. The panoramas that unfurl from the tops of Aspen’s ski resorts glow like a beacon in the moonlight. Looking out over the Maroon Bells and Hayden Peak on a bright night is enough to get any young professional, Texan tourist, or duct-tape-clad ski bum howling.
“Those parties are about being out in the forest with your friends under the moon,” says lifelong Aspen skier and frequent full-moon partier Willie Volckhausen. “The atmosphere around the fire on top of Buttermilk is awesome. It’s dark and cold, you can see your breath, but at the same time it’s bright because of the glowing moon, and it’s warm by the fire.”
Families with last names that have been a part of Aspen’s tapestry for decades—the Sewells and DeVores—have been hiking up Buttermilk under the moon for years. “We’ve thrown full-moon parties for as long as I can remember,” says Carly Sewell. “My dad used to party under the moon back in the ’70s, too. So it appears to be a somewhat ‘learned’ or subconscious action of those immersed in the Aspen culture to hike up and situate themselves under the moon and stars.”
Sometimes they tote racks of beer, large speakers for music, or flatland visitors from New York or Chicago. The full-moon parties are a hyper-local celebration. Tourists aren’t excluded; many just don’t know that’s how we roll in Aspen, until a chance meeting at a local bar, perhaps.
On these full-moon nights, fathers sometimes bundle up their young kids in the West Buttermilk parking lot, zipping parkas over Patagonia layers to keep warm. The dads are eager to share the full-moon Aspen tradition with their children; the kids are keen on spending time with their fathers, hiking on snowshoes or skins at night, and staying up past their bedtime.
A bonfire lights up Buttermilk Mountain. Full-moon parties at Buttermilk are typically followed by a rowdy and beautiful ski descent.
They hike together to the warming hut at the top of the West Buttermilk chairlift. A potbelly stove sits in the corner of the hut. Twister and other board games are on hand, hot chocolate is made, and the families gaze at the views while standing in the moonlight and watching for shooting stars. A lasting memory is made.
Back on the east side of the mountain, the ascent to the full-moon party is upbeat and positive. Aspen folk look forward to the climb with friends, the cold wind in the face, and the warm fire that beckons from the top of Buttermilk. After topping out, the full-moon party often becomes a full-on party. It’s on these nights that the descents from Buttermilk are the most memorable—when whiskey is passed and the reveling escalates, the mountain moonshine makes everyone a little loopy.
Lubricated professional skiers, who earn their living ticking off never before skied peaks in distant locales like Alaska and the Alps, struggle stepping into their bindings. Buzzed Aspen skiers, who normally garner hoots from the chairlifts as they lace high-speed turns down expert Ajax terrain, crash in catastrophic ways on full-moon nights, leaving a yard sale of goggles, gloves, and ski poles in their wake as they tumble down blue-square Buttermilk trails. But more often than not, skiers and riders, fortified with warming brown liquor sipped by the fire, get to experience the freedom of arching turns in the moonlight. Surrounded by friends and propelled by screams of delight, familiar runs like Racer’s Edge on the east or Larkspur on the west feel new and unique during virgin moonlit descents.
“Skiing in the dark after celebrating the full moon is the best sensation ever,” says Volckhausen. “You use your skis like a cat uses its whiskers, and that makes it a new challenge. It’s humbling.”
Katrina DeVore, a well-known Aspen skier, agrees: “The ski home is always fun. It is such a cool thing to experience these mountains we are so familiar with in a new light—literally.”
Aspen Skiing Company has taken an interest in the full-moon parties recently. Less concerned about overindulgence and more focused on safety, Ski Co. is beseeching the full-moon partiers to respect their mountains. “Every time there’s a full moon we know people will be heading up Buttermilk,” says Aspen Skiing Company’s Jeff Hanle. “That’s fine, but people need to be responsible for themselves and their friends, and they need to be respectful of their surroundings. We don’t want to be cleaning up beer bottles or fire holes on the mornings after full moons. And safety is really the primary concern. In the early season when we’re making snow there is a lot of snowmaking equipment, hoses, and people working on snowmobiles up there. Even with the moonlight or a headlamp, skiing downhill at night is a dicey affair.”
For those who have been doing this for years, it’s about sharing a unique experience with friends, and there seems to be a disconnect among the new crowds heading uphill at night. “It’s really embarrassing to see the lack of respect people have shown recently. The full-moon parties aren’t supposed to feel like ‘a party at the moon tower,’” says Volckhausen, alluding to the classic line from the film Dazed and Confused. “The whole point of being out there is to appreciate the wilderness, the moon, the snow, and your friends.”
So next time the moon over Aspen is full, radiant, and arresting, and a noise is heard from the top of Buttermilk, rest assured: you’re not imagining things. Those are howls you’re hearing, inhibition escaping from locals and lucky tourists raging on the moonlit mountaintop.
photography by JEREMY SWANSON; matt power (skiers); Will Cardamone (bonfire)