Aspen, Colorado. Cross-country skiing in Aspen, Colorado. (C) Annie Griffiths Belt / Getty Images
Aspen provides ideal conditions for cross-country skiing

Law enforcement in Aspen, Colorado, nearly took an unlikely turn in 1970. The year before, local resident Hunter S Thompson, the pioneer of gonzo journalism with an extraordinary appetite for booze and drugs, had helped run the mayoral election campaign of Joe Edwards, a 29-year-old lawyer who had impressed the writer by successfully defending a group of local hippies arrested on vagrancy charges.

Thompson found the experience so invigorating he threw his hat into the ring for the local sheriff elections. Remarkably, for a candidate whose declared law enforcement policy included “the general philosophy . . . that no drug worth taking should be sold for money”, Thompson’s defeat came only by a whisker. It was a sign of changing times, he noted in his account of the period for Rolling Stone magazine: “the old guard was doomed, the liberals were terrorised, and the underground had emerged, with terrible suddenness, on a very serious power trip”. Nearly 50 years later, few members of any movement — underground or otherwise — could afford the current $5.95m median price tag for a detached family home in Aspen (according to the Aspen Board of Realtors). The median price for town houses and condominiums is a slightly more accessible $1.55m.

Building on its 1970s hippy credentials, Aspen soon became a magnet for Hollywood’s finest, with owners over the years including Jack Nicholson, Don Johnson, Kevin Costner and Melanie Griffith. On their heels has come, inevitably, the money. In 2014, local website Aspen Journalism trawled Forbes, the Los Angeles Business Journal and local public property records to produce The Aspen 50: a list of 50 billionaires — including Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, John Paulson and Roman Abramovich — owning property in Aspen’s Pitkin County.

Joshua Saslove, a local agent with Douglas Elliman, says his buyers today are typically aged between 35 and 55 and business-school trained — “Harvard, Wharton — pick your spot”. Many — “especially the millennials”— will try before they buy. These are not your usual chalet rentals, however. Saslove says a typical deal would be two families sharing a $15m house for 10 days, the rental cost of which — including a couple of ski instructors and a chef — would be roughly $15,000 per night.

Local price tags match this spending power. Those considering the seven-bedroom house for sale with Sotheby’s International Realty on Willoughby Way, a short drive to the north of Aspen’s base station lifts, will need to rustle up $35m. A similar distance to the east of the town, on Mountain Laurel Drive, Douglas Elliman is selling a six-bedroom chalet for $9.995m.

681 MOUNTAIN LAUREL DRIVE - EAST ASPEN, COLORADO
Six-bed chalet, East Aspen, $9.995m

Mortals need not despair. Out of the 347 homes listed for sale at the end of January, 90 were priced below $1.5m. In Snowmass Village, eight miles west of the town, Mason Morse is selling a four-bedroom condo in Meadow Ranch for $1.65m. Those on a budget shouldn’t hang around: while new listings of town houses and apartments fell 11 per cent last year, prices increased 20 per cent.

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Besides the glamour, buyers are drawn to the town’s lively cultural scene. “This has flourished thanks to the Crown family,” says local agent Bob Bowden of Bowden Properties, referring to the billionaire US dynasty that has owned the Aspen Skiing Company — owner and operator of Aspen — since 1993. With the exception of Davos — the Swiss resort that hosts the annual World Economic Forum — it’s hard to imagine a ski destination anywhere else in the world that could boast its own think-tank (The Aspen Institute), art museum, ballet company (Aspen Santa Fe Ballet), classical music festival and literary centre.

The latter will this year award the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize. The $35,000 purse will go to a work of fiction that, according to its website, “[uses] the power of storytelling to engage readers with a societal problem that may or may not affect them directly”. With entries limited to works published in 2017, Thompson’s 1970 bid to shake up Pitkin County policing as chronicled in Rolling Stone won’t qualify. Besides, he wouldn’t be around to collect the cash, having died at his ranch in Woody Creek, eight miles to Aspen’s north, in 2005.

February, 19 2010: A girl hikes through a snow covered Aspen field in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. (C) Rob Hammer / Getty Images
A hiker in Steamboat Springs
Available at a guide price of 35.000.000 USD through Aspen Snowmass Sotheby's International Realty
Seven-bed house on Willoughby Way, $35m
United States, Colorado, Aspen, Galena Street (C) Susanne Kremer / 4Corners
Galena Street is packed with upmarket shops
United States, Colorado, Aspen, Rocky Mountains, Aspen Mountain (C) Hans Peter Huber / 4Corners
Aspen in the Rocky Mountains

Buying guide

  • Flights from New York, via Denver, take around six hours
  • The population of Aspen at the last US census was 6,658
  • The average price of an Aspen home sold in the third quarter of 2017 was $4.6m

What you can buy for . . .

$1m A two-bed apartment in Snowmass Village

$5m A large four-bed detached house with garden and garage in Aspen

$10m A new penthouse apartment close to the gondola in downtown Aspen

More homes at propertylistings.ft.com

See the words for the trees

In the summer of 1945, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke arrived in Aspen where over the course of the next decade they founded the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, an international design conference and music festival, thus establishing Aspen as a cultural hub, reports Caolinn Douglas. In doing so, the couple realised their dream of the “Aspen Idea”, a philosophy that called for nurturing mind, body and soul.

In 1976, and in the spirit of the “Aspen Idea”, Kurt Brown launched the Aspen Writers’ Conference, a month-long meditation on fiction, non-fiction, playwriting and poetry. In the years that followed, more literary events were added to the programme. Events such as Winter and Summer Words encouraged readers and writers to find inspiration in Aspen’s beautiful surroundings.

Today, Aspen Words is a literary non-profit organisation which this year launches a literary prize.

One of the 20 longlisted works is The Accusation. Written anonymously by “Bandi”, this collection of short stories was allegedly smuggled out of North Korea in 2013 and relates the anxieties and dangers of living under Korean dictatorship.

The five finalists will be announced in March, with the winner revealed in April at an awards ceremony in New York.

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