11/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Aspen's Identity Crisis

Has Aspen taken a dive?

Aspen is so used to being considered the top of the heap in skiing, the coolest of the cool, that the recent drop in rankings from SKI magazine have left the town in a bit of a huff. The very notion that somehow Aspen has lost its way-cool edge, like a skier with untoward skis, has left people hereabouts just a tad unhinged.

First the numbers. Snowmass, despite a raft of on-mountain improvements, has fallen to #6, the top ranking for any of the four mountains that make up an Aspen/Snowmass ski pass. Aspen Mountain, in turn, is falling out of sight -- all the way down to #14, while Aspen Highlands is more than holding its own at #17. The fourth mountain, Buttermilk, is barely a blip on the national scene, except when it comes to the X Games.

Four high-quality mountains with top twenty rankings is much better than your average resort, of course, but bordering on disaster for the mighty Aspen/Snowmass empire, the jewel of the Crowns. So what went wrong?

Number one, keep in mind that Snowmass is skiing better than ever, with a new gondola and two new high-speed lifts that have that have left the mountain wide open to exploration. There's a new barbecue joint at the top of Ajax Express -- a good one -- and even the abortive efforts at a new base village have added some culinary choices to the mix.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the Related Westpac fiasco has left Snowmass with a gaping wound that will probably take a decade to close. And the only thing worse than too much construction is that same construction in gaping abeyance.

The result: things are getting ugly at Snowmass, with no immediate end in sight.

In my opinion, Aspen Mountain has suffered from some negative Snowmass run-off. With new gondola cabins and the same great runs, there's no reason why the mighty mountain formerly know as Ajax should be falling in esteem, except for this: while the rest of the world continues to improve, improvements at Aspen Mountain are likely to take a backseat to backfilling at Snowmass. The overall result is a weakened Snowmass, albeit one skiing better than ever, that ironically helps Aspen Mountain in the ratings not one bit.

Amidst this flickering picture, Aspen Highlands is a glittering gem. Though modest in size, it is gnarly and beautiful, and Highland Bowl remains a literal rite of passage for skiers everywhere. The lift system is brand-new and without any obvious flaw, and the mountain can ski miraculously well on days with adequate snow or better. Highlands also has great quirky places to eat on-mountain, and a base village worthy of the Ritz that calls it home. (Though Highlands becomes a wasteland off-season.) Aspen Highlands is a natural high, and the ratings reflect that.

In the midst of the recession, there was unfortunate talk by the pols in Aspen about bringing the Aspen brand downmarket as an affordable destination. But once a brand is tarnished, it's almost impossible to bring it back to its original sheen. If Snowmass doesn't get its act together soon, all four mountains -- even Highlands -- might just keep falling down.