The Story of Aspen Gay Ski Week

Forty-six years of fundraising, community, and celebration.

Celebrations at the 2022 Aspen Gay Ski Week

By Catherine Lutz
Updated August 2023

Arguably the biggest party of the winter season, Aspen Gay Ski Week has matured. Now entering its 47th year (taking place January 14–21, 2024), the beloved local event with the worldwide draw is bigger, broader, and more inclusive than ever—par for the course given its proud history.

It was the party culture of the ’70s clashing with old-fashioned unacceptance that led to the formation of a nonprofit to run Aspen Gay Ski Week and use it as a force for good in the community. During the decade, a group of local men had started regularly hanging out with gay visitors from ski clubs around the country. By 1977, the reunions became more official, with each club hosting parties in their condos on different nights for a week in January, and the local contingent throwing the welcome party.

But as liberal as Aspen was, being gay in public wasn’t universally accepted (hence the condo parties)—a reality that spurred Jon Busch, one of Aspen Gay Ski Week’s founders, to advocate for gay rights after getting in trouble for dancing with another man at a local bar. In 1979, Busch and other local supporters had reason to celebrate when Aspen became the first municipality in Colorado to pass an anti-discrimination policy for gays and lesbians. Boulder and Denver followed Aspen’s example, but in 1992, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2 to the state constitution, which revoked gay protections and prohibited any new ones from being enacted at local and state levels. (Pitkin County, home to Aspen and Snowmass, had the highest percentage of “no” votes, 72%, in the state.)

Women celebrate Aspen Gay Ski Week at the base of Aspen Mountain in 2022

Women celebrate Aspen Gay Ski Week at the base of Aspen Mountain in 2022

This anti-gay policy triggered a widespread and effective boycott of Colorado tourism, particularly painfully felt in Aspen, where Gay Ski Week had become a major winter event and catalyst for gay tourism year-round. A legal challenge ensued, and shortly after the US Supreme Court ruled that Amendment 2 was unconstitutional in 1996, Aspen Gay Ski Week was folded into a new 501c3 nonprofit: the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund (now AspenOUT).

The oldest and largest gay ski event in the country (more than 3,000 people are expected this year), Aspen Gay Ski Week has evolved far beyond condo parties. The “mountain du jour” invites participants to explore all four Aspen Snowmass ski areas, with guides or in groups. There are daily après-ski gatherings at local bars and nightly “friendship dinners” at restaurants. Some of the most-sought after tickets are late-night, like the sold-out White Party, a dance party at the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain that encourages colorful “costumes,” and a Vegas-style pool party that takes over the Aspen Recreation Center (the successor of the many hot-tub get-togethers of earlier years). Big names are also on the ticket — this year Sandra Bernhard brings her one-woman comedy and music show to the Wheeler Opera House.

An ever-expanding number of events also include and welcome the broader community. In partnership with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s Wintersköl celebration is the (adult only) Drag Queen Bingo Brunch at The Little Nell. A cowboy dance party at the Belly Up and boy band cover group at the Wheeler are examples of events put on by other entities with Gay Ski Week attendees in mind. Appealing more to women is the reasoning behind a few events and activities, like the Womxn Centric Private Dinner with guest chef Emily Oyer this year. And one of the week’s signature events, the Downhill Costume Contest, is also its most publicly visible—anybody can watch the talented contestants schuss their way down to the base of Aspen Mountain, vying for cash prizes, from The Little Nell ski run or Gondola Plaza (outside the ticketed area) on Friday from noon to 3pm.

“Aspen Snowmass is very inclusive and has always been very supportive of Aspen Gay Ski Week, not only because it’s good for the economy, but because it’s good for the community.”

–Kevin McManamon

Executive Director, AspenOUT

Drag Queen performs at Aspen Gay Ski Week in 2022
Skier at Gay Ski Week

But as AspenOUT’s main annual fundraiser, Aspen Gay Ski Week is much more than a good time—it makes possible the organization’s growing mental health and education work. In 2022, a total of $160,000 was generated for grants to organizations supporting the LGBT community, scholarships to area seniors, and mental health services and programs, according to AspenOUT Executive Director Kevin McManamon. That’s about 10 times the funding generated a decade ago for much less programming, he added. With funds from Gay Ski Week, for example, AspenOUT provides facilitators to Roaring Fork Valley schools’ gay student alliances (GSAs) and online mental health training for counselors and teachers.

“Aspen Snowmass is very inclusive and has always been very supportive of Aspen Gay Ski Week, not only because it’s good for the economy, but because it’s good for the community,” says McManamon.

A group of skiers and hikers celebrate Aspen Gay Ski Week atop Highland Peak

A group of skiers and hikers celebrate Aspen Gay Ski Week atop Highland Peak

Aspen Snowmass is one of many proud sponsors of Aspen Gay Ski Week, but the company’s support of the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t stop there. Employees are provided with stickers and pronoun buttons to help them be explicitly inclusive. On a community level, the company supports LGBTQ+ organizations like AspenOUT, and also participates in local issues—most recently attending a series of school board meetings to support adoption of a toolkit aimed at responding to the mental health crisis among local LGBTQ youth. And on a state and national level, the company speaks out on policy—notably signing the amicus brief in the 2015 US Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage.

And while there’s still work to be done, the progress that’s been fostered by Aspen Gay Ski Week and the broader Aspen Snowmass community is something to be proud of. In 2019, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, the country’s first openly gay governor, signed a proclamation recognizing the event’s role in being “a critical part of the fight for civil rights in the LGBTQ community in Colorado and across the nation.”

“This community, their efforts, and the meaningful change they have secured in Colorado and across the nation are commendable and deserving of recognition,” the proclamation says.