Aspen Gay Ski Week Is the Ultimate Winter Pride

"All the fur, all the sequins, all the thongs”

January 6, 2024 11:11 pm
Buckle up for winter pride
Buckle up for winter pride
Jake Wheeler

Come mid-January in Aspen, America’s winter wonderland for the rich and famous transforms into a kaleidoscope of color, community and inclusivity. The road into the valley from the airport is lined with rainbow flags, drag queens hit the slopes in decadent droves and virtually all the bars — in a town with no gay bars — become at least a little gay. Welcome to Aspen Gay Ski Week, the first of its kind in the world, the largest in the western hemisphere and the template for winter Pride worldwide. 

The notion of Gay Ski Week first emerged in Aspen, one of the most iconic ski towns in the world, in 1977, when a group of likeminded friends used their shared love for skiing and hot tubs as an excuse to convene in Aspen. They came from all over the country, flying in from both coasts to find camaraderie in a sport that’s long been typified by heteronormative machismo and a lack of diversity. Just a few years after cities like New York and San Francisco held their inaugural Pride festivals, and only two years after Denver’s first Pride, Aspen Gay Ski Week evolved from a homespun retreat among friends to one of the town’s biggest events of the year — second only to the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in terms of economic impact. And while Aspen has since inspired similar Gay Ski Weeks in places like Stowe, Park City, Telluride and Whistler, it’s the only one that’s a non-profit. 

Aspen's Gay Ski Week is the only non-profit
Aspen’s Gay Ski Week is the only non-profit
Matt Power

“It grew organically in the beginning, with guys from the East Coast and California who knew each other and met in the middle to have fun and ski,” explains Kevin McManamon, executive director of AspenOUT, which produces the event, to be held in 2024 from January 14-21. Today, McManamon describes it as homecoming for some attendees who have been coming for 30 years or longer. But no matter how long you’ve been attending, or your skill set on the slopes, the appeal of Aspen Gay Ski Week is wide-reaching. It’s the opportunity to recreate with friends, to attend events, and to stay up late and party. It’s also, most importantly, a way of diversifying and destigmatizing an environment that’s long been seen as white, straight and rich. 

“Skiing has this image of being a very male sport,” says Carol Breen with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, citing the barriers to entry endemic to ski towns. “Gay Ski Week, though, revolves around this tone of everyone being welcome. Anyone from learning to advanced can take part in this all-encompassing multi-day event with skiing at its core, and this undertone of inclusivity and diversity really bringing everything together.” 

A kaleidoscope of color, community, and inclusivity
A kaleidoscope of color, community and inclusivity
Kelsey Brunner

But how does a place like Aspen, the kind of glitzy town where Real Housewives go to ski and squabble, break down its own ingrained barriers and set a new industry standard of come-as-you-are inclusion? By offering a Gay Ski Week roster that really speaks to the wider patchwork of queer voices and interests.  

“It’s a week-long event, when there’s something going on every day,” describes Lou Eppelsheimer, director of sales and marketing at The Gant, a condominium resort in Aspen that celebrated its 50th anniversary at the end of 2023. “It’s designed to appeal to every demographic possible, from hardcore skiers to daily happy hours, comedy nights, shopping nights and themed parties. There’s something for everybody, and town is filled with this fun energy.” 

Forget Aspen — A Perfect Weekend Is Down the Road in Snowmass
Everything to eat, drink and do in this idyllic mountain town

Despite its moniker, guests needn’t ski in order to enjoy Gay Ski Week. Considering the sheer amount of après-ski gatherings, parties, screenings, guided hikes, costume contests, restaurants and generally cozy vibes, it’s a winter wonderland for all — not just for those with a Bravo contract or Olympic aspirations. When I visit with my husband for the 2024 event, it’ll be his first time skiing ever. And the appeal is more than just a gayer-than-average bunny hill; it’s the opportunity to dine and dance in a town that, while proudly celebratory of the queer community, is still rewriting its elite narrative.

“You can participate in any way that you like,” adds McManamon. “You can just do the skiing, or just do the parties, or any combination.” This next year’s slate, which runs the gamut from drag bingo brunch and queer stand-up to a womxn’s-only cocktail party and a cowboy-themed dance night, also includes a panel discussion called Talks Like These, about the state of the LGBTQIA+ community in America. “Not everyone wants to party until the wee hours of the night,” he notes. “There’s something happening every night. We have dinners, we have movies, we have theater, we have concerts and some things still to be announced.” 

The Aspen Limelight hotel serves as the social hub for the week, host to daily après-ski meet-ups, with receptions and events taking place at the W Aspen, various restaurants, the Aspen Recreation Center and the Wheeler Opera House, to name a few. Places like The Gant, while not an official host for Gay Ski Week events, offer a quieter, homier alternative, with happy hour specials, hot tubs, welcome baskets for Gay Ski Week attendees and Pride flags aplenty. 

Downhill drag
Downhill drag
Matt Power

For 2024, programming has also expanded into nearby Snowmass, with events like the Laugh Out Proud comedy series at The Collective Snowmass, to meet demand. “Our venues are limited in size here, so we have capacity for about 500 at different events,” explains McManamon. “We expect about 3,000 people. Not everyone does everything, some people are just here for the camaraderie.” 

It’s also, at the end of the day, a week that is proudly and unabashedly gay. “It adds a lot of color to the ski season, and you see a lot of really colorful vibrant energy in town,” notes Breen. “It changes a lot of the scene in Aspen, and there’s no such thing as too much — all the fur, all the sequins, all the thongs.”

One of the crowd-pleasing highlights is the downhill parade and costume contest, held on Friday. “They block off the base of Aspen Mountain, and they have a VIP seating area and a stage and a drag queen that emcees, and people ski down in costumes,” says Eppelsheimer of one of his favorite Gay Ski Week events. “At the end, they ski down with the biggest Pride flag in the country — it takes 20-30 people to carry it.” 

Aspen’s pioneering efforts have also inspired a slew of similar Gay Ski Weeks across the globe, from France to Telluride, each working in their own ways to break down barriers and provide a snowy sanctuary for all. Events like Queerski, held annually in Park City, follow in Aspen’s footsteps by uniting communities and providing a space that’s safe, fun and inclusive. “Ski towns are known to lack in diversity, and ski vacations are cost-prohibitive for many,” notes Joe Urankar, who founded Queerski by turning a casual yurt part into an intersection of queer and outdoor cultures. “Whatever your identity, ability, financial status, there is a place for you here. Allies engage with queer folks of all ages and backgrounds. Local businesses get involved. Our financial aid program affords additional opportunities. We all come together and prove that inclusion is additive and makes our home mountain a more vibrant place.” 

Aspen Gay Ski Week speaks to the heart of this iconic ski community
Aspen Gay Ski Week speaks to the heart of this iconic ski community
Jeremy Swanson

Gay Ski Week, no matter the setting, is more than lip service. While places like Park City strive to foster inclusivity on a broad scale, Aspen’s is a non-profit that serves as a fundraiser for AspenOUT. “The whole week is a fundraiser, with a focus on mental health, especially for youth” notes McManamon. “All the money raised goes back to the LGBTQ community, either through programs, grants or scholarships, and we do that locally, statewide and nationwide.” 

At once fun and vital, just as it was back in 1977, Aspen Gay Ski Week speaks to the heart of this iconic ski community, and what it aspires to be for generations going forward. “Aspen has alway had this reputation of being glitzy and glam and posh, and what I know as a local is there’s so much of a local community and culture that exists here, and people aren’t familiar with,” says Eppelsheimer. “Aspen Gay Ski Week is one of those things that speaks to this local culture, and has more depth to it than people realize.”

McManamon echoes those sentiments: “Aspen has always been accepting and friendly, always. The town loves Gay Ski Week.” Describing it as one of the most popular weeks of the year, when Pride flags are strung up throughout the valley and everyone is in good spirits, he notes that it continues to grow organically and have an impact that reaches further than its valley. “Because of our longevity, we’ve got longtime attendees, but now we’ve got a whole group of new young guys that are coming to the best Gay Ski Week in the world, and there’s no place like Aspen. There are other Gay Ski Weeks, but nothing quite like Aspen.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.