It's raining Champagne. Thermal clothing is being tossed to the floor, wooden benches are shaking under the weight of dancing ski boots and dozens of $130 bottles of Veuve Clicquot are being shaken and sprayed into the air, Formula One style. Three tanned women in their 40s with inflated lips have stripped down to their singlets and are grinding against each other provocatively. A group of teenage boys cheer them on enthusiastically. A middle-aged man with glasses who looks as if he could be a CEO back in the real world is wearing earplugs.
"I don't ca-are," blares Icona Pop's dance anthem through the loudspeakers, "I love it, I love it." The volume is up, more Champagne is delivered to tables and the stamping of ski boots becomes more frenetic.
Welcome to lunchtime at Cloud Nine, a wood cabin bistro midway up Aspen Highlands mountain in the exclusive ski resort of Aspen, Colorado. Only a few minutes ago, diners were mopping up lip-smacking cheese fondue and raclette and making plans to capitalise on fresh powder tomorrow. But now here they are dancing exuberantly atop benches lined with white napkins, shiny-faced and laughing as they spray each other liberally with seemingly endless Champagne.
The party climaxes with a rendition of Rednex's fast-paced folk song "Cotton Eye Joe", which sends ski boots into a new frenzy. A lunch companion dances so vigorously that he bangs his head on the roof.
And then, as quickly as it started, it's over. The music stops at 3.30pm and a gust of cold air cuts through the now sauna-humid room as ski patrol wanders through, checking everyone's in a fit state to ski down the mountain. "If you see them trying to put their skis on the wrong way," a bearded patroller tells us, "that's a pretty good clue."
Believe it or not, this is a regular closing ritual. It happens almost every day. Indeed, the staff, who wear T-shirts emblazoned with the Cloud Nine motto "Ski in, dance out", seem unperturbed by the wild hedonism playing out around them.
This is, we're told, the highest-grossing restaurant in Colorado in winter. Sweeping a last glance over the dozens of abandoned half-full Champagne bottles, this isn't terribly surprising. It's sheer, uninhibited decadence at its best.
Aspen has a reputation for being a luxury winter playground for the rich and famous - and it's not hard to see why. The terrain is superb for skiing, with a great mix of intermediate and advanced options, including exhilarating wide runs, challenging mogul fields and beautiful glade trails. It's convenient if you have a private jet (scores of them are parked up at the airport). Real estate is among the most expensive in the United States - a cool $50 million for a house on the ridge, for example - and there's a plethora of five-star hotels, spas, wine cellars and fine-dining restaurants. Lining the well-kept and partly cobbled streets of the town are high-end designer boutiques: Chanel, Burberry, Gucci, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and a large Prada.
Aspen makes for interesting people-watching in high season: the perma-tanned silver foxes, their cosmetically enhanced trophy wives and privileged college students immersing themselves in the après-ski scene. Hollywood stars Jack Nicholson and Goldie Hawn have holiday homes here, as does disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong (Nicholson, we're informed, is quiet and unassuming, skiing around in a "faded onesie" ski suit with no airs or graces. Armstrong, on the other hand, is "very competitive"). Other regulars have included Rupert Murdoch, Dustin Hoffman, Yoko Ono and the late Robin Williams.
This is only one side of Aspen, though. It's a popular destination for mere mortals, too, and Australians are the number-one overseas market - so much so that the flat white is officially recognised here. At the cosy Victoria's café near the gondola station to go up the main Ajax mountain, you can also order Milo or a piccolo from an Australian barista.
It's a long way to come but there's enough variety in accommodation, restaurants and services that it doesn't have to be a total blow-out in cost. You could, for example, book a self-catering apartment and buy supplies at the local supermarket but, having said that, the food and wine scene shouldn't be skipped. It's worth treating yourself to excellent sashimi and sublime sea bass at the busy Matsuhisa restaurant (where there's a "celebrity table" in the corner) and enlivening your tastebuds with a tequila cocktail at hipster joint Jimmy's Bodega. Another couple of must-do rituals are getting up early for first tracks (there's nothing quite like skiing through freshly groomed corduroy snow) before digging into oatmeal pancakes at famed mid-mountain eatery Bonnie's, and later kicking back in the afternoon sunshine with a cold beer and paper cone of parmesan, parsley and truffle fries at the Ajax Tavern.
The resident population of Aspen is as interesting as the visitors. It would be hard to find a comparable town so full of sporty high-achievers (when one adventurer volunteered to give a talk about his recent Everest expedition, there was a shrug of shoulders and a polite decline given it was hardly a first).
Among them are Ted Mahon, 42, a respected mountaineer who fuels his ultra-running events with flat Coca-Cola, and his wife Christy, 40, the first woman to hike and ski all of Colorado's 4267-metre peaks. We chat to them over boards of cured meats, local cheeses and spiced vegetables at newly opened Meat & Cheese, a trendy upmarket restaurant with a focus on farmhouse produce. "Aspen is unique," says Ted. "It's got the combination of town, snow and culture." Christy, an exuberant blonde who regularly skins up a mountain before starting her work day, adds, "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else." She says the service is "more polished" and seamless in Aspen, compared with other resorts in Colorado.
It's while on a snowshoe nature tour - wearing modern versions of badminton racquet-style snowshoes and learning how to decipher the tracks of different animals - that we first hear about the cougars that prowl around the Rockies. "We get cougars up here, but you don't see them," says Bobby DeMarinis, an earnest young guide from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. "Even if they were 20 metres away from you, they'd be gone before you see them because they have such a highly tuned sense of hearing and vibration."
Inspired by our venture into the wilderness, with birds chirping in the trees and squirrels scampering up trunks, we tramp back to our meeting point discussing the extraordinary beauty of nature.
When we turn a corner and spy a pack of cougars, the sight is jaw-dropping - five mature-aged women with pneumatic assets, stripped down to bikini tops, pouting and striking saucy poses with a hint of G-string for a wild-haired Irishman wielding a camera on top of the mountain. They giggle as onlookers turn to watch.
After they've put their clothes back on, we get chatting. They're a group of friends who live in different countries, and once a year they meet in Aspen for a ski holiday. "We have fun together," purrs Kate Taylor, a glamorous brunette in a Russian fur hat who comes from the British tax haven of Jersey. Another casually refers to owning a castle in Ireland. None wish to reveal their biological ages.
A stone's throw from the cougars' impromptu photo shoot is the Aspen Mountain Club, a private club with sweeping views over the Elk Mountain Range. We head over and enter through a discreet door near the entrance of the popular Sundeck restaurant and find ourselves in an old-world reception area. First, ski boots are removed and placed on individual heaters in a plush locker room and replaced with obligatory cosy slippers. Inside is an impressive 1340 square metres of designer décor, from handwoven rugs and antique tables to an extraordinary antler chandelier. Annual membership is around $7700, with a one-off fee of $285,000.
We tuck into hearty Caesar salads and sweet-potato fries with David Perry, COO of the Aspen Skiing Company, who has helped reinvigorate the town since being installed by the Crown family, the sole owners of the company since 1993.
"When I first came in 13 years ago I thought, 'Gee this place is getting pretty sleepy'," says Perry. "And it was getting a reputation for being a place for old white guys. So we started putting on free concerts to attract young people." Among big names they've attracted to play gigs are Neil Young, Green Day and Bob Dylan.
Members of the Chicago-based Crown family, whose other holdings include defence giant General Dynamics and JP Morgan Chase, visit Aspen frequently but are "very humble" and maintain a low profile, according to Perry.
Despite Aspen's reputation for attracting high-profile guests, he says there isn't much of an issue with paparazzi, who are nevertheless most likely to turn up with their long lenses at Christmas.
It's certainly come a long way from its irreverent, drug-riddled and lawless past in the 1970s, when gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson unsuccessfully stood for sheriff (among his key proposals was to rename Aspen "Fat City").
It was around this time that John Denver wrote songs about Aspen - and if you look carefully, you can find a homemade memorial to him in a cluster of trees on the mountain, decorated with chimes and photos.
"Hunter S Thompson was more recently my neighbour for a little while," says Perry. "He was an arsehole. He was an opinionated, flawed human being. He didn't ski but he would drink a lot. His wife was on the phone with him and they were fighting when she heard him shoot himself in 2005 over the phone."
Originally, Aspen was home to Ute Indians before being settled as a silver-mining town in the 1880s.
At the height of the mining boom, its population grew past 10,000 (more than today) but after a price crash it was slowly abandoned. By the 1930s, only 700 people remained. Its development as a ski resort was stymied by the Second World War, when US mountain divisions used it for training and recreation.
For a human history of Aspen, you can't get much better than Klaus Obermeyer. The youthful 95-year-old skiwear designer, who's credited with inventing the first down jacket, turtleneck and mirrored ski sunglasses, is a charming and lively local legend with a twinkle in his eye.
The German-born entrepreneur still gets out on the pistes every day (look out for a trim and impeccably dressed elderly skier with a big white smile making stylish turns down Ajax), swims, does aikido and maintains a working role at his family skiwear company, Sport Obermeyer. He came to Aspen by chance in 1947 as an aeronautical engineer-turned-ski instructor. "I fell in love with it straight away and thought, 'I'm going to spend the rest of my life here'," he says. "There was this Champagne powder everywhere."
Back then, he says, ski attire comprised "knickerbockers with a tie and shirt and hiking boots attached with leather to wooden skis". Problem was, holidaymakers would get so cold they'd give up on skiing three days into a 10-day trip, pack up and go home.
"As a ski instructor, I would only get paid if people took their lessons," he says. And so, drawing on his engineering expertise in search of a solution, he cut up the down duvet his mother had given him and made it into a ski jacket. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, he has seen enormous change in what was a tiny community when he first arrived to the thriving resort that Aspen is today. Development on the mountains led to a huge influx of ski tourism in the 1950s and '60s. But he pinpoints 20th Century Fox's purchase of the Aspen Skiing Company in 1978 as a game-changer in attracting high-end guests.
"Fox helped us because they brought over the Hollywood actors," he says. "We got Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman - she was a very nice lady but she had a very jealous boyfriend, who used to hide on the mountain and watch while she had ski lessons."
Today it's the positive and friendly vibe of the town - which lives under a utopian ideal of "mind, body, spirit" - that continues to draw a loyal following of visitors from across the globe, according to Obermeyer.
For wine connoisseurs, Aspen is a treasure trove. At The Little Nell five-star hotel, which is internationally renowned for its wine collection, we're treated to a tour of the cellar by sharp-suited and charismatic master sommelier Carlton McCoy. Down here, in narrow aisles under soft yellow light, there are 3000 different types of wine in 22,000 bottles from all over the globe (including Australia and New Zealand). An 1835 bottle of Medina is the oldest, while a 1994 six-litre bottle of Échezeaux is the most expensive at $67,000. "The person who buys this kind of wine is going to be part of a group," says McCoy, who bought it at auction from a private vendor. "We sell about one bottle a year."
Another establishment with an impressive cellar is The Caribou Club, the town's most exclusive private members' club. Below ground level, it's a labyrinth of oak panelling, private dining rooms, big couches and a dance floor. Original Andy Warhol prints hang on the wall. We're greeted by manager Louis Velasquez, who has a spectacular curly mullet and tells us he is so discreet that he doesn't even tell his wife what goes on behind the club's doors. "The club opened in 1990," he says. "The idea was to base it on Annabel's in London. We have about 1500 members now and because it's a private club, you have to be strict about the door." Nevertheless, Velasquez lets slip that Neil Perry and Will Ferrell and Eddie Murphy are among visitors.
There's a lot of other stuff going on away from the ski runs in Aspen. The newly refurbished Aspen Art Museum is certainly worth a look, with impressive collections of contemporary artwork and a spacious rooftop café. At the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center, you can hear all about the excavation of the world's finest alpine Ice Age fossil trove - by accident just five years ago when a bulldozer digging at a reservoir to boost the town's water supply uncovered the tusk of a young mammoth. Within a year, the bones of at least 35 mastodons had been unearthed. "It's pretty cool to find a major Ice Age fossil site at a ski resort," says resident palaeontologist Tom Temme. "These mastodons were up to 10-feet tall and weighing eight tonnes and were roaming around more than 10,000 years ago."
A few kilometres down the road is Krabloonik Fine Dining & Dogsledding. Here, in a traditional log cabin, we feast on Legendary Wild Mushroom soup with house-made bread and an array of rich meats including elk, pheasant and wild boar, along with Californian chardonnay and a local ale. Outside, teams of dogs are being saddled up to take guests out on sled rides (apparently sitting downwind of canine flatulence is a peril of the trip).
For those who prefer to travel a little faster, a short drive takes you to the T-Lazy-7 Ranch, which has been run by the Deane family for 77 years and hosts excellent snowmobiling tours in the surrounding mountains. After an exhilarating few laps getting in touch with our inner petrolheads and speeding around a makeshift racetrack ("it's not a racetrack," insists our guide), we end our tour at the family's rustic cabin and dig into cheeseburgers made from local grass-fed beef, prawns and salads paired with a refreshing Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Champagne and a smooth 2012 South African FMC Chenin Blanc brought up by The Little Nell's Nick Barb, who's studying to become a master sommelier.
Proud young ranch owner Besha Deane tells us a little about her ancestors as we finish our wine. "My great-great-grandfather was one of the first 40 men who came to Aspen from the Denver area," she says. "He owned eight blocks of land in Aspen but lost it due to $56 in back tax." Today, of course, that would be worth a nine-figure sum.
A more recent tourist attraction in Colorado is cannabis. It was legalised for recreational purposes in 2012. In Aspen, there are six cannabis stores that enjoy strong trade, mostly from visitors. "More than $2 million in tax [from the sale of cannabis] has already gone into schools," enthuses a staffer checking IDs at the Silverpeak store. On the other side of the argument, of course, are health risks and concerns about children getting hold of "edibles", which are usually sold in confectionery, cookie or brownie form.
In a little-known legal quirk, it's legal to buy and use cannabis in the resort of Aspen (though not publicly) - but not on the mountains, which are federal land and therefore not under the jurisdiction of state law.
Just 19 kilometres away from Aspen is the entirely different resort of Crested Butte. In summer, you can hike across the mountains to get there as a daytrip.
By road in winter it's a circuitous four-hour journey (which feels even longer with a hangover). It's worth it, nevertheless. Nestled at the base of the mountain is a laid-back and quaint village with a rainbow of colourful Victorian shopfronts. The locals here are predominately hippies, down-to-earth ranchers and families.
From the town, it's a five-minute journey on a free bus up to the ski resort, which has more of an affordable, casual and young-family vibe than Aspen. There are also more beginner and easy intermediate runs on offer - although on our final day, our Will Ferrell-lookalike ski guide Chris Matison decides we're ready to tackle the double-black diamond North Face, which is frankly a terrifying and barely controlled scrape down ice, moguls, narrow paths and patches of exposed rock. At the bottom, one of the group confides he's glad I came - because then he didn't look so bad.
Fortunately for me, the notorious Rambo - the steepest cut run in North America - is not open. "Rambo is a 50-degree drop at top," says Matison.
"If you're standing on the ridge with your bottom ski down, your top ski will be up at knee level of your down leg and you can reach out with your hand to touch the slope because of extreme angle. You can't let yourself fall or you won't stop."
Glo Cunningham, 66, a cheerful hippie with a mane of long grey hair, takes us on a tour of the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum, which is housed in an original 1883 hardware store building. Back in 1874, we're told, Crested Butte started out as a coal town, and it wasn't until the 1960s that some ski enthusiasts saw its potential.
Cunningham says Crested Butte was a different place when she arrived 40 years ago. "I saw a lot of the men all hunched over from being in the mines," she says, adding, "I don't think yoga was really big yet then."
In 1963, we're told, the town made history by installing the first automated high-speed gondola: a red bubble with leather seats that looks like something from The Jetsons (it should be noted, however, that rival resort Vail also lays claim to this hotly contested record).
Today, the town works hard to maintain its authentic image and prevent overdevelopment. "We're kind of proud of the fact we don't have the chain stores and all that here," says Cunningham.
Across the road from the museum is the Montanya Distillers, where we get tipsy on an assortment of rum cocktail tasters (try the exquisitely sweet and spicy Maharaja Martini). Founder Karen Hoskin, who got inspiration for her recipes during travels in India, gives us a tour, which includes copper fermentation tanks, wooden barrels for ageing and an explanation of how four mountain ingredients make for a superior drink.
Over a meaty lunch at Uley's Cabin (a fine-dining mountain restaurant named after a local character with a passion for food and moonshine), we meet Buck Myall, a bearded bear of a man and veteran ski patroller. "For aspect and variety, you can't really compete with Crested Butte - we have such a wide variety of terrain," he says. Buck, we find out, is also an ex-pagan festival king who still wears his crown for special occasions.
Colourful settlers established a pagan "Flauschink" festive ceremony in 1969 and Buck reigned in 2008 to 2009. His duties included embodying the spirit of the town, turning up to parties and festivals and polka dancing. How was he chosen? "Divine intervention," he replies. "You're chosen by God." And how did he exert his leadership? "I decreed at the beginning of my reign that all the females should show their breasts. It worked quite well. About 80 per cent were obliging."
Our last supper is at the jam-packed Secret Stash Pizzeria, with a menu that includes pizze with names like You're Driving Me Caprese and Booty Call. We line our stomachs with carbs before a pub crawl through the local bars, including the rough-and-ready Talk of the Town, which has live music, pool tables and people with no teeth, and Dogwood Cocktail Cabin, a dimly lit old bar with board games and delicious cocktails.
Things are less sophisticated in Crested Butte - but it's fun and friendly. And it turned out to be a good acclimatisation for what was to come next.
Landing back home in Sydney, bleary-eyed after the long journey across the Atlantic, we're jolted back to reality as we drag our suitcases off the carousel at the airport. A lengthy queue of travellers snakes through customs ahead of us as we stretch to ease the tightness in our thigh muscles and let our minds wander back to our snow adventures.
We lament the loss of helpful, perennially smiling staff whom we'd got used to so quickly - whisking away heavy bags, booking ahead, catering to our every need and making us feel like VIPs. The massage at St Regis. First tracks in Ajax. The cocktails at Caribou. But you can't stay on Cloud Nine forever.