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The 30th anniversary of ‘Aspen Extreme’ inspires nostalgia, enthusiasm and community

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Courtesy of Patrick Hasburgh
"Aspen Extreme" director Patrick Hasburgh stands on location on the backside of Snowmass for the filming of the 1993 ski movie. The movie turns 30 years old on Jan. 22, 2023.

January 12th was a rowdy, raucous night at the Wheeler Opera House for the annual Winterskol screening of the 1993 ski movie “Aspen Extreme,” which follows best friends T.J. Burke and Dexter Rutecki as the Michigan transplants dive headfirst into the Aspen lifestyle with a craving for adventure and almost no advance planning.

After two hours of extreme skiing, romance and Aspen antics on the screen, locals Brittany and Charlie Harvey are in more than just good spirits.

“I told my wife you’ve got to see this, you’ve got to see this, she loved it, and that’s what brings us to tonight,” Charlie said.

He’s seen this movie three times in the last three weeks.

“Tonight’s experience cannot be put into words, it was a wonderful night,” Brittany added.

Brittany and Charlie are hardly the only ones with an unbridled sense of enthusiasm and a starry-eyed perspective on “Aspen Extreme,” which hits the 30th anniversary mark on Jan. 22.

“I cannot tell you, the hundreds and hundreds of people that, if they have known that I was involved in “Aspen Extreme” at any level, they would literally run across the room to tell me how that film impacted their life,” said E.J. Foerster, who served as an associate producer and second unit action director on “Aspen Extreme.”

Foerster first befriended the film’s writer and director Patrick Hasburgh decades ago when both of them were working as ski instructors at Snowmass Ski Area, he said in a Zoom interview from his home in Snowmass Village.

For 30 years, fans have been telling him their stories of how this goofy, heartfelt action movie inspired them to pick up and head for the mountains.

“It is a hope-filled, dream-filled film that gave everybody the possibility that they could change their life,” Foerster said.

For the people involved in “Aspen Extreme,” this legacy seems to follow them everywhere.

Katie Ertl is Aspen Skiing Company’s Senior Vice President of Mountain Operations. Her decades-long resume as a racer, ski instructor and industry pro is decorated with other achievements, but there’s one piece of trivia people really latch onto: her role, shared with Liz Talenfeld, as a ski double for the character Bryce Kellogg in “Aspen Extreme.”

“I'm surprised that it still pops up every single year, and I love that people love that movie,” Ertl said in an interview on the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain. “It is so fantastic. And I love watching it too.”

Ertl says the hopeful spirit of the movie is part of its enduring appeal for the ski town crowd.

“I think they find a little bit of themselves in it, and then they find a little bit of humor in it, … and then if they're new to skiing, they see the excitement in it and the possibility in it,” Ertl said.

But all of this love actually comes as a surprise to the film’s director Patrick Hasburgh, who said he lost a lot of arguments with film distributor Disney about the story in “Aspen Extreme” how it should have been told.

“If I take a step back, I marvel at how much people like this movie,” Hasburgh said in a Zoom interview from Sayulita, Mexico, where he now lives.

He wasn’t happy with the movie when it first came out, but his perspective has changed three decades on.

“I must have been a little bit wrong about the movie, because people aren't thinking about the politics of the movie, they aren't thinking about what isn't in the movie, or what I wanted it to be,” Hasburgh said. “They're responding to this movie, now in the here and now with what it has to say about Aspen and Aspen of the past. And it was working.”

T.J. Burke (played by Paul Gross) and Dexter Rutecki (Peter Berg) pose in front of a "Welcome to Aspen" sign in the film "Aspen Extreme."
Disney Studios
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Courtesy of Patrick Hasburgh
T.J. Burke (played by Paul Gross) and Dexter Rutecki (Peter Berg) pose in front of a "Welcome to Aspen" sign in the film "Aspen Extreme." The movie was made in 1993 but has an enduring appeal in ski town communities.

Hasburgh said “Aspen Extreme” is a nostalgic movie — he wrote it to reflect the way Aspen felt in the early 1970s, when he moved here and worked as a ski instructor — and also a movie he admits embellishes some of the best parts of Aspen.

A scene that portrays the Maroon Bells positioned directly across from Aspen Mountain comes to mind. It’s not where they’re actually located, but Hasburgh always thought they looked better there than Red Mountain does. And though all the skiing scenes in “Aspen Extreme” may capture the spirited, adventurous essence of skiing in Aspen, some were filmed in places like Telluride or Canada instead.

But at the heart of the film, Hasburgh sees a lot of truth, too.

“I think one of the appeals to the movie is that somehow I got very lucky with capturing a feeling about how a certain few generations remembered Aspen,” Hasburgh said. “And I think there's a longing for that period, and I think we wish that more of that old school Aspen style was still around.”

It’s a sentiment he says applies to more than just Aspen.

“There's a certain nostalgia, there's a certain poignancy,” Hasburgh said. “It's not just Aspen. I think it was also a time in America and a time in the world, you know, each generation has its own unique zeitgeist, their own unique perspective. The events and the traumas and the excitement and the wonder that's happening, for your generation is exclusively yours.”

Hasburgh hopes that’s a perspective new generations can see for themselves, too, as he did when he first rolled into town from Buffalo, New York in 1971. The question is whether some kid from Buffalo or Detroit could follow in Hasburgh’s footsteps, or in T.J. Burke and Dexter Rutecki’s path, given the current economic landscape of Aspen.

“Whether it can be done in a community where right now people are spending $75 million for a house, I don't know, that it's gonna be rough,” Hasburgh said.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do somewhere else, he said.

“Aspen might be off the menu, but there are many other dreams on that menu and pick yours and go live it,” he said.

There’s also the trouble that one of the two best friends who begin their “Aspen Extreme” adventure together doesn’t make it to the end of the movie: Dexter is killed in an avalanche while training with T.J. in the backcountry for the Powder 8 Championships.

Snowmass Village mayor Bill Madsen, who was the ski double for Dexter Rutecki as well as another character, Todd Pounds, says that sense of loss is one of the reasons the film might resonate more with viewers the longer they’ve lived in a place like Aspen.

“The longer you're here, the more you experience it,” Hasburgh said in an interview on the mountain in Snowmass Village. “I mean, we lose friends and a lot of people are attracted to this community because of the adventurous aspect, the ability to get out in the backcountry and take risks, and unfortunately it leads to a loss of life sometimes, and a loss of friends, and that's tragic.”

Like his fellow ski double Katie Ertl, Madsen believes “Aspen Extreme” has earned its cult following because so many ski town viewers can see themselves in the story.

“I think it's just a story that people can relate to,” Madsen said. “It's like, everybody comes to Aspen from somewhere.”

For many longtime locals who worked on the film — and for those who skied in the extreme-skiing segments, like big names Scot Schmidt and the late Doug Coombs and Aspen local Scott Nichols — Madsen says the sense of community that the film created still holds strong.

“I think it's just fun that you have all these characters that are still heavily invested in the ski world, and you know, it's part of a family,” Madsen said. “We love being part of a family.”

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Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.