Heeding the Call of The Highland Bowl

by erin lentz | November 16, 2012 | Lifestyle

I look up at the man holding my gloved hand, helping me balance in the crowded snow cat. With breath visible in the frosty January morning, he yells, grinning, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” I’m kneeling in the midst of 20 skiers; all seats have been claimed on this alpine hitchhike from Loge Meadow at Aspen Highlands Ski Resort. With the exception of my friend and fellow snowboarder, we don’t know anyone on the cat. But as I glance around it’s quickly evident that this disparate assembly of skiers and riders—a weathered, fit-looking local with duct-taped Marmot pants, a Bogner-clad older dad with his 12-year-old son, whose helmet announces an affinity for Red Bull and Simon Dumont—share a common mind-set. As we bump around in the back of the cat, clutching our snowboards and skis, the anticipation in the air is tangible, and one excited tourist vocalizes it. “Top of the morning!” he exclaims to no one really. Several in the cat smile at him, some are visibly nervous, and others look simply pumped, lost in the audio landscape of their iPods, yet visibly anxious to tackle the physical terrain. Nearly all eyes remain focused on what’s becoming increasingly more beautiful, pronounced, and perhaps daunting to some: The top of Highland Bowl.

Considered a rite of passage for both Aspenites and visitors, “The Bowl” celebrates 15 years of public access this ski season. In 1997 the first flank of Highland Bowl reopened to the public after a tragic avalanche in 1984. Today, it claims 250 acres of accessible expert terrain, with its steepest pitch at 48 degrees. Considered by many as big-mountain skiing without the inherent danger of unpatrolled territory, the ridge of the 12,392-foot summit is only accessible by placing one ski or snowboard boot in front of the other, a 782-foot vertical hike (20–50 minutes depending on fitness level) that, at certain steep aspects, causes some to second-guess their decision to arrive in this storied landscape. The aforementioned snow cat shaves off a slight portion of the hike (many locals forgo the cat and hike the whole way), taking skiers and riders to the first access gate, but in order to descend the gorgeous terrain, one has to seriously earn their turns. And for some, one Bowl hike and ski run serves as the day’s workout and reward, a two-for-one with 360-degree views that lift the spirit, too.

For those watching from the top of Loge Peak Lift, the trek to The Bowl resembles ants marching. Yet the march, and the collective reward—adrenaline-fueled powder shots—are irresistible to fans of the steep and deep. Once that virgin hike is conquered, often with the encouragement of seasoned “Bowlers” as they pass by at seemingly impossible speed, the allure of this peak’s beautiful bounty is spellbinding.

Professional skier and mountaineer Chris Davenport explains, “The Bowl is a special place. Anyone who stands on the ridge feels enlightened and enriched. There’s something about the energy up there.”

The journey to opening the peak to the public, however, has been as rocky as its foundation. The terrain atop Highland Bowl offers an embarrassment of riches, and under the meticulous care of the esteemed Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol, is now relatively safe. Surely, The Bowl is for seasoned skiers only, those entering at their own risk and comfortable on double blacks. Yet a fatal avalanche on March 31, 1984, almost prevented it from ever being skied again. Patrollers Tom Snyder, Craig Soddy, and Chris Kessler were prepping Highland Bowl for a Colorado ski patrol party, and after setting off an explosive avalanche charge, a 1,000-foot fracture claimed the lives of all three. Whipple Vann Ness Jones, the original operator of Aspen Highlands, owned the resort at that time. It was one of the worst avalanche-control accidents in US history, and Highland Bowl was immediately closed to the public.

Aspen Highlands Patrol Director Mac Smith, who first joined the patrol in 1973 and has been “beating the drum for 30 years” in regard to opening The Bowl, was present on that tragic day. After years of grappling with the incident and the loss of his friends, he decided they would have wanted it to remain open. After the accident, Smith explains, “Whip decided we weren’t going to step in there for a while, or perhaps, in his mind, forever.” But Smith’s dream to reopen The Bowl to the public “just went to sleep for a bit. When you have a love of something, you might be able to put it away for a while, but it boils back to the surface. So in 1988 we went back up there with a bunch of patrollers from Jackson Hole. We realized it was something we should continue to pursue. It’s the best skiing in North America, to our prejudices at least.”

In 1993, when Aspen Highlands traded ownership from Jones (who donated Aspen Highlands to Harvard University) to Gerald Hines (eventually ownership was assumed by the Aspen Skiing Company), Smith and snow study supervisor O.J. Melahn launched a detailed study of The Bowl and coordinated a three-member “Bowl Patrol”—Melahn, Peter Carvelli, and Kevin Heinecken—to study its slopes. Just four years later, during the 1997-1998 ski season, the opening of the Y-Zones, Whip’s Veneration, and Filip’s Leap marked the first year post-avalanche that the terrain was made accessible again to the public, conditions permitting.

It was during those pivotal years of studying Aspen Highlands’ terrain, however, that a remarkable way of approaching snow safety was born. Another slide in the Steeplechase area of the resort triggered a revelation on avalanche control—boot packing. “The shank slide that happened in Steeplechase was actually the birth of boot packing for avalanche control,” explains Smith. “This was after The Bowl accident, and the education we were getting from the avalanche community was based on intermountain climate and the maritime climate. Those are two different snow packs from our continental climate. We realized we had to do something different than what Jackson Hole, Alta, or Lake Tahoe did, because our snowpack was different. We learned that we had to pack from the basal layer (at the bottom of the snowpack) and mix every subsequent layer, like a cement mixer. You don’t allow anything that has a smooth surface that a fracture can propagate through. That was the premise of things. It was a slow learning curve, as it was breaking down what we were (originally) taught.”

The “Bowl Patrol” was eventually formed in the winter of 1999-2000, a preseason bootpacking program that is crucial to the safety and management of the steep terrain. Today, it garners bragging rites for many die-hard local volunteers, as 25 daily boot packers log more than 2,200 grueling hours over six weeks. With their hamstrings often begging for reprieve, they stomp up and down Highland Bowl, sometimes under less than favorable weather conditions, in an effort to lasso a free full-season ski pass. “One might think Who the hell is crazy enough to do that?” says Davenport. “But the volunteers are clamoring to be up there. They want to do it because it’s their ski pass, and it’s their ski season training. It’s also a rite of passage. Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol is so hard-working and so smart that they figured out how to get a hold of this wild bucking bronco of Highland Bowl.”

Volunteers must boot pack for at least five days to qualify for the earlyseason ski pass rate. After that, each subsequent day earns $100 per day toward the price of the pass. “Getting your head up off that pillow on the fourth day is pretty damn hard,” Smith quips. The boot-packing program born at Aspen Highlands has been replicated at many resorts across the country and abroad. “We were the first, but only momentarily,” he adds.

It was 2005, however, that truly placed Highland Bowl on the collective bucket list of in-the-know powder hounds. With the installation of the Deep Temerity triple chair, which shimmies over 1,700 vertical feet in 7.3 minutes, 180 additional acres of expert terrain was unveiled. It eliminated the former, and at times, gnarly Highland Bowl traverse, a long, roller-coaster catwalk that garnered both excitement and bruises. “You could always tell a Highlands skier (before the Deep Temerity lift installation), as they’d have this massive right leg, because of the two-mile traverse,” laughs Smith.

With the opening of the Deep Temerity terrain and lift, Highland Bowl staked its claim among the “extreme” scene, an oft-overused yet apt term for skiers wanting to push the boundaries of the sport. “Before the Deep Temerity chair we felt a little shortchanged; you skied The Bowl and all of a sudden you were cutting left,” says Davenport. “But there’s all this great skiing down below. It’s not as steep, but it’s long and there are some fun little pitches. Now you can ski Deep Temerity in addition to the length of The Bowl. It places that portion of Aspen Highlands in the top handful of runs or areas of terrain in the country.” Today, there isn’t another resort in the state that claims as many acres of steep terrain served by one lift. “It changed Aspen,” says Smith. “We all of a sudden had the beef.”

That “beef” will be newly challenged and celebrated this season as a bona fide stop on the free skier extreme competition circuit. Formerly known as the Colorado Freeride Series, the new Mountainstyle competition (held January 28–30, 2013) moves from its former venue at Snowmass Mountain to Highland Bowl. Akin to Silverton’s successful Red Bull Cold Rush competition, the event’s steep terrain atop Highlands will most likely raise the caliber of contestants. “Mountainstyle will pull in a high caliber of athletes, hopefully the top male ski and snowboard athletes in the game,” says Aspen Skiing Company public relations manager Meredith McKee. “We’re thrilled to host a pioneering backcountry slope-style competition of this level and watch all the action go down in our very own backyard.” Additionally, Davenport will host the grueling annual Power of Four Mountain Battle (December 15–16, 2012), as part of the Power of Four competition series.

The story of extreme skiing at Aspen Highlands may still be unfolding, as Smith has his eye on opening Loge and Maroon Bowls, perhaps in the next decade. “Loge and Maroon Bowls offer tremendous opportunities at Highlands for the future. It should be considered and looked at.”

For the time being, however, locals and visitors will certainly have plenty of playground with what’s currently accessible in The Bowl. Many consider The G-Zones, a North-facing aspect of tree-lined terrain with endless powder stashes, to be its gem. “To me, the Gs are the crème de la crème because it’s so steep, so north, it gets more snow, and the snow stays better quality for longer,” says Smith.

But perhaps it’s the unpredictable personality of The Bowl that will continue to draw us to its ridge. Authentic, proud, and at times unapologetic, when at its kindest, on a deep, blue bird Colorado powder day, it offers an adventure like none other. “Man hugs at the bottom of The Bowl are not uncommon,” adds Smith. “We get to experience something that not many other people get to do. It’s life changing.”

Photography by:

photography by daniel bayer (summit, hike, flags, views, headquarters); by neal biedelman (davenport)