Aspen High seniors take to Buttermilk for truly unique graduation experience

Try as it might, no pandemic was going to ruin Aspen High School’s graduation Saturday. The class of 2020’s final send-off was far from traditional and included far fewer hugs and high fives, and far more social distancing, face masks and car horns.

But if this novel coronavirus has taught this year’s group of AHS seniors anything, it’s perspective. And while they didn’t get to walk across the Benedict Music Tent stage like all their predecessors, their graduation Saturday is likely to be the one remembered the most decades down the line.

“Instead of a slow transition into finishing high school, the bandage was quickly ripped off and our days of walking the halls of Aspen High School came to an end,” AHS co-salutatorian Kat Goralka said during her speech. “This may not be the graduation that we imagined, but this unconventional celebration is a special day we will always remember.”

Aspen High School’s 131st commencement ceremony was, according to AHS principal Tharyn Mulberry, the first to ever be held at Buttermilk Ski Area. Limited to graduating students, immediate family and staff, it was the best the Aspen School District could come up with in a short time frame considering the situation.

And for at least one random graduating senior who was overheard Saturday, she hopes it will be the last at Buttermilk. Not because it was terrible, oh no, but because it was about picture perfect and there is no reason to share this uniqueness with any future graduating class, right?

“While this isn’t the graduation you expected, this is pretty cool,” said commencement speaker Chris Davenport, an Aspen skiing icon who has made a career out of the mountain lifestyle. “Sitting up here and seeing all of you, being at the base of Buttermilk and the flag and the mountains, this is awesome. We are a community of the mountains.”

A stage was erected in the Buttermilk parking lot and the audience had to remain in — or in many cases, on — their vehicles and adhere to the county’s social distancing guidelines. While the scene had an odd vibe similar to that of an outdoor concert, there was no mingling and the graduating students were corralled into “pods” up front that, yes, kept everyone socially distant.

AHS graduations historically have had plenty of live music, but this year’s musical interludes were all pre-recorded from students’ homes and shown on a large screen on stage. The speeches seemed relatively short and sweet — Davenport barely talked for five minutes — and there was no collective cap toss at the end.

Still, the general banter afterward, whether from students or parents, was of happiness and joy and appreciation of a truly special event. The finale was arguably the best part, where families were able to ride the chairlift to the top of Buttermilk with their graduate to take pictures and receive their diplomas.

LIVE: Aspen High graduation lift ride to tassel turn at top of Buttermilk.

Posted by The Aspen Times on Saturday, May 30, 2020

“This definitely gave them something special out of a day that was constrained by the situation of what is going on in the U.S. And everyone is doing it safely and we were able to honor these kids today,” said Travis Benson, Aspen Skiing Co.’s mountain manager at Buttermilk who also moonlights as the AHS football coach. “That’s what we are. It’s one big community and it’s honoring place and it’s giving to the community and being part of the community.”

This year’s class included 138 graduates, of which 87 graduated with honors and 51 graduated with at least a 4.0 GPA. Mulberry said 92% will move on to attend over 70 different colleges or universities.

Goralka, fellow salutatorian Maxine Mellin and valedictorian Quinn Ramberg all gave speeches. Each touched on the gravity of the situation while also injecting a good bit of humor along the way.

IN FULL: Read AHS valedictorian Quinn Ramberg’s commencement speech

Davenport talked about lessons he’s learned as a skier that the graduates can take forward into their lives — “Even the worst storms pass, and we are all going to get through this,” he said — and Mulberry did his best at a hearty goodbye.

Hired in July 2015 as the AHS principal, Mulberry isn’t exactly going far as he’s slated to become the ASD’s assistant superintendent alongside new superintendent David Baugh beginning in July. But certainly his role alongside the students will change, making this year’s class that much more special.

“Instead of being the class that had to graduate at Buttermilk, you are the class that got to graduate at Buttermilk,” Mulberry said to applause. “On the day of your graduation, you should not be thinking of what you may have lost or ponder another’s misfortune. I ask you to consider all the things in your life for which you have to be thankful and begin to consider what opportunities all these changes may have created.”