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Blown off the hill

Janet Urquhart
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Wind is starting to scare me.

It’s a little unnerving ” the wind, that is, not the fact that it has rattled me to the core twice in one week.

First it was at Highlands, a week ago today, when I road up the Cloud Nine lift into a full-on whiteout. I was on the first chair at the base of Highlands and the first to board Cloud Nine, but my glee on that particular powder day quickly turned to panic when the lift crested the hill near the top and I was hit with a blast of wind that, in my mind, could have lifted the chair backward and left me facing the ground like some insane amusement park ride.

Of course, it didn’t ” I don’t think. I couldn’t see the ground, or anything else. At one point, everything disappeared from view ” the empty chairs in front of me, the lift towers, the cables, the trees off to the side. I gripped the safety bar and stared, wide-eyed, into the swirling abyss. What if I couldn’t see the lift terminus? What if I didn’t know when to get off?

Fortunately, the world re-emerged in time. They shut the lift down a short time later, along with the Loge chair at Highlands and every high lift at all three other mountains.

Sunday was probably much the same story. I was one of the few to grind up the Tiehack chair at Buttermilk (which has no safety bar, by the way), before they shut it down because of the wind. We parked at the base of Tiehack and took the longest ride imaginable on that already slow chair. They’d actually managed to slow it down, which I didn’t think possible. Plus, it stopped like four times on the way up. “I could write a book on this,” my companion growled.

It didn’t seem particularly windy at the base, but again, as we crested the hill near the upper terminus of the lift, we found ourselves swaying in a continuous gust that drove the snow into exposed skin like nails. The snow poured off of a drift next to the platform where we were to jump off like it was shooting out of a snowgun at full force.

I just hopped I wouldn’t get blown over trying to get off. The lift attendant shouted through the gale that they were shutting the chair down and we wouldn’t be able to ski back down Tiehack.

Heck, we could barely ski a short distance to the Cliffhouse restaurant, where virtually everyone on the mountain had apparently taken refuge. Everybody put their skis on the ground on the leeward side of the building, fearing they’d blow away if they were left standing in the exposed racks.

We steeled our nerves with hot chocolate, while ski instructors fed bowlfuls of snack food to little kids and strategized on how to get them down the mountain without losing anyone. The snow blew sideways outside, obscuring everything but the icicles dangling off the eves outside the windows.

Outside, we found our skis nearly buried, and ventured into the wind-driven powder on Tiehack. Once we were down off the summit, it actually wasn’t bad, but there was no way we’d have gone back up, even if the lift was running.

Snowmass received 9 inches of new snow over the past 24 hours, according to the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Monday morning snow report. Aspen Highlands picked up 6 inches, and Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk got 5 inches.

An avalanche watch remains in effect in the Aspen zone until 8 a.m. Monday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The CAIC’s report for the Aspen zone on Monday, Feb. 4: The avalanche danger is high on north, northeast, east, southeast and south aspects. The danger on other aspects and elevations is considerable. Human-triggered slides are likely to probable.


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