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Boot packers endure hours

Aspen Times Staff Report

These people are certifiably insane.

They could have spent their first days of the ski season cruising down intermediate trails covered with the best early-season snow in years. Instead, they are tromping up and down in ski boots on the most wicked terrain around.

They are the few, the proud, the boot packers of Highland Bowl.

Sometimes the 18 members of the crew plow through pockets of crotch-deep powder that smothers their steps. Other times they skitter on snow-encrusted rocks so slick it threatens to send them sailing down the slopes on their backs.

They work their way down 1,450 vertical feet or so of the steepest terrain at any ski area in Colorado. They form a line and march down the slope, tromping down with each step until they hit the ground.

Then they turn around and work a ways uphill, laboring to

make progress in deep powder on pitches of up to 45 degrees. They go back and forth, crunching down the powder so the snowpack stabilizes sooner and mere mortal skiers and riders can enjoy the fruits of their labor sliding down the bowl later this winter.

If they were cattle, their owner would be cited for cruelty to animals.

But about 11 members of the Aspen Highlands ski patrol volunteered for this work. Even more astonishingly, seven members of the public volunteered – trading hard labor for free skiing.

The seven volunteers are among 10 that answered the Skico’s call for outside help. The Skico plans to open more of Highland Bowl than ever this season, including two additional trails closest to the center of the bowl in an area known as the “B-zones.”

Short version of Himalayas

Three other volunteers bailed when they discovered what the boot-packing really involved.

“This is the short version of Himalayan climbing,” said Michael Kennedy, who should know. He is a renowned climber and former publisher of Climbing Magazine. He reported for his first day of duty as a boot packer Wednesday.

“It’s not like spring snow where you can always take steps,” said Brian Johnson, a resident who put in his sixth day Wednesday. “A lot of this stuff is rotten and sugary and we’re punching through. Some of it’s shallow, some of it’s deep. It’s tricky footing.”

Volunteer Edward Jenkins acknowledged that he felt a little nervous before starting the work.

“It’s definitely a little sketchy in spots, and you’re kind of hanging on and wondering what you’re doing at times. But I figure there’s another 20 to 25 people doing it, I should be able to.”

The patrol throws charges onto several of the slopes to make sure the work is safe. The boot packers made their way up and down B-0 and B-1 Wednesday, working next to where the snow had slid on B-3.

Hours for passes

Kennedy, who has climbed some of the world’s tallest peaks, joked that he was “probably in better shape this morning” before tromping up and down Highland Bowl. “But I’m psyched to come up.”

Like the other volunteers – who include his wife, Julie – Kennedy is trading hours of boot packing for a ski pass. The Aspen Skiing Co. is trading a two-day-per-week pass for 80 hours of boot-packing. Volunteers who stick it out for 120 hours earn a premiere pass for unlimited skiing through the season.

Liz Bergdahl sought a way to get a ski pass after taking last winter off while having twins. She looked into working in the Skico’s race department, but decided to go for the boot packing.

“I’d rather earn my [pass] by sweating for it as opposed to sitting next to a gate all day long freezing my butt off,” she said.

So has she been sweating for it? “Oh yeah, this is definitely some of the hardest work you can ever do to get a pass. I thoroughly enjoy it,” said Bergdahl.

She said she was in great shape from working out over the summer but the boot packing still took a toll, particularly on her second day in the bowl.

“Your muscles are so sore from the first day that your body is like, `Wow, we’re up for this again?'”

She’s adjusted to the work, but her feet are still paying the price. “If you saw my feet underneath these boots, you’d laugh. I have tape on my shins to keep them from getting rubbed raw. I’ve got huge blisters on the insides of both heels. I have second skin, a layer of Tegaderm to protect that and a layer of duct tape over that. So my feet look like a war zone,” said Bergdahl.

They do it because they can

Each of the volunteers indicated they had reasons beyond a ski pass for helping out with the boot packing.

“I could get a ski pass really easily doing something else, but for the experience, this is pretty much a worthwhile endeavor,” said Brent Moss.

Johnson, the only volunteer who came up on his snowboard, said he wanted to get to know the patrol and their work better.

“This is my 10th winter out here,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of these guys’ faces. I don’t know a lot of them personally, or names. But I want to get to know them. It’s always good to get new ski buddies.”

“Now tell him the real reason you’re here – he’s just schmoozing,” said Highlands ski patrol member Aaron Smith.

“I was kind of envious,” Johnson acknowledged. “I’ve worked for the company before. I’ve worked at shops, I’ve worked at restaurants. I’ve worked all sorts of jobs out here. I don’t see myself being a career waiter. I’d like to be a patroller some day.”

Smith and patrol member Jim Newman said they chose to start their season with the boot packing. When asked why they volunteer for such brutal work, Smith looked at the sights of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells from the 12,400-foot-plus ridge of Highland Bowl and replied, “Look around. Where else would you rather be?”

The crew meets at the ski patrol locker room at 7:30 each morning. They ride chairlifts to the top of Loge Peak, then most of them put skins on their skis to travel the half-hour or so back to the bowl. Many of the volunteer boot packers use alpine touring gear. Some of the patrol members have regular alpine gear.

On one trip down the steep B-zones, the crew drags along their skis, stores them toward the bottom and skis out the catwalk at the bottom at the end of their eight-hour workday.

Moss said the crew has no trouble putting in an honest day’s work by the end of the day. He’s let friends know he’s found the ultimate conditioning.

“Hopefully they’ll have to try to keep up with me when the skiing starts,” he said.


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