Experts earn their turns in new Highland Bowl terrain
If ever the boast “Steep N’ Deep” was appropriately used in the hype-crazed ski industry, it is now at Aspen Highlands.
That’s the name of a trail that is the cream of a bountiful crop of expert terrain in Highland Bowl.
Steep N’ Deep, formerly known as B-3, is the closest trail, among those currently open, to the center of the bowl. It’s located to the skier’s left of the gut and, at 12,240 feet, it’s just couple of hundred vertical feet below the prominent bowl’s summit.
The top of the run is about 1,000 feet higher than the top of neighboring Aspen Mountain and about the same elevation as Independence Pass.
Skiing or riding Steep N’ Deep isn’t for the faint of heart. Getting there requires about a 40-minute hike in ski boots from the Loge Peak chair. “You walk for your turns here,” said Mike Kaplan, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of mountain operations.
Ah, but talk about renewal of the human spirit – as the Skico motto goes. The West Elk Mountains and other ranges jump out as you march up the ridge, with Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells dominating the view in full splendor. Unfortunately, you have to keep your eyes on the ground as the path gets progressively narrower up the ridge.
When you finally top out, Steep N’ Deep drops off at a pitch virtually unparalleled within the boundaries of North American ski areas.
“It could be the most spectacular run in Colorado if not the U.S.,” said Kaplan.
The trail was aptly named after a Warren Miller movie that was filmed on Highlands’ classic expert terrain in the 1970s.
All the walking is worth the effort because Steep N’ Deep rewards you with so many vertical feet of skiing, noted Susan Hammond, an Old Snowmass resident who made her first trip that high into the bowl Friday.
Steep N’ Deep offers 1,200 vertical feet, with the steepest pitch at 42 degrees and an average pitch of 39 degrees. In comparison, the Hanging Valley Wall at Snowmass, minus the Headwall or Roberto’s, sports 610 vertical feet and a 38-degree slope. Walsh’s at Aspen Mountain provides 460 vertical at the dropoff and a pitch of between 35 and 40 degrees.
“I’m speechless. That was fantastic,” said local resident Bob Harris after taking his first trip that far into the bowl in 27 years of skiing in Aspen. He said he has never experienced a feeling like it – at least not on skis.
His sentiments were echoed by local resident Bruce Anderson, who’s been skiing the slopes of Aspen for 29 years. “That was my first time up that high in Highlands and that was a pretty awesome run,” he said.
Aspen Skiing Co. Chief Operating Officer John Norton, who showed off the trail to a group of locals Friday, said the terrain in Highland Bowl gives the ski area a special status.
“It adds a dimension of skiing that almost no one offers,” Norton said. “No one will ever confuse Highland Bowl with the Back Bowls [of Vail].”
Hammond let out a series of ecstatic yelps as she ripped down the steep slope in powder that was at least knee-high.
“I never thought I’d be skiing Highland Bowl,” she said in reference to a tragic avalanche in 1984.
Three Highlands patrollers -Tom Snyder, Craig Soddy and Chris Kessler – were killed by a slab avalanche while they were working the G-Zones, an area of the bowl that remains closed.
Kevin Heinecken, snow safety director for the Highlands patrol, said more terrain has been opened farther into the bowl “as we feel more comfortable with it.”
In 1997-98 the patrol got terrain open as far as an area known as the Y-Zones, significantly farther down the ridge from Steep N’ Deep. Last season, they worked their way up to Grahamsters, at the edge of the B-Zones.
This season, the next highest tracks, Steep N’ Deep and Before, formerly known as B-4, opened for public use without patrol guidance.
Expert skiers and riders are getting a chance to enjoy that special terrain now only because of countless hours of hard work the patrol put into it earlier in the season. Heinecken credited the Skico with allowing the patrol to put a lot of time and energy into the bowl work.
“We boot-packed this pitch three separate times, we patrollers,” said Heinecken. “We’ve got a lot of man-hours into it. That’s why in a season like this, with the general avalanche conditions, we are able to hopefully hang on to something like this.
“When it starts snowing you start to see the returns. You’re out here working for six weeks without snow just beating around the rocks, then all of a sudden we get snow and it’s just fantastic skiing. All the work paid off.”
Word of Before and Steep N’ Deep spread quickly when the Aspen area started receiving heavy snows two and a half weeks ago. The long hike required pares the number of people who make it that high into the bowl, but on Friday morning the east-facing slope was visited by about 12 skiers in the first hour it was open.
“The award for us, besides getting to ski a little bit here too, is seeing everybody stoked about it and finally starting to see the skiers come out of the woodwork,” said Heinecken.
There’s a chance that additional terrain above Steep N’ Deep will open this season. The next track has already been named White Kitchen.
“I’d love to see the whole thing open, that’s kind of a personal goal, but you can’t push against Mother Nature too hard,” said Heinecken.
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