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Four peaks, 25,000 feet of vertical, and rain, too

Jeremy Heiman

The morning rain in El Jebel was a disquieting omen.

Nobody wants to spend a Saturday skiing 25,000 feet of vertical in the rain. But by the time the participants in Saturday’s 10th annual Top Ski Challenge met at the Fanny Hill lift at Snowmass, the rain had stopped.

Gliding off the Sam’s Knob lift, it was clear to the 29 skiers who accepted the challenge that this year’s conditions would be different. The frozen crud typical of an early morning in late March was buried under 10 inches of new powder. Or eight inches. Or 14 inches. It depends on whom you ask.

The Top Ski Challenge is the invention of bus driver Greg Paul. The original notion is still pretty much the guiding principle of the event: To ski from the top of each high point on each Aspen Skiing Co. mountain in one day, hitting most of the available expert runs on the way and moving from one ski area to the next by bus. And to have fun doing it.

Keeping the whole group together without anyone getting “torped” is a fundamental principle, too. The logistics were simpler at the beginning.

Only three skiers – Paul, Becca Magill and Tito Troost – completed the first Top Ski. All were present this year. At 69, Troost is the oldest participant, and 14-year-old Kurt Van Raden was the youngest this year.

Throughout the day, the Top Skiers encountered every imaginable kind of spring weather. It was clearing on Snowmass, raining at the bottom of Buttermilk, and just after noon, the group weathered a midwinter-style blizzard on Highlands, followed by some graupel, or snow pellets, more typical of springtime.

Even without the rain, calling some of Saturday’s snow conditions “weird” would have been too kind. Paul described the new snow later in the day as “the consistency of Cool Whip with the lid left off for a week.” It’s the kind of warm, fresh snow that makes popping and creaking sounds as skis pass slowly over it, and it alternately grabs and releases the skis without warning. Everyone thought Campground, the first run of the day, was the best, with its fresh, cool powder.

The Top Ski itinerary, which changes slightly from year to year, had the group starting at the west side of Snowmass, topping out on the Big Burn, High Alpine and Elk Camp lifts, and catching a special bus from the Two Creeks area. The group traveled to Buttermilk for two runs, Highlands for two runs and Aspen Mountain for four.

The group didn’t quite complete the vertical challenge, an estimated 28,500 feet, this year. Because the Silver Queen Gondola stopped running at 3:30 p.m., the group split, with some skiers hurrying to complete a run on Aztec and Corkscrew Gully. Others, distracted by ski patrollers offering a last crack at Walsh’s before they closed the run for the day, claim they caught some soggy late-afternoon face shots before straggling off the mountain.

The group coalesced at the Flying Dog Brew Pub to regain its collective strength, aided by infusions of microbrewed stout and amber and a few dozen plates of appetizers.

Howard Moslewer, honoring Paul with a toast, said, “It’s an event, now, not just a bunch of dirtbags going skiing.”

“No, it’s still that, too,” retorted Paul.

Paul estimates participants in the event have logged about 50 miles of vertical in the 10 years of the Top Ski. And, using a very approximate 30 percent grade as an average, he reckons the event has covered about 150 linear miles.

Paul seemed only a little disappointed that this year’s group wasn’t able to cover the projected 28,500 feet of vertical. There’s always next year.

“You know what this tells us,” Paul yelled over the din at the Flying Dog. “We’re gonna have to keep on working on this until we get it right.”


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