Fresh tracks in a fresh tract
There’s Bruno, the grizzled steward of the bowl, and Go-Go, another Highlands ski patrol veteran. The two spent the summer working in the bowl’s G zones, cutting and clearing debris in the coveted north-facing slice of the pie. While the powder’s as deep as two feet in places, we take a cautious line down the top section, around sub-alpine fur and engelmann spruce, raking over rocks in shallow spots.
We’re looking for subtle tongues of snow, the gentle north-facing rolls with the requisite padding under foot, Bruno says. Having worked the saw in much of the area himself, Bruno stops to point out the four distinct chutes that funnel into one to form the run G-5 when Go-Go streaks by, throttling back on conservatism.
“I’m gonna keep on going!” he shouts, a rooster-tail in his wake.
After linking a few more crunch-free turns, he pulls up well below our planned meeting spot.
“That was pretty damn good! I couldn’t stop,” he roars.
It’s a remarkable sight for Oct. 8. Most of the mountain is bare, of course, even most of the bowl, but not the fabled G zones, which receive converse proportions of direct sunlight (very little) and snow (heaps).
On Friday, Bruno and Go-Go put the first tracks in the bowl, in G-5 and G-8; it’s the earliest anyone can remember skiing at Highlands. And on Tuesday, it’s still better than any opening day I’ve seen in four seasons. After reeling in Go-Go about halfway down G-5 and quenching a summer-long thirst, we hiked back up to the ridge, then traversed over to G-8 to find even drier powder and steeper pitches closer to the center gut of the bowl. “Best run of the season,” said photographer Chip Strait amid nodding grins.
“This is the place we’ve been waiting to get all our lives,” Mac Smith, the patrol director, told me this summer. We’re talking about the G zones, which the patrol will open this season for the first time in history, and Smith promised to call me as soon as conditions permitted a more suitable tour.
Then, on Monday, a message on my voicemail: “I just got back from vacation” ? pause ? “the guys skied in the bowl on Friday and thought maybe you guys wanted to come up …”
We met early Tuesday ? a leaf-peeping ski tour of sorts for the local news/powder hounds. Since the lifts aren’t scheduled to open at Highlands until Dec. 14, we drove to the top of the Loge Peak chairlift. At the wheel, Bruno, a 16-year veteran, swaps stories of old with Tim “Go-Go” Grogan and Sue Chimmenti, both 12-year patrollers at Highlands. Even for them, I sense, it’s not just another day on the job.
Where the lift normally deposits you, we strapped skis/boards on our backs and began the 800 vertical-foot hump to the 12,392-foot summit of Highland Peak, the apex of the bowl on the east side. Bruno is trying to explain the intangibles of the job, the snowpack, the skis on our backs on Oct. 8.
“It’s a whole different ballgame for us this year,” he said. “What we don’t know yet ? what we don’t know any year ? is how much it’s going to snow and when it’s going to snow and how long that snow is going to stick around.”
In 1997, the patrol dropped the rope on the first slice of bowl, the south-facing Y zones located nearest the Loge Peak chairlift, and each year the boundary has been pushed farther out. This year, conditions permitting, there won’t be any boundary ropes at all in the bowl.
To pull it off safely, the patrol packs all the avalanche-prone steeps, in the bowl and elsewhere, an exhausting detail that entails post-holing up and down the terrain to break up weak layers and create a dense, stable base. It took 20 people about five weeks to pack the bowl last year, Bruno estimated; with the G zones, he expects the chore to take up to seven weeks this season. The packing program won’t begin in earnest until Nov. 15, but skiable snow in the bowl creates a sense of urgency.
“It’s a novel experiment,” Bruno continued. “With the significant snowfall in September and early October, we’re wondering what the best method is to take care of it over here [in the G zones]. By packing a little of it now, while we have a foot-and-a-half of good packing snow, we’ll see how that affects later snows and if it’s worthwhile for us to be doing so soon in the future.”
At the very least, it’s a suitable excuse for further reconnaissance. As we’re clicking in for the first run down G-5, Sue, who didn’t have skis along, had resigned herself to a day of plodding up and down the bowl, packing it. Go-Go and Bruno would join her later.
More warning than farewell, she advised us: “Keep the turns tight. I’ll have my skis tomorrow.”