Highlands adds topper to bowl
The patrol has summited. And now Aspen can now lay claim to some of the steepest and longest ski runs in Colorado.
The members of the Aspen Highlands ski patrol ushered in a new era for the ski area on Jan. 11, when they opened new ski terrain that starts at the very top of 12,382-foot Highland Peak.
Capping a five-year sustained effort to let the public enjoy skiing and riding in the gut of the immense Highland Bowl, the patrol has opened three new sections of the bowl called White Kitchen, Be One and Ozone, which are accessible through the highest entry gate, dubbed the Peak Gate.
For some, it is akin to the gates of heaven.
“I think we both really love this place,” said Brian Johnson of Carbondale, who has hiked up to the summit every day since it opened, and yesterday was with his friend, Brian Porter. “It runs really deep for us.”
“That could be home,” said Manou Roux, a ski patroller from Chamonix, France, who is on exchange this winter with an Aspen Mountain patroller and climbed to the peak on Tuesday. “If I look at the Bells and Pyramid, that is like the Alps.”
“This new terrain is longer and steeper,” said patroller Kevin Heinecken, the director of snow safety.
Ozone, the run off the peak, offers 1,442 vertical feet of skiing with an average pitch of 37 degrees. Be One, just down the ridge, has sections that are 45 degrees steep. By comparison, the Hanging Valley Wall in Snowmass, minus the Headwall or Roberto’s, has a 38-degree slope and 610 vertical feet of skiing.
“You won’t find anything much steeper in Colorado than 45 degrees,” said Heinecken.
And the bowl is indeed steep. When a skier loses a ski near the top of the bowl, the ski tends to hurl down the hill, brakes or no brakes.
More important perhaps, Ozone and Be One face northeast, a more friendly aspect for keeping snow fresh. All the other runs opened to date in the bowl face more to the east or to the southeast.
And giving Highland Bowl hikers a new destination has proven popular.
“Every time we open up a new place, people walk as far as they can,” said Heinecken. “Ninety percent of the traffic is in Ozone now.”
Best yet to come?
And the patrol has grander ambitions than their latest achievement. The dream of opening the entire bowl, including the coveted north-facing wooded slopes known as the North Woods, is still alive.
The section of the bowl that just opened is viewed as some of the most fickle avalanche terrain, and there is a sense among the patrol that since it is now open, the entire bowl may be within reach. Respect for the bowl has not diminished. The memory of an avalanche in 1984 that claimed the lives of three Highlands patrollers is still fresh.
And just because snow patterns this winter have allowed the bowl to open all the way to the peak, it could easily have been different.
“Any different scenario would have helped or hurt,” said Heinecken, with the sagacity that comes from trying to understand the cumulative daily effects of snow, wind and sun patterns in the bowl.
This winter brought snow early to the bowl. Then, the night before the ski area opened on Dec. 16, a fierce wind scrubbed the bowl of snow and left a layer of thick wind slab. The patrol pounded the slab with a “ton of explosives” in order to stabilize it.
Since then, precious little snow has fallen, which, for the bowl, has been a relatively good thing. It has allowed the patrol to get the snowpack “mechanically strengthened” through ski-cutting, boot packing and bomb-throwing.
Today, the belly of the Bowl is offering some of the best skiing in the valley, with dry, firm consistent snow on the steep slopes.
But even without powder, the enthusiasm for the new terrain off the summit of Highland Peak is as thick as the air is thin. And there are now bumps in the bowl, which as much as anything signal a new era in the fabled terrain.
A core group of skiers and riders has taken to hiking the ridge and skiing the bowl four or five times a day, every day. A larger group of perhaps 25 to 30 locals take at least one lap through the bowl a day. Hundreds more have hiked to the summit and then skied the pure fall line down to the catwalk that drains the bowl.
But the skiing is almost beside the point after taking in the dramatic views from the ridge and the peak.
“If you hiked all the way up here and you had to hike down, you’d still do it, it is just so incredible,” said John Armstrong, a veteran patroller from Aspen Mountain who recently transferred to the Highlands.
Not for the faint of heart
That’s not to minimize the hike, however. It’s not for the faint of heart. From the saddle just beyond Loge Peak, it can take the average person 45 minutes to reach the peak. Jumping on the free snowcat up to the Main Gate shaves about 15 minutes off that. One Highlands ski patroller, Jimmy Newman, owns the record of 15 minutes, 30 seconds from the cat drop-off point to the peak.
But en route to the bowl, it’s not just the sustained climbing that is daunting. Most of the hike is up a narrow ridge on slippery, kicked-in snow steps, which can be hard to get secure footing on while wearing ski boots. And the catwalk out is no picnic either, especially for those on snowboards, although it is certainly better than it used to be.
Over the last several seasons, the Highlands Bowl patrol has methodically worked their way up the bowl, studying and controlling the snow to reduce avalanche hazard and watching how increased skier traffic affects the snowpack. And local skiers and riders know how hard the patrol has worked to make it happen.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it,” said Johnson, who worked as a boot packer in the preseason, trudging up and down the vast bowl in an effort to stabilize the snow.
First to open were the lower southeast-facing Y Zones, which were labeled to reflect that yellow cross-country ski wax was best for sun-baked snow. Today, those steep chutes above Temerity are called Whip’s Veneration and Filip’s Leap. Next came the upper Y Zones above what is now known as the Dance Hall Gate at 11,800 feet.
Last season, skiers were treated to the first of the B-Zones to open. They are now called Before and Steep and Deep and lie beyond the Fundeck Gate at 12,000 feet. There, a sign states “No Membership Required.” A message on a white board leaning against the sign advises that “There is good skiing in Before to be found just be careful.” A smaller message says “Powder to the People.”
At the summit, a small tower supports a solar-powered weather station and a line of prayer flags adorns one of the guy wires.
Chair No. 7 from the old Olympic lift was grunted up the ridge by some true fanatics and provides a seat and perhaps a touch of luck to all who sit there.
After hiking up, most spend some time, at least on nonpowder days, taking in the awesome views of the Aspen backcountry, including Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells, which come out of the sky and stand there.
“You can almost touch Pyramid,” said Johnson. “That’s why we come up here.”
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has tested positive for the coronavirus. Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, both have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic, the governor said in a statement Saturday night.