Highlands boot packers show true grit
November 20, 2014
Take the Roaring Fork Valley's relentless adventure freaks, laugh-seekers and deal-chasers and you have Aspen Skiing Co.'s boot-packing crew.
About 50 of them were at the base of Aspen Highlands on Thursday, some of them in their 15th year on the track, while others were visiting Highlands for the first time. In the early season, the crew stomps up and down Highland Bowl on Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., with lunchtime in between. Five days gets you credit toward any non-chamber Skico season pass, nine days gets you a flex or college pass, 13 days is good for a double flex, and 15 days earns you the ultimate prize, the $2,049 premier pass.
With the premier pass as motivation, 47-year-old Doug Tucker has packed 15 years straight. In each of the past six years, he's done 15 consecutive days, quite a feat considering his first year when his Achilles tendon nearly burst on day eight.
"I went to the doctor, and they said, 'We've never seen tendons like that, that didn't rupture," Tucker said while waiting Thursday morning at Exhibition Lift. "So I didn't do 15 days that year."
“The sight of bare asses is not uncommon when you turn the corner.”
Sammy Podhurst, boot packer
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According to Tucker, that was the last season Skico allowed anyone to pack without alpine-touring or telemark boots.
Starting day five was 28-year-old Carbondale resident Lindsay Gurley, who's aiming for 13 days and a double flex pass this year. She remembers having a rough go during her first pack years ago. This year, she watched the ski patrol escort two people down the mountain after they decided to call it quits.
"Which is OK," Gurley said. "It's not for everyone."
She usually eats a snack just before and after the hike to the bowl. A few laps later she eats again, usually from her fanny pack, where she keeps water and food.
"Some people just carry water in their jacket or just don't at all and eat snow," Gurley said.
Her friend, Sammy Podhurst, 25, usually falls in the latter group in order to travel light. With less supply, it's easier to pee, she said.
"You just pull your pants down and go," Podhurst said, adding that you have to get off the boot track first. "The sight of bare asses is not uncommon when you turn the corner."
Gurley said patrollers are present throughout the day to help packers, who are usually separated into two or three groups, each with a rope to steady themselves when needed. Jeff Clark, 25, said that the patrollers, while well-trained, are oddballs just like anyone else in the group.
"You take all the oddball people from Aspen and downvalley (and ask them), 'Why would you spend 15 days, 8 hours a day, waist deep in snow?'" he said. "(The answer is) it's kind of fun. You get a pass out of it."
The most challenging part of the day, Clark said, is either the first trip up the bowl in the morning or the first lap after lunch. In the second situation, he said the packers finally start warming up after hunkering down for a snack. Then, a patroller says it's time to hike some more. Clark jokingly acted out the standard reaction, feigning tears with a reluctant, "OK, fine, that sounds good."
All packers have their routine. Clark's morning begins with music and coffee. While packing he'll have a few "snicky-snacks," and after lunch, he'll listen to a few podcasts — "Radiolab" and NPR's "Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!" — for "some learning."
"I'll just be, like, silently giggling to myself hiking up the bowl, laughing at some story I'm listening to on my headphones just to pass the time," he said.
Some days, everyone's having a great time, chatting and joking. Other days, it's frigidly cold and everyone gets down to business.
"Just counting the steps and seconds until we get to ride down," Clark said.
Podhurst was working in Boulder this year when she got the call that it was time to boot pack. She said stomping around in snow can be therapeutic. When you're in the bowl, she said you see beyond everyday pettiness.
Gurley noted that you don't have any choice but to put problems aside, as you need to pay attention to every step on the bowl. If you don't, and you miss, you're falling a few feet down or more, if you're not careful.
"You have to be really attentive," Gurley said, adding that hiking up is just as tough as hiking down.
Hot soup, peanut butter and honey, lots of candy and anything else with calories are necessities for Podhurst. Hot tea also is a must.
After lunch, around 2 p.m., Gurley said everyone starts talking nonsense, a scene Clark confirmed, describing fellow packers as delirious. People like Tom Hughes, 41, enjoy that atmosphere. He said he wasn't motivated by any pass or credit but by the company and fitness.
"That's the beauty of boot packing," Podhurst said. "You meet all these rad, awesome people, who stay lifelong friends."
Gurley said the experience stays with you all season — that every time you hike the bowl, you appreciate that it was made skiable by you and your crew.
"It's the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, but it's really rewarding," Gurley said. "You get to see what you've done."