Highlands to open the whole bowl | AspenTimes.com

Highlands to open the whole bowl

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In the early 1970s, when Aspen Highlands ski patroller Mac Smith was just starting what would become his life’s work, he used to take ribbings from his counterparts across Castle Creek Valley on Aspen Mountain.

“The guys from Aspen Mountain would always tease me – ‘Hey, why don’t you come over here and work on a real mountain,'” Smith recalled Monday. “But I’d go, ‘I know this is a real mountain. This is where it’s at.’

“I took that as more of a challenge to make this the mountain they’d be jealous of, and I think we’ve done it.”

Smith, a Basalt native and resident who grew up skiing (and even poaching) at Highlands, will celebrate his 30th anniversary working there this season by opening the G zones – the only portion of Highland Bowl never before open to the public.

“This is the place we’ve been waiting to get all our lives,” Smith, 50, said during a walking tour of the lower bowl.

Aside from the addition of 65 new acres in the bowl, which nearly doubles the terrain available last season, the inclusion of the G zones into the ski area boundary brings a new aspect of skiing and boarding to the classic east-facing bowl. Located on the skier’s right, which will require a hike to the 12,382-foot summit of Highland Peak for access, the steep G zones face due north and are dotted with spruce trees. The result is winter-fresh snow all season long because it never sees any direct sun. And, as locals will attest, the G zones, like other parts of the bowl, are known to sometimes receive triple the reported snowfall at Loge Peak on any given day.

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Summer crews are currently at work in the area, clearing brush, small trees and dead wood.

“Winter, of course, has everything to do with what we open, but our intent is to open the whole thing,” Smith said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’d like to do it for opening day ideally.”

The expansion in Highland Bowl, and the rest of Highlands for that matter, can be plotted on a chart that parallels Smith’s career.

In 1978, Smith’s first year in command as patrol director, the patrol opened Steeplechase, and in 1986 came the debut of Olympic Bowl, located off the west side of Highlands, opposite Steeplechase and Highland Bowl. (Look for an additional five acres in the No Name Bowl area there as well next season.) Then in 1995, the patrol pushed the Steeplechase rope clear through Temerity, leaving the boundary at the cusp of the bowl – but only temporarily.

“At Hyde Park [a run in Temerity], that’s where you got to look over into the bowl and you could really see what was out there. It was a tease for the public and a tease for ourselves. It was something you knew you were headed toward, but you had to take small steps,” Smith said.

The first sliver of bowl opened for the 1997-98 season, including Whip’s Veneration and Filip’s Leap in the lower south-facing Y zones. Each year since, the rope has steadily climbed toward the top of the bowl; and now, it seems, up and over and all the way around.

“Are we adding to this place or what? That’s what we thought when we first opened the Y zones!” Smith marveled Monday. “And five years later, look where we’ve come!”

The patrol plans to employ the same snow-safety tactic that has enabled it to open heaps of avalanche-prone terrain without a single reported slide: compaction. By stomping down early-season snowfall, a painstaking job that involves post-holing up and down the steeps in ski boots, and then sending hundreds of skiers and boarders down the terrain during the season, a dense, stable base is created.

“We’re really fortunate to have management that has said, ‘Do it at your pace. Whatever you guys feel comfortable with is fine with us,'” he said.

“We learned some lessons back in the ’70s when we didn’t do the compaction we do now. We did the old wait and hope and throw a few bombs and think it’s going to hold tight, but we still found a few slides. Since the early ’80s, when we started the big packing program, we haven’t seen any slippage on the steeps – at all. So that really gives us good confidence in what we’re doing, but we still dig [snow] pits constantly to see how the snow’s behaving.”

The patrol toyed with the idea of using a mechanical winch to help with the boot-packing chores, but they won’t be using one next season.

“This has become a pride issue with the patrol,” Smith said. “This patrol doesn’t like to stay the same. They want to keep moving forward, farther out, and they don’t mind being active to get it done.”

Historically, the only skiers who made turns in Highland Bowl were affectionately known as “banditos” or, less so, poachers. Since the bowl was a closed area within the ski area boundary, it was illegal to ski, just as much of the G zones were last season. Smith, like many longtime Highlands skiers, made his first turns in the bowl long before it ever opened – in 1969 with some “bandito” buddies from Basalt High.

“It’s not fun to bust people for skiing. Hell, you throw this beautiful, untracked thing just on the other side of the rope – in my youth I was just jonesing for that as much as the next guy. I totally understand it. In fact, I was as big a bandito as there was at this place in the early ’70s,” Smith said.

The answer, then: “Let’s open it. Let’s get rid of the closed signs,” he said.

“It’s an attitude of Highlands. You look at stuff, you develop it, and even though you might think of it as your own personal powder stash, you’re there trying to make sure it’s safe for the public, that you understand it enough to give it to the public.”

The Highland Bowl snow study team, including director Kevin Heinecken and coordinators Peter Carvelli and Jeff Melahn, was launched in 1993, and the three gurus can still usually be found probing away in some part of the bowl, on winter and even some summer days. It’s not a glorious job and one that doesn’t involve as many face shots as the public might like to believe, but it’s rewarding beyond measure.

“When we first opened Steeplechase, one of the coolest things was being down at the bottom watching friends come down and seeing their big grins ear to ear and thanking you for working hard enough to make it happen,” Smith said. “After you get a little taste of that, that respect from your community and peers, it just drives you to continue doing it. It’s driven me my whole life, and it’s driven the whole patrol.

“Because we’ve always got a step up,” Smith added with a grin. “We’re into the next chute, and once we get that down, we’ll open it up, too.”

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com