In-bounds adventure, with an Aspen view |

In-bounds adventure, with an Aspen view

Steve Benson
We hope he looked before he leapt Aspen ski instructor Christian Messner jumps a cliff in the Trainors area. Aspen Times photo/Catherine Lutz.

To the skier’s left of Aztec on Aspen Mountain, a tiny traverse sneaks off through the woods and snakes along a shaded, thin ridge. Steep, snow-choked chutes lined with old-growth spruce and interrupted by cliffs and rock outcroppings spill off to the right like waterfalls. Some 1,500 vertical feet below, the city of Aspen looks like a replica model in someone’s basement.To the left, on the ridge’s other side, a stand of aspens clings to another steep slope that drops into the Castle Creek Valley.Straight ahead, the traverse crawls for several hundred yards along the ridge into a clearing before dead-ending at a ski area boundary rope. Beyond the rope, the ridge curls up a jagged set of boulders before peaking atop Shadow Mountain.

The area is known as Trainor Ridge, or simply Trainors. The silence and the views are equally stunning, but the main draw is the skiing, which is unlike anything on Aspen Mountain. Love that terrainFirst opened by Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol in 1993, Trainors is defined by six distinct pitches, simply labeled T1 through T6. But don’t let that fool you – there are dozens of unnamed chutes, hidden gullies and secret stashes. Some sections have earned nicknames over the years, such as “Apples Tit” and “The Love Crack.” Named after an old mining shaft in the area, Trainors is located relatively low on Aspen Mountain – the entrance gate is not far above the loading area of Ruthie’s Lift. Much of the area is covered by a thick tree canopy. Those factors, combined with the steepness of the slopes, leave Trainors constantly struggling to collect and hold snow. The area has seen scant openings during recent drought years, but this winter it’s been open more than ever in its 12-year history. While the timber and brush have been thinned out considerably, Trainors is still wild by inbounds’ standards. About 100 yards below the ridge, on the Aspen side, a makeshift plywood barrier rings an apparent mining claim, and spray-painted signs warn skiers to “Keep Out.” That’s probably the most obvious and avoidable obstacle; the combination of heart-pumping steeps, rocks, cliffs, boulders, stumps, old mining shafts and fallen trees have prompted patrol to slap an EX rating – for extreme terrain – on Trainors. It’s the only area on Aspen Mountain to receive the distinction.And while there are only 500 to 600 vertical feet, depending where a skier drops in, the 25-acre Trainors area is no molehill.

“It’s just kind of gnarly,” said John Love, a local skier and Trainors junkie. “It’s got holes and trees and rocks and drops and all sorts of powder stashes.”You can fulfill a lot of jumping fantasies.” About 10 years ago, Love unexpectedly stumbled upon one of those “holes.” Skiing the boulder- and cliff-strewn area of T2, Love jump-turned onto what appeared to be a pillow – it was actually a thin, breakable snow bridge – and vanished. Jim Hearn, or GORP, a veteran Aspen Mountain patroller and one of the members directly responsible for the opening of Trainors, witnessed the vanishing act. Hearn and one of the other patrollers, a woman whose voice rises in pitch when she gets excited, started shouting and repeating, “He fell in the hole, he did, he did, he fell in the hole!”Love said one of his skis caught the lip of the hole and he was left suspended “like a hurdler,” only face down.

Then a 6-foot, 8-inch member of the patrol climbed up to the hole, reached down and succeeded in yanking Love out of the 6-foot-deep cavern. “I was in a precarious position. It would have been trouble if [the ski patrol wasn’t] there,” Love said. “Anyway, that’s how it came to be known as The Love Crack.” Low traffic, high riskDespite the plethora of hazards in Trainors, Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol Director Eric Kinsman said serious injuries are rare – something he attributes to low skier traffic and the fact that most people who do venture in the area are experienced and know the terrain.But Trainors’ record is not completely clean. About four years ago, a skier died after hitting a tree. Later that season, another skier became paralyzed after misjudging a jump. The patrol has no way of knowing exactly how many people pass through Trainors, but skier traffic is so low that it’s not uncommon to have the entire area to yourself.

“I think it’s too steep,” Kinsman said. “And we’ve got a lot of other good terrain too. Unless Trainors is particularly good, you can find kind of the same thing elsewhere and you don’t have to do that ridge.” Still, given the number of expert skiers who live in Aspen, it’s somewhat of a mystery why Trainors is so untouched.Perhaps it’s the hike. Or maybe it’s that most local extreme skiers are over in Highland Bowl or the Burnside Cliffs at Snowmass.Kinsman said he was riding the gondola the other day and didn’t see anybody in Aspen’s steeper terrain.”I thought ‘Damn, where are all the people?'” A Trainor history

The idea to open Trainors was actually driven by safety. The Summer Road, Spring Pitch and Strawpile all run beneath its precarious steeps. Avalanches, particularly wet slides on warm spring days, have posed a constant safety problem. Patrollers realized in the early 1990s that opening Trainors to the public would actually compact and stabilize the snowpack. The same tactic was used in the Spar Dumps, Rayburns and the Bingo Glades. “The more we can get the public in there, the easier it is for us,” Hearn said. In 1993, T1 was opened. A couple years later, Hearn, along with Chris Uber, Chris Reed and Tim Stevens began preparing Trainors for a full opening. Hearn said the project involved removing snags, trees and brush as well as creating egress onto the Summer Road. It was not a high priority, he said, but a “make time” project that they pursued as they could.When the entire area opened the following winter, Hearn said, “it was pretty cool.”It was kind of a surprise to some of the people because I don’t think they planned on us getting that much work done in one summer,” he added. “It was nice seeing the reaction of a lot of the patrol.”

Said Love: “It was exciting. That was back when Trainors was an infant.”One of the biggest challenges patrollers face in the early season is deciding when to conduct control work in Trainors. The patrol prefers to let the early season snows settle before throwing any bombs into the area, since that could release the entire snowpack and delay an opening.”Before it opens, the problems are trying to weigh knocking the snow off and having to delay the opening … and keeping things safe.” This winter, however, the storms were ideal. The massive January snows were wet and heavy, and therefore clung to the steep pitches of Trainors.In years past, Kinsman said, the snow has been light and fluffy, and often slid off the rocky terrain.Once Trainors opens and gets compacted, “there isn’t a whole lot to do in there,” Hearn said. “It kind of takes care of itself.”

But rescues remain a challenge, especially if someone suffers an injury in the cliffs of T2. Hearn and other members of the patrol hold training sessions using belay ropes, toboggans (rigs) and other rescue hardware in the area about once a week.”We’ve been doing a lot of rig drills in there,” he said. “It’s a good place to get people in training to see where their limits are, and see what they’re comfortable doing. And it applies all over the hill – it really helps their skill level.”Kinsman said before Trainors opened to the public, poachers secretly streamed to the area on foggy days – an issue he can laugh about now. While Hearn is proud about opening Trainors, he has fond memories of the old days, when it was literally a private stash. Once the avalanche department gave patrollers the OK to venture into Trainors, Hearn could be found in there regularly. “It was a little different then because you didn’t have the skier compaction,” he said. “You had a lot of big pillows … lots of soft snow, you could huck some pretty good air in there and have a soft landing.”Now I’m getting a little old for the hard landings.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is

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