Mac Smith: It’s time to step down and pass yoke at Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol |

Mac Smith: It’s time to step down and pass yoke at Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol

Mac Smith
Guest commentary
Mac Smith is retiring as Aspen Highlands patrol director after 42 seasons.

Every day for the last 42 years, I have saddled up and rode into responsibility. The time has come to step down and pass the yoke. The Highlands Patrol is strong, competent and can take the weight. It’s been a helluva ride on a myriad of horses; many gentle and kind, some fast witted and snappy, some with only one speed … a dead run, a few rank and bucking.

I am proud to see what the Highlands Patrol now stands for and to see the unique symbiotic relationship they have nurtured with our amazing ski community. This gracious community holds them in high regard and with my very best wishes upon my leave of directorship, I thank the community along with the wonderful men and women of the Highlands Patrol.

I humbly accept my part in steering this patrol to where they are now and I want the public to understand how the patrol got to this esteemed uniqueness. I did not hire my friends. I did not hire on the basis of self-interest. I hired those who were the best fit for the patrol for the time. I don’t take advantage of my position and don’t do my employees’ work. It has culminated into the best, hardest working patrol in this country and is recognized by my peers, the Colorado Patrol Directors, as the best patrol and avalanche program in this state. We have a good work environment and offer a place that is challenging and rewarding, with a great sense of family. This comes from a long, deep foundation of caring, teaching and leading by example in a different way. The leadership was unconventional, it is about how to treat each other and about the “Golden Rule.” It’s about ownership in the job as well as the whole mountain. The patrollers are encouraged to make their own decisions to help fill the needed tasks. They do this out of loyalty to their fellow patrollers and their profession. It also helps knowing that this allows them to be ready when the necessity of a decision in an immediate life and death situation occurs. The patroller’s days are filled with hard work that exudes pride and kinship.

The men and women of this patrol welcome the public into PHQ (before COVID). They don’t care if you’re a class A skier or an intermediate. They offer guide quality information to any and all. They are respectful of your time and the effort and cost you put into this sport. The public knows that Highlands Patrol will open terrain as quickly and safely as possible and it isn’t saved for their own enjoyment. You won’t see figure 8’s in The Bowl before they open it, you’ll see only snow cut Z’s and bomb holes. Their dedication to the snow quality and safety, from the very first snow of the season in October through closing day, maintains the best possible and safest terrain for skiing. The herculean effort that the patrol puts into the early snow manipulation is genuinely appreciated by the public and helps creates the proud prestige of their job. But the other side of this symbiotic relationship is the fact that our public is such an integral part of our snow safety program. The Patrol honors the hardcore local skier who brings the vitally important ingredient of this renowned Bowl and Highland’s steeps recipe. The Patrol affects the basal layer and public help mix the subsequent snows to maintain the snow stability in this continental climate. Our loyal public does this by their consistent and many times arduous treks up the ridge with Bowl laps in all types of conditions, from the ultimate powder day to braving extreme winds and treacherous conditions. The Highlands Patrol and the public are ultimately intertwined in both work and respect, and will always remain so.

The relationship between ski schoolers and patrollers on most mountains is contentious. Not so with these crews. We have a deep respect and reverence for each other. The Patrol Headquarters was built to entertain, warm and wow all that arrive upon the deck. Its spectacular view brings the ski pros and their guests a welcome pause.

This mountain hasn’t become what it is without the forethought of planning to create the expert skiing it offers. I have been blessed with 43 years of summer work on this epic mountain. During this time, I have offered thoughts on the development of plans and approval processes in collaboration with the Forest Service. I supervised and helped in the extreme physical feats of the few who have taken a dark jack straw tangled mess of timber to end up with the fantastic runs that we all enjoy. This included difficult chainsaw work on extremely steep slopes and years of moving and cutting timber. We pioneered the use of helicopters for tree removal in remote inaccessible areas to make these runs. We moved and developed a retention system to form catwalks in the most dangerous of places. Most of this behind-the-scenes work is done by passionate patrollers (who remain on in the summer months to bring their expertise to creating Highlands). I am so blessed to have seen many of my dreams come to fruition on the mountain I love.

I plan to remain working at my “mountain home” and will be discreetly around for at least the next few years in hopes to bring more dreams alive. I so cherish my life at Aspen Highlands and am extremely grateful to Whip Jones, the Crown family and the Aspen Skiing Co. to allow me to “live my passion.” I live in the best town/valley, I work on the best mountain and have the very best job, working with the best patrollers. I am and have been truly blessed. I know the Highlands Patrol will continue to prosper moving forward as this ol’ cowboy steps down from the director position. I will always be their best cheerleader. I hope that when I fully retire that the men and women of the patrol and the loyal public will see and remember me as a gentleman and a humble steward of Aspen Highlands.

Mac Smith’s last day as Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol Director was Sunday. He handed over the reins after 42 years. He will remain with the Highlands patrol in a reduced capacity.

Guest Commentary

See more

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.