Mac Smith turns over the reins of Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol

As director for 42 seasons, he oversaw development of the ski area’s steep-and-deep terrain

Highlands Ski Patroller Mac Smith skis down Snag Tree in March 2019.
Anna Stonehouse/Aspen Times file photo

Sunday was a day that was inevitable but still hard to fathom when Mac Smith stepped down as Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol director in his 42nd season in the post.

Smith, 68, will remain on the ski patrol for the foreseeable future during winters and work on special projects during summers. He said Monday he is “half-retiring.”

“Elvis hasn’t left the building. He’s just gone to a different room,” Smith said with his signature sense of humor.

Lori Spence, a longtime member of the Highlands patrol, was appointed as acting director. She is the first woman to serve as director of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol.

Anyone who has skied or ridden Highland Bowl, Temerity and much of the other steep-and-deep terrain at Highlands owes a debt of gratitude to Smith. He had a close relationship with Highlands founder Whipple Van Ness Jones and got the green light to pursue much of the snow safety research that resulted in terrain expansions. Smith’s dream of opening Highland Bowl to daily skiing was realized after Gerald Hines purchased the ski area and combined it with Aspen Skiing Co. prior to the 1993-94 season.

As the summer trails director, Smith and his dedicated team cleared terrain that seemed untamable. Smith recalled trying to walk through the area that became Temerity. Skico executives doubted the jumbled mishmash of downed timber covering steep terrain could be cleared adequately for skiing.

“They do move mountains,” he said of the summer trails crew.

Smith said he contemplated retirement as director for roughly a year and possibly would have stepped down prior to this season, but the COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters. He decided to stay on for the start of this season to help implement new procedures required by social distancing and the efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.

While Smith has professional roots that go back 49 years with Highlands, his informal ties go back further. As a self-described hooligan in his pre-teen years, he would “terrorize” ski school classes at the ski area just for the heck of it, he told The Aspen Times in a March 2019 feature story on his 40th anniversary as patrol director.

He got temporarily banned from the ski area for repeated misbehavior. He was allowed back in his junior high years and got to know every nook and cranny of Highlands while in high school.

Smith graduated from Basalt High School in 1971 and began washing dishes at Merry-Go-Round Restaurant for the 1972-73 season. He was hired by the ski patrol the next season. He was promoted as co-assistant director in 1974-75 and named as director in 1979-80, though he had taken on many of the responsibilities of director the season before.

Next season will be Smith’s 50th as an employee at Aspen Highlands, and the following season will mark 50 seasons with the ski patrol.

Smith is extremely proud of the accomplishments of the patrol over the years. He said everything that was accomplished was a true team effort. That comes across in an opinion piece he submitted to The Aspen Times (see page A13).

Spence has been a big part of the team. She first joined the patrol in 1986-87 and only missed a few seasons while her husband performed his medical residency in another state.

Smith said Spence has hiked Highlands for years, skinning up way before alpine touring became the rage. She has been the assistant patrol director for four seasons. Smith said their skills complement one another and he looks forward to helping her in the new role.

“She’s on my speed dial and I’m on hers,” he said.

Smith broke the news of his half-retirement to the members of the ski patrol on opening day this season, Dec. 14, but it wasn’t widely shared until last weekend.

Smith said he met members of the patrol for drinks Sunday at what they dub the Polar Bar, an area outside the Highlands base where they are socially distanced. He was able to mix with his team in a way he wasn’t comfortable doing as the director for so many years.

Mac Smith is retiring as Aspen Highlands patrol director after 42 seasons. Smith said Monday he will remain on with the patrol for at least two more seasons, when he would reach 50 years as a patroller. (Anna Stonehouse/Aspen Times file photo)

He said he knows it is a cliché for a person who is retiring or reducing hours and responsibilities to say they want to spend more time with family, but that’s his real desire. He and his partner, Adair O’Connor, both have two sons from previous marriages and he has grandkids in the valley who he looks forward to spending more time with now. His responsibilities in winters and summers kept him away from his family for so many years.

“The (ski patrollers) have been my family all these years,” he said.

Monday was a bit strange getting out of the old routine and starting a new one. He reported for duty, but rather than directing patrol operations, he cleaned out his office for a move and tended to some special projects.

“In some ways it almost seems dream-ish,” he said.

Smith will not be a stranger on the slopes. Starting next season he hopes to patrol three days per week at Highlands. Rather than work as summer trails manager, he will slide into a role as special projects manager and continue working on plans with mountain manager Kevin Hagerty.

Smith holds a lofty goal before retirement. He would like to help achieve a goal of opening Loge Bowl, steep terrain on the upper west side of the ski area. The ski patrol explored the terrain thoroughly early in Smith’s career and he fell in love with it.

“We kind of made excuses to go in there and ski it,” he said.

Extensive work has to be done on snow safety research, permitting and planning a catwalk. No lift would be required. Media coverage of the terrain would offset the expense of opening and maintaining it, he said, because there would be so many iconic photos of skiers and riders in the awesome terrain with the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak as the backdrop.

It’s inviting terrain for expert skiers because of numerous cliffs and tight chutes — perfect terrain to catch air.

“You look back on my career, that’s what I was all about,” Smith said.