Beneath a stand of spruce on the cusp of the Aspen Highland Bowl’s coveted North Woods, we stopped to dig an avalanche pit. Above was Child’s Play, our route down the east ridge of the bowl, and below, rolling off left into the trees, lay G-5, one of several gladed chutes in the closed portion of the bowl collectively known as the G-Zones (also part of our proposed route.)
I turned to ski patroller Mark Campion and said, “We’re getting the best turns in Pitkin County today.”
“Campo,” as his name tag reads, replied, “Best in the state.”
Even for our guides, Campion and “Bruno,” a 14-year Highlands patroller who asked not to be identified by his real name, a trip into the G-Zones is a rarity. Bruno, one of the original snow safety patrollers assigned to bowl patrol in 1994, says he only makes three of four runs a season in the G-Zones, so we proceeded with caution, wearing avalanche beacons.
After he identified a troubling layer of snow in the midpack – determining the risk acceptable for us, but not for his 11-year-old son – Bruno gave the go-ahead for a full-on assault.
As it turned out, Christmas indeed came late, we realized, while laying tracks down the most drooled-over “off limits” area at the Highlands.
The Aspen Skiing Co. isn’t making any promises, but the G-Zones should be ready for public consumption as early as next season. Opening the area would follow the Highlands patrol’s steady progression of recent openings: the lower Y-Zones fell in 1997, the rope dropped on the upper Y-Zones in 1998, the lower B-Zones (Steep ‘N’ Deep) opened last season, and this year, the bowl was opened to the 12,382-foot summit.
“Everybody recognizes what a great skiing arsenal we’ve got here,” said Kevin Heinecken, the Highlands patrol’s snow safety supervisor, “and there’s a possibility for expansion, and we’re all talking about it, but there are no promises at this point.”
Bruno and other Highlands patrollers say their knowledge, and subsequent confidence to continue pushing out the rope, is built on the Highlands pioneers – including the three patrollers who were killed in an avalanche in the G-Zones in 1984. They were the ones who first brought safe, steep skiing to the Highlands with the opening of Steeplechase in the mid-1970s.
Like Bruno, those early Highlands patrollers pioneered the concept of compaction, or packing down the snow to tap out avalanche danger. The patrol continues to practice the technique today.
Danger vs. delight
Thursday provided a glaring example of the dangers in the Highland Bowl, as heavy snow and high winds combined to deposit wind slabs high in the east-facing bowl the night before. With explosives, patrollers triggered at least two sizable avalanches in the morning; one in G-9 (the G-Zone immediately next to Ozone, which is normally open) and the other in B-4, the first gully out from the ridge, on the top shelf of the bowl that is typically open to the public.
Patrollers didn’t open any of the bowl until about 11 a.m. and took their time opening higher portions as the danger was assessed.
“There’s a lot of things that need to come together to open more terrain, or any terrain on a given day,” Highlands Ski Patrol director Mac Smith said last week, before the recent snow cycle. “There might be a year where we can’t get as much open as we have this year because weather and snow are fickle, and we have to understand that.
“We have to be ready not to do what everybody in this whole valley wants us to do,” he continued. “We have to be ballsy enough to say no. Now that we’ve given out the candy to everybody, you wonder, if you have to take it away, you’re no longer going to be the hero, you’re going to be the goat. And we have to be prepared to do that.”
Smith estimated 15-20 skiers and boarders have ducked the rope in Highland Bowl to access the G-Zones this season. When caught, and most are, violators’ tickets are pulled, and then patrol turns them over to Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies to be charged under the Colorado Ski Safety Act.
“I really cringe when I see out-of-bounds skiers poaching the G-Zones right now,” Smith said. “Because when they do, they jeopardize our whole program.”
If Mac Smith had his way, Aspen Highlands would be free of closed signs. Conditions permitting, the Highlands patrol director would open everything within the ski area’s boundary, Highland Bowl included.
Last month, the 28-year veteran of the Highlands patrol met with winch-cat operators to discuss the feasibility of contracting their services in the Highland Bowl. In theory, diesel could replace the manpower that’s been used to compact the snowpack in the bowl in past years and enable the patrol to take on more terrain, perhaps even on the other side of the ridge in Loge Bowl.
“If someone was skiing out of bounds [in the G-Zones] and a slide pulled out and someone got injured, it won’t be the person’s fault, it’ll be the bowl’s fault,” he said. “It almost has a life of its own, and we need to protect against that. We need to understand it well enough so we can keep those kinds of things from happening, and we need to get the entire thing open for safety. It’s the next logical step.
“I’d much rather not have closed signs,” he continued. “For so many years, I had to chase people and be the cop, and I’m tired of it, and I don’t want to do it. That’s not the fun part of my job. The fun part is getting up on that ridge and getting the thank-yous. You feel like whatever you’ve been doing in your life, everything you’ve pushed for, your [temerarious] behavior is starting to pay off.”
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