Some uphillers rack the nerves of Aspen Mountain snowcat drivers

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen Mountain snowcat drivers place signs with skull and crossbones on trails where they are using a winchcat. It is an effort to divert uphillers to an alternate route.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Joey Giampaolo was running his 12-ton snowcat down upper Little Nell on Wednesday night, shaving off the moguls on the eastern side of the trail and keeping a wary eye peeled for uphillers climbing the slope or, more likely, screaming down on skis after reaching the summit.

A wire cable attached to an arm of his winchcat stretched hundreds of feet up the slope, anchored to a point in the flats at the top. The snow was so soft that the winchcat was needed to prevent the cat from bogging down on the steep slope.

As Giampaolo deftly maneuvered the blade to mow down moguls and fill in troughs, the cable would alternately go slack and suddenly tighten, often skipping 10, 15 or 20 feet across the snowy slope like a rubber band splayed between two fingers as a slingshot.

Giampaolo, Aspen Mountain trails director, said the surging popularity of uphilling — people using climbing skins to ascend slopes or using claws on shoes to hike up — has made the job more nerve-racking for his crews.

Oblivious to danger

Either through ignorance or arrogance, too many uphillers are putting themselves in harm’s way, he said. Some ignore trail closures that are posted with signs explaining that winchcat operations are underway. In other cases, uphillers materialize like “moths” on freshly groomed trails and follow the grooming machines, getting into drivers’ blind spots, Giampaolo said. The uphillers are oblivious that the driver may abruptly stop and back down to make another pass.

“I started getting proactive because I’m sick of being reactive,” Giampaolo said.

This season, whenever the winchcat is in operation, as many as four signs are posted on the trail above and below and on any road coming in from the side. The red signs with a skull and crossbones warn about the winch cable in use. A flashing, police-style light draws extra attention to the sign posted above the winchcat.

On Wednesday, shortly before dusk, Giampaolo plowed a mound of snow onto the approach to Kleenex Corner and planted the closure sign and strobe light in the snow. He groomed a path down Bingo Slot to try to further entice uphillers to follow that route.

Aspen Skiing Co.’s concern is that a skier heading downhill, after skinning to the mountaintop, will ignore the closure signs, go down the slope where the winchcat is working and not see the cable. The collision could cause serious injury or death. The winchcat works some trail on Aspen Mountain just about every night.

“Nobody’s gotten hurt so far, but the respect for what this can do isn’t there,” Giampaolo said.

Uphilling exploded last two years

Giampaolo holds no grudge against uphillers. He skins up himself, sometimes at night. He enjoys the solitude, he said. He’s an avid backcountry skier, as well. But as head of the trails crew and a veteran of 20 years of grooming on Aspen Mountain, he also has a broader perspective.

The number of people heading uphill has jumped in Aspen over the past five years, he said.

“It’s exploded the last two years,” Giampaolo said, citing the advances in uphilling equipment.

Skico has embraced the craze — even promoting it to their paying customers and renting gear at its retail shops. Buttermilk and Snowmass allow uphilling during ski area hours of operation. Skico is even starting full-moon dinners this season at the Cliff House at Buttermilk. Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands only allow uphilling outside their hours of operations. That means lots of people going up at dawn and a growing number making the trip at night with use of headlamps.

Some uphillers have a sense of entitlement, Giampaolo said. They won’t seek an alternative route to where snowcats are working. There have been times, he said, when uphillers will continue their march up the slope with a snowcat coming toward them. They will force the snowcat to stop until they pass by.

He urges people to honor trail closures when the winchcat is in operation and use an alternative slope when snowcats are grooming a trail. The swing shift, which works 3:30 to 11:30 p.m., typically grooms Little Nell and the west side of the mountain.

Ah, the fresh groom

Travis Benson, trails director at Buttermilk, said most uphillers are cooperative. At night, it would help if they all carried a headlamp and wore reflective clothing so that cat drivers can spot them.

“The worst thing to do is to get behind the cats going up or down,” he wrote in an email. “We stop fast and back up to get slivers all the time. The worst visibility for us is out of the back of the cat.”

Early in the season, some uphillers don’t take proper care to avoid snowmaking equipment. Lines sometimes get covered with snow, and skiers aren’t aware they are crossing them. They shouldn’t go between the hydrant and the guns, crossing over hoses, he said. Electric lines are 480 volts and the water is flowing at about 600 pounds per square inch. If a ski cut a line or knocked it loose while crossing over, the outcome wouldn’t be good for the skier.

Skico’s open-arms policy would have to be altered if there was a death on the mountain involving uphillers and equipment. Vice President of Mountain Operations Rich Burkley said that’s why the company is making a big push to educate uphillers to stay out of harm’s way.

And then there is an issue of courtesy rather than safety. The groomers start working by 4 p.m. to lay fresh carpet on the slopes for the next day. That corduroy is mighty enticing to a person who huffed and puffed to the top and is making their way down in the dark.

“I know that fresh groom is great to ski, but it can be a little demoralizing when everything that you did over a shift is skied out, and the paying guest does not get to experience the product first thing in the morning,” Benson said.