Paul Andersen: Gratitude to Mother Nature and Aspen Skiing Co.
When my son, Tait, and I pulled up to Highlands around 9 a.m., on the last powder morning, the parking lots were almost full. A snowcat had groomed an uphill track. Skiers were hiking in small, dispersed groups under a deep blue sky.
Over of a foot of new snow on a perfect spring morning drew hundreds of uphillers to the four Aspen Skico mountains. Thank you, Mother Nature! Thank you, Aspen Skiing Co.!
The uphill throng was like a holy trek into the glories of the mountain spirit, and everybody was feeling it. The one pressing concern was that avalanches would be triggered by mob enthusiasm for the steep and deep, which was at fatal levels.
Sure enough, eye witnesses reported a top-to-bottom slide that carried off an errant skier. The word quickly spread across Highlands, and the mood of ecstasy dimmed with a sense of foreboding.
Tait and I had driven from Basalt where there was nary a snowflake to be seen. Passing the airport, our world turned winter. Pillows of snow flocked the trees and lay in hummocks across the landscape.
Skinning up, conditions only grew more beautiful as the coolness of the post-storm chill kept the snow fresh, with perfect consistency. A solid, groomed base was blanketed by a fresh pack that fell heavy at the bottom and light at the top.
We were all envisioning perfect skiing, and the collective energy was high and got higher with every upward step. Later, many said it was the best conditions in which they had ever skied Highlands.
And now a word of praise for our sponsor — Skico — for open access to the four mountains and for grooming even after the official season closing. Gratitude also to Ashcroft Ski Touring for grooming trails with free access.
Few other skiing companies open their trails and mountains to non-paying customers who find pleasure in fitness and enjoy the mental health of nature. Quarantine under this regimen has been humane to say the least.
On Highlands, we uphill skiers felt we had it better than the snowmobile lap skiers shredding Little Annie’s. A glance across Castle Creek valley revealed that Annie Basin was completely tracked by mid-morning.
Skico CEO Mike Kaplan, in a recent interview, said that skinning up is invaluable by providing “a connection with nature, getting some exercise, and appreciating what’s so special about living here.”
Grooming ski runs for uphillers takes it a step beyond by catering to safety, which Kaplan said is a keystone to continued access. “Be safe, stay within your abilities, and follow protocols,” he asked. “The last thing we need is an accident that requires a response. Personal responsibility is needed.”
And then came the triggered avalanche in Highland Bowl. To the skier’s credit, he came forth in a newspaper interview the next day with a mea culpa for having done just the opposite of what Kaplan had requested.
“I want to say that I feel really sorry about my decision to be there. I hope it serves as a message to others to be extremely careful, especially during this time. … There were many other people who were there and I am thinking that no one should have been in the Bowl, clearly.”
The skier asked forgiveness from mountain rescuers who were on high alert. He acknowledged that the Skico “has had the graciousness and courage to allow uphilling when there could be a massive liability.”
He said that he had made “many of the classic mistakes,” like familiarity with terrain, group dynamics and complacency. “I should have said no from the beginning,” he concluded.
The lesson is that new snow on uncontrolled slopes is risky, and that we need to treat familiar runs like the backcountry. That skier was lucky, and we are lucky because we can ski when most of the world is closeted and stir crazy.
Kaplan put the right spin on the global lockdown when he said the benefits include humility for plans that have been upset and for appreciation of a quieter, zen-like approach to living.
Thank you, Mother Nature and Skico, for giving us that approach.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.