Tony Vagneur: Wanna hike Highland Bowl with 7-year-olds? Just try to keep up
The 6 a.m. alarm goes off, but I’ve been awake since 5:30. Out the door into the dark, we feed the horses, give Tux the dog his two-mile walk, and scarf down an apple and some peanut butter dressed crackers. Arrive at my daughter’s house by 8 — we have to be at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard clubhouse by 8:30.
It’s “hike the Highland Bowl day” for my grandson Cash’s team, a talented group of seven kids, mostly 7-year-olds, who have been skiing together all winter, every weekend. They know every tree trail, every jump, big or small, on every mountain, especially Highlands. And they’re hospitable — they love to show you around.
The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club was founded in 1937 as the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club. The next year it became the Aspen Ski Club. Think back to winters without much skiing, especially Alpine, no ski lifts, a lot of cold, deep snow and a long time until spring. Skiing instantly became a popular winter activity, although for lack of suitable terrain, Alpine events and lessons were held out where the Aspen Highlands is now. Ski races were also held above the Highland Bavaria Lodge; cross-country expeditions were held wherever folks could get through the woods. Trails above the Siever’s Ranch (now the T Lazy 7) were a favorite for longer tours.
There’s some serendipity in realizing that the AVSC headquarters are located adjacent to the public school complex, near the Highlands, where the basic foundation of Aspen skiing was laid all those many years ago. What a marvelous place it is. If a 7-year-old kid could design what a clubhouse should be, it might come out nearly the same. The private double chairlift that takes off right from the clubhouse and terminates at the top of Thunderbowl is more than many kids could even dream.
We wander over, skis and poles at the ready. There’s Frank Howard, Cash’s coach, getting everyone tuned for the hike. Frank grew up in the valley and not only is he an excellent skier, he has a way with kids that keeps them focused and motivated. Oh yeah, look over there, it’s Cooks Braun, born and raised in Woody Creek, a man I’ve known since he hit the ground running. He knows his way around the mountains.
Frank gives us the OK and we board the lift with instructions to meet at the Merry Go Round. A convenient spot to leave packs, but fish your snacks out first, the ones you’ll need on the way up the Bowl. Frank will be carrying water to be dispersed at the top. Cooks and Frank form semi-circles with their respective groups and do the necessary calisthenics to warm up before we hit the Loge Peak lift. I should’ve joined in.
It’s well-organized, it doesn’t get crowded at the transition point, where we load our skis into our back straps or packs, rearrange our clothes for a hike rather than a chairlift ride, and set out for the summit. Frank and his charges did Mushroom (part-way hike up the rim) the day before, so there are no surprises or equipment issues.
There are about six parents in our group, all fit and excellent skiers, and we let the kids go first. If you’ve ever hiked the Bowl, those short steps tracked into the snow drive me crazy, but are just about right for our team. They blaze right up the ridge, passing a few adults and stopping here and there to catch their breath. It’s a mostly clear day, with low clouds hovering around the valleys, but we’re blessed with good light. Oddly, the cold breeze is coming from the east, diametrically opposed to its usual direction and it stings the face.
We’re up, enjoying the view and waiting for a teammate who got held up along the way. People come and go, but it’s really not very crowded. A few adults and their guide take off for Five Fingers — we wish them luck.
And then Frank says, “Let’s go,” and the kids snap into their bindings with scorching speed. “Parents hang back, let the kids go first,” he says. Ha, if you hang back very far with this bunch of young elite skiers, you’re not gonna catch ‘em.
Those kids hug the edge of the G-Zones, in a line reminiscent of an undulating, fast-moving snake bent on prey, skis parallel, all exhibiting great form and I stop to watch. It’s nothing less than incredible, bringing a huge smile. When it gets very steep, they employ their jump turns, they don’t falter, and go one at a time. Needless to say, they find all possible huck-off points with the eyes of an eagle.
All that before lunch. Kudos to these incredible kids and the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, who makes it possible.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.