An X-cellent Adventure: Hiking the bowl with Gretchen Bleiler
Gretchen Bleiler is a familiar name in Aspen. Originally from Ohio, Bleiler moved to the valley at age 10 and grew up living in Snowmass Village. She would go on to become arguably the most successful local Winter X Games athlete ever, winning four gold medals in the superpipe and competing in two Winter Olympics.
She retired from competition following the 2014 Winter X Games.
In 2010, Bleiler and her husband, pro snowboarder Chris Hotell, co-founded ALEX Bottle, “the only stainless steel reusable bottle that unscrews in the middle for easy cleaning, compacts for storage, and can be customized to fit your style.”
The idea was born when Hotell, who was having trouble cleaning a normal water bottle, took a hacksaw to the middle of it. Today, ALEX, which stands for “Always Live Extraordinary,” has become Bleiler’s main focus with her competition days behind her.
“It’s a product that was born from the desire to make living a sustainable lifestyle simple, easy and beautiful,” Bleiler said. “In there, though, is innovation, because we took an ordinary bottle and made one single change that made that shift.”
For more on the bottles, visit www.alexbottle.com or visit their pop-up shop at BLK MKT, 534 E. Cooper Ave., in Aspen. BLK MKT and Bleiler will host X Games viewing parties during this week’s competition.
Part of ALEX’s mission is sustainability, another of Bleiler’s passions. She serves on the board of Protect Our Winters and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. She was recently invited to the White House to discuss climate change.
Bleiler also sits on the board for espnW, and is a strong advocate for women’s athletics and women’s rights.
Her desire to make positive changes in the world is what drives her today, but she’ll never forget her days as a snowboarder.
“For the last three years it’s been a transition,” Bleiler said. “When I retired, I retired because my heart wasn’t in competition anymore. Snowboarding will always be a foundation to who I am, having that adventure and that vehicle to just float and be creative and be outside in nature with friends.”
Before I became separated from my crew, and before ski patrol went on a fruitless search for my body, I received a phone call from local X Games skier Alex Ferreira shortly after summiting the 12,392-foot Aspen landmark that is Highland Peak.
The call was simply to confirm a time to meet up, as ESPN’s annual competition was only days away. The key here is that I received a call at all, something that would have helped avoid the fiasco that ensued once we reached the bottom of the bowl.
But, before we get to that, there is the reason I was on the summit at all. The Highland Bowl had weighed down on me since I moved to Aspen in August. A novice snowboarder, the idea of hiking 45 minutes to drop into some of the most accessible big-mountain terrain in Colorado was both exciting and terrifying.
However, summiting and riding down Aspen Highlands’ infamous bowl is undoubtedly a necessary rite of passage for any Aspenite, and I wanted my first time to be memorable. So, I was joined by local Olympian and snowboarding superstar Gretchen Bleiler on my first bowl hike, an idea that I will credit her with after I reached out to the four-time Winter X Games gold medalist about the two of us going riding together for a story.
“The bowl popped in my mind because it’s my favorite thing to do. I’ve spent most of my snowboarding life in a halfpipe or hitting jumps. At this point in my life, what I enjoy most is hiking the bowl,” Bleiler said. “It’s a humbling experience. It also helps shift your perspective, and for me, really understand what is most important.”
I bused out to Aspen Highlands on Saturday, Jan. 21, with Anna Stonehouse, The Aspen Times’ staff photographer and fellow snowboarder, to meet Bleiler. After a couple of quick warm-up laps, we made our way to the ski patrol shack near the start of the bowl hike to collect ourselves. There, I bumped into ski patroller Mike Tierney, whose daughter I had lived with for a year in Steamboat Springs.
He was among those who helped look for my body later that afternoon.
Bleiler, Stonehouse and I began our ascent of Highland Peak soon after, the three of us joining the throng of ants dotting the ridge. About three-quarters of the way to the summit — and after numerous breaks spent in desperate search of oxygen — we were joined by Chris Hotell, Bleiler’s husband of seven years and a pro snowboarder himself.
Reaching the top was a humbling experience for me, the only first-time bowl hiker in our foursome. The ride down was still daunting, but the views from the top and the thrill of making it that far was worth the jaunt alone.
“When you experience the bowl with someone else, it’s kind of an awesome bonding experience, because you accomplish something together,”
At the top, we took photos, we bumped into friends, and we enjoyed the magical experience that is the Highland Bowl.
“The whole experience, it’s not just the way down. It’s the way up and getting that perspective and being so grateful for those turns that you get to have on the way down,” Bleiler said. “It’s not about how gnarly did you get, but it’s that experience that shifts your perspective and helps you feel more connected to yourself and nature and one another.”
My first drop into the bowl was thrilling. It was steep but manageable for even my amateur skills, and the snow was forgiving. Naturally, Bleiler and Hotell made it feel as if I had stepped into a boxing ring with Floyd Mayweather, but at least no one was throwing punches my way.
I was hesitant about hiking the bowl with Bleiler at first simply because of the obvious difference in our skill levels, but after the fact I’m not sure there could have been a better riding companion than her for my first bowl lap. We slowly made our way down, Stonehouse stopping to take pictures, me just tagging along to see how easy pro snowboarders made it look.
It was around this time I disappeared.
It was an unfortunate series of events that came together. There was our desire to get back to Aspen by 2 p.m., my tortoise-like speed on a snowboard, and ultimately our lack of cell coverage that led to our separation.
I finally found the Deep Temerity lift after what seemed like forever, waited around, and then took the lift up, thinking I was well behind them and surely I would find them at the top. I continued to follow this logic all the way to the base of Highlands and back into town. My cellphone never left my hand as I waited for calls or texts from any of the three, none of which ever came.
So, what happened to those three? From what I was told, there was a lot of freaking out, the worst-case scenario for my disappearance going through their heads. There was Bleiler and Hotell going back to the top to take another bowl lap, this time trying to find my body wedged in a tree well somewhere. Ski patrol, doing what it does, joined the manhunt.
I was finally found — completely oblivious to the situation — by my co-worker, Jeanne McGovern, in town. Stonehouse had called her after my phone had suddenly gone mute (Highlands is notorious for its terrible cell service). I was fine, of course, a lost puppy just looking for my friends, Stonehouse’s distressed voice on the other end of the line making me aware of the stressful situation they had just been through.
I met with Bleiler and Hotell for dinner the following night, where we told each side of the story and had a good laugh. I wanted my first bowl hike to be impossible to forget, and that it was.
“You are humbled and you are amidst a power of nature that is so much bigger than just you. I think that’s the experience of putting things in perspective,” Bleiler said. “That’s what people are talking about more than anything when they are talking about the bowl.”
I enjoyed everything about my first bowl hike. I will forever be grateful that Bleiler and Hotell took the time to join me. I am grateful for the humbling experience the hike and descent gives to you, something no chairlift-serviced run can compete with. I am grateful for my three friends, and for Aspen’s always-on-top-of-it ski patrol, for looking for me, even though I was safely at the bottom of the mountain.
The lesson was humbling, for sure. Don’t rely on cell service when in the mountains. Communication and having a game plan are very important to avoid situations like ours. Thankfully, it was nothing more than a false alarm, and one that certainly bonded the four of us together in a way we had not planned.
“Every time I do the whole hike experience, there is something special about it,” Hotell said.
Indeed. Humbled, and better for it.
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