Inferno ‘Super’ this year |

Inferno ‘Super’ this year

Jon Maletz
Competitors hike past a ski patroller on their way to the summit of Highland Peak during last year's Inferno. (Aspen Times file)

For five years, Aspen Highlands’ Inferno has humbled some of the area’s finest-tuned athletes.It has tested their lung capacity and tolerance for pain. A season’s worth of conditioning comes down to a 800-foot vertical hike up Highland Ridge and a demanding ski down Ozone. Take a breath while you can.This year, the challenge has been heightened – literally – with the addition of 1,000 vertical feet to the ski descent because of the expansion of Deep Temerity. In all, telemark, alpine skiers and snowboarders will descend 2,650 vertical feet. It’s a competition so difficult the original name couldn’t do it justice. In 2006, the Superinferno is born.”As if the lactic acid buildup wasn’t tough enough, now we’ll have to navigate bumps and a lot more variables,” said Highlands ski patroller Brian Johnson, who has competed in every Inferno. “I’ve been trying to decide who would win this race: Jeremy Nobis or Jeremy Bloom.”Racers, in competitive and recreation divisions, will start at the top of the Deep Temerity lift at 10 a.m. Saturday. Competitors first will descend Broadway on foot, then descend Mousetrap before grabbing their skis at the Loge Patrol area. Next comes a skate or run along the cat road to Loge Meadow, where the hike to the 12,392-foot summit of Highland Peak begins its most demanding stretch.

“The hike is brutal, straight-out pure cardio pain,” annual competitor Erik Skarvan said. “There’s nothing great about that.”It is during this portion of the race that athletes will battle shortness of breath, as well as the elements. Only once during the race’s five years has weather been ideal, Johnson said. Every other year has been “typical,” combining dense cloud cover, relentless winds and low visibility.At no point does the course let up. Immediately after the hike comes a plunge down the 43-degree face of Ozone. Racers will need to negotiate 25 control gates, set up much like a huge slalom course – if they can see them, that is.”A couple of times the visibility has been so poor that gatekeepers are yelling at you,” Johnson said. “Today is not like tomorrow, so nobody knows what the conditions will be like. That’s part of the fun of it. It keeps you guessing.”The descent is all about survival, Skarvan said. Holding turns in variable snow conditions with legs that feel like Jell-O is brutal. Even the competition’s strongest skiers struggle to maintain strong technique and precision. The “Epic” flag at the finish will undoubtedly be a welcome sight.

Keeping his skis on has been a problem, Skarvan said. “When you’re torquing really hard and you hit thick powder, it’s not hard to blow out,” he said.While Johnson is fortunate to have stayed upright for the duration each year, he said the race affords some great opportunities for spectators.”There’s always some good carnage, for sure,” he joked. Despite drawing close to 100 skiers every year since 2001, there have been no major injuries other than frostbite, chief of race Bruno Contuli said. Contuli expects a similar number of competitors will be lining up Saturday.In addition to his backcountry trips and on-mountain duties, Johnson and teammate Tim Grogan, also a ski patroller, competed in last weekend’s 24 Hours of Sunlight. The duo, racing as the Highlanders, completed 33 laps totaling 51,315 vertical feet – besting every other team in the field.

Skarvan signed up for the Superinferno on Wednesday, while on his way back from a rare winter mountain bike ride up Maroon Creek Road. He has anticipated eagerly this weekend since the season began. He has performed his snowshoe hikes, yoga sessions and precious few trips up and down Highland Bowl with a goal in mind, Skarvan said. If he stays on his skis, he hopes to finish in the top 10. Either way, he’ll come away with a sense of accomplishment, and an event T-shirt – a coveted item among locals.Saturday, the two men will line up next to each other, alongside nordic ski and bike racers, as well Highlands hippies, Skarvan said. It’s a unique event that draws an eclectic crowd.No one wants to miss an opportunity to test his or her limits. No one wants to miss out on the annual celebration.”It’s a celebration of the Highland Bowl,” said Contuli, who plans to compete. “Everyone that skis up there does their own Inferno. This is just a formalization of that process.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is


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