Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sunday Aspen Highlands Ski

Sunday was a bit clearer than Saturday, and it was the day I skied Aspen Highlands so I'd have better visibility in the enormous, nearly featureless white Highland Bowl.

The view across the valley to the north, with the signature red rocks of the Elk Range:

This is about 90% of the way down Kessler's (in terms of vertical), off of the Loge lift:

This place has some long, long double-black bump runs. I ski everything but the Chutes at Mary Jane (and The Cirque because it's rarely open and I forget), but they are like little jaunts compared to these monsters.

I was hoping for clear skies for Highland Bowl, but it was not to be.

I ascended anyway.

I skipped the ride on the snowcat (cheating!) and hiked the first part, then joined the conga line of skiers/riders hiking up the ridge. On the narrowest, rocky section with the rope, people were sliding off the trail, including one apparently experienced uphiller on skis. I appreciated the rope and poles on that section.

Amazingly, before long I was above the clouds, breaking into the brilliant sunshine. In this zoom shot you can barely see the summit in the clouds in the middle:

There were a variety of speeds on the hike; I passed several (those who realized they were slower stepped aside), and I was passed by two. Running serves me well at altitude, but there's no substitute for living high and for experience.

This is after the narrow sections and the false summit:

On top looking south:

Descending into the clouds, across the dark grey traces of detonated avalanche control charges:

I even skied into one the craters left by an explosion, and past cracks in the snow that left me less than confident in the snowpack. There was a roughly 6 or 7-year-old kid skiing with his dad (yeah, that kid had some skills) who was worried they were going to cause an avalanche. But Highlands ski patrol did their job well, and everyone was safe and sound.

Visibility was sketchy, and the snow was steep, deep and heavy. Here I am resting and looking back up at the tiny sun, as if I'm on some distant, icy planet:

Eventually I reached the base of the bowl and dropped below the cloud layer. I followed some tracks high to the right, along some trees. Next time I need to come in higher up, that seemed to be the way to do it.

Looking back up towards the cloud layer. The bowl is around the trees to the left:

I think I got something to eat after that (many calories were burned) then rode the Loge chair lift back up. This is a shot looking back up at Highland Peak, which lost its cloud cover right after I skied it -- of course! My line was roughly down the middle. This gives a good sense of the distance of the hike, and the slope of the descent.

Ski patrol closed it about 5 minutes before I got there, so I was not able to hike up again (I was thinking of dropping into one of the runs near the bottom, not the summit).

I think this was another trip down Kessler's:

At this point, I met up with a local Aspen couple and we ended up skiing the rest of the day until last chair.

He was someone who always took the toughest -- but most interesting -- line down what were already some of the most difficult trails on the mountain. We'd ski tight trees along ridge lines, and 10-foot wide corridors through the pines. Husband and wife were both good skiers, but he seemed to be the instigator, gently pushing -- me at least -- to do something better, yet always checking to make sure I was comfortable with it.

The trails we skied weren't even always on the official map, even though they were marked with signs on the mountain. One of them had a freakishly narrow runout that was literally only two skis wide along a decent pitch, and one was Lower Stein, which had terrible snow last year but was fine this time.

Eventually he let slip that he lived in a slopeside home at the resort, and he would basically ski a catwalk right to his front door. No wonder he knew this place so well.

We caught the Exhibition chair almost exactly at closing for one more run, Sherwood Forest, which he called his "meditation run"; a mellow bump run through pretty pine woods. There is a shrine for a young girl who died after hitting a tree there.

Distance was 24.53 miles, time 6:04 (moving 5:19), elevation gain/loss 15,957 feet, avg. speed 4.0 mph, and max speed 27.0 mph, for 8 runs.


Afterwards, I took the bus back the Intercept Lot near Snowmass. On this trip, for all three days I tried to use the bus. I like my private space, but at the same time I was curious, and I wanted to avoid the costs of parking and the hassles of getting in and out. Aspen is not exactly resplendent with giant free parking lots.

It worked out pretty well, plus the RFTA buses are king and get to breeze past everyone else in a special lane, so it was probably faster. The buses arrive every 10-30 minutes (or so) depending on the route.

Funny, but for the third time in two days I saw a guy I rode up in the gondola with. He'd spent the day guiding a group at Highlands. Small town, eh.

I wanted to make the most of my last day, so I stopped by Aspen Brewing for an IPA and two excellent stouts (too much probably, but it was great). The bartender's pit bull still ignores me, but I guess he didn't recognize my smell from last fall. I guess ski smell is different from trail run smell. The bourbon barrel stout was as good as a Great Divide Yeti for sure. Then, on to New York Pizza for a cheap dinner, and back to Carbondale to bed.

The End.


  1. Holy epic day. This looks like a day out of the KJ series.

  2. GZ - It's a dramatic place. It's the Elks after all. Throw in hiking 1.2 miles above 11.5k in ski gear, and the need to actually get down 40+ degree slopes on planks once you're up there... sublime, as they say. Love it.

  3. Wow!! Amazing pictures (even for someone who doesn't like snow :)).
    Sounds like a grand trip!

  4. Jill - Thanks. It was a great last day on a great trip.