Topping out. Highlands Bowl. By Andrew Chapman.
Dear Aspen Highlands Bootpackers:
We, the people, of Highlands Bowl: we who take the snow cat, stop for pictures, and lollygag our way to the top; we who power-walk, bypassing the photo opps and surpassing our previous time to finish non-motorized laps before noon. We, the skiers and riders of Highlands Bowl, salute you.
At 12,392 feet, Aspen Highlands Bowl, aka the Bowl, just might be the most fun you’ll ever have in long-johns, in-bounds. The chair drops you off above 11,000 feet, an optional snow cat ride takes you just a little higher, but ultimately, reaching 12,392 is up to you. Locals know it well, and they hike with vigor to earn their turns; repeat visitors relish their annual hike up the Bowl, and often bring first-time visitors, whose eyes widen with every step along the narrow, ski-boot trodden trek and who feel like a zillion bucks when they crest the summit to the sound of Tibetan Prayer Flags, flapping above tree-line.
A Bowl lap restores perspective: whatever’s ailing, nagging, or weighing you down momentarily evaporates as you reach the top of Heart Attack Hill (that short but relentlessly steep section) and find your way onto the vintage chairlift bench, under the prayer flags, to catch your breath amongst the panorama of high-mountain peaks. And then there’s the supernatural high of descending down steep ridges, sneaky, powder-flanked shoulders, and secret stashes of bottomless turns in and out of the North Woods when the “Epic” flag signals another full-on Powder Day.
Courtesy Aspen Ski Company
Temporarily in exile, pursuing my master’s degree in the lowlands of North Carolina, I acutely miss my days in Highlands Bowl. The top of the Bowl always felt like the top of the world, and over the years, I became a Bowl junkie.
I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t the first—occasionally, I was the last one hiking before ski patrol dropped the rope and closed the Bowl for the day—but no two days were ever the same, and every lap was memorable: from face shots and fresh tracks, to bitter cold, blustery hikes that blew me sideways, a Bowl lap was always worth the effort. And each and every time, I’d hop onto the bench beneath those prayer flags and send a picture message to a friend or family member who was somewhere else, knowing their INBOX would light up and color the screen with wonder (not simply green with envy).
As “extreme” as I ever felt, the true hard-core men and women of Highlands Bowl are those who do the legwork: literally. Aspen Highlands Bootpackers are the ones who labor pre-season, on the coldest, least alluring winter mornings, to make the Bowl—and many of Highlands’ legendary steeps—safe, sturdy and ski-ready for the rest of us.
Courtesy Aspen Ski Company
Aspen Highlands Bootpacking program starts as early as late-October and finishes as late as Christmas Eve, when Bootpacking elves ultimately “wrap it up,” giving us an impossibly stellar ski slope for Christmas.
The Bootpacking program, formerly outlined on bootpacker.com and now housed at highlandspatrol.com/bootpack, is a strictly volunteer program. Packers work a minimum of five days to get credit in the form of ski pass vouchers, and each day is worth $110 pass voucher dollars. The goal is fifteen (15) days, for a full ski pass; in recent years, eight days earned enough credits for the new Flex Pass option.
It’s the world’s most arduous community service. Packers bring their own food and water, avalanche gear is required, and while packers work towards a ski pass, they’re not officially Aspen Ski Company employees. The website states a few incontrovertible facts: “Bootpacking at the ski area involves long days spent outside in severe weather conditions at high altitude. The work is extremely strenuous and is comparable to mountaineering. All the inherent risks of that sport are here also, including falls or possible avalanche involvement.” Then, in bold caps: “THE CHANCE OF INJURY EXISTS. AGAIN, YOU ARE NOT COVERED BY WORKMAN’S COMPENSATION.”
Andrew Chapman photo
Bootpacking means time off your paid job, long hours hiking up, up, up on frigid mornings; and what feels kind of new and exciting and badass on Day Two more likely feels endless and almost intolerable, on Day Nine.
Is it really worth it?
While Aspen Skiing Company employees denied requests for interviews and declined to comment on the program, I spoke with several Bootpackers across the years who were willing to share their experiences, affording we—the grateful mortals who reap the benefits—a closer look at their labors.
The Life of a Boot-packer, in 15 Days or Less:
Long-time local Dave Sims is a rock-climber, father of two, and a spirited waiter at L’Hostaria, one of Aspen’s greater bar and restaurant haunts. Sims was also a Bootpacker, drawn to the front lines by the prospect of good exercise and a bit of high-mountain adventure. “Basically, we stomp through all the various layers of snow – to the ground. This perforates the snow and keeps it from behaving like a cohesive unit,” explains Sims, “thereby greatly reducing the likelihood of slab avalanche activity.”
“The actual packing only happens on the downhill,” he continued. The Bootpacker does a downhill row, traverses to an uptrack, and then hikes back up. Repeat. “We do this in rows of several hundred feet across the steep stuff, and when we’re in the actual Bowl, we use ropes and self-belay devices (shunts) for emergency backups.”
One particularly memorable day on the hill, Sims’ avalanche gear came in handy. “I was avalanched through 50 feet of trees at the bottom of Snyder’s,” he recalls; “The slide puked me over a 15- foot drop onto a catwalk; fortunately, I landed unharmed, in chest-deep snow.”
The wear and tear—mental and physical exhaustion—builds over time: there’s no way of knowing how you’ll feel until you actually put in the days. “No one day is that hard; it’s the cumulative effect of that many days that seems to be the most difficult part,” said Sims. “Upload around 8 a.m., ski to the packing area, wallow in snow. Repeat till lunch, then wallow some more. Try to ski down with very tired legs and no earlier than 4 p.m.” In the end, it’s this same exertion—the exercise and strengthening—that became Sims’ main reason for motivating. “I love the physicality of the days, and knowing that I’ll smoke my friends on Bowl hikes all season. It’s supreme ski fitness.”
His least favorite part? “Arguing with some Ski Co Pass Authority who’s never even heard of Bootpacking, in order to get your hard-earned pass.”
Todd Hartley, columnist, bartender and stand-up comedian, bootpacked for 12 days one season, then came back on board for the next year’s go round. “Potential Bootpackers should know it’s exhausting, hard work. It can be very cold when you’re in the shade; conversely, it can be very hot and sweaty if you’re in the sun. A typical day involves hiking or skinning to the ski runs Ozone of Full Curl, for example, and then: walk up the hill, walk down the hill, walk up the hill, walk down the hill, repeat ad nauseam. One Saturday, we walked straight up the hill basically from the bottom of B1 to the very top. That was ridiculous—definitely a new one for me.”
Like Sims, Hartley was drawn to “supreme ski fitness”—something which definitely demands a dose of masochism. “I like knowing I’m getting this amazing workout. Not everyone can actually do it, and even fewer people actually would do it. It takes a special breed, and we’re all pretty proud of that fact.”
And yet, it was more than just a labor of legs. “Potential packers should also know that it’s kind of fun,” said Hartley, with a laugh. “And it beats the hell out of sitting in an office. I like getting to know every inch of the bowl up close and personal. And I like the camaraderie,” he continues. “Every Bootpacker respects the others: we all know we have to be a little nuts to be up there. The group tends to be pretty close-knit. No one is particularly chatty, since we’re all so exhausted, but after a few days of working in close quarters you find you’re pretty friendly with everyone. Everyone tends to go at their own pace, which is fine: as long as you’re giving it your best effort. Honestly, pacing yourself, slow and steady, is the best way to make it bearable.”
He pointed to some memorable mentors on the hill, whose presence definitely enhanced his overall experience. “The main characters are the Highlands patrollers themselves: there’s Pimo, in his mid-50’s, with a big bushy beard, who walks all over the mountain setting off bombs. There’s a Packer named Doug who comes out every year, and makes t-shirts and stickers for everyone. And Karen Sahn is the Number Two person in charge: she’s the smallest person out there, but she’s as strong as anyone on the hill.”
Because Ladies are Bootpackers, too. While there aren’t a lot of female Bootpackers, the word on the snow is that it’s nice to have them around. And known for being better multi-taskers than men, women Bootpackers thrive in the camaraderie department: they’re able to laugh and talk and pack, all at the same time.
One anonymous Bootpacker shared her thoughts on the good, the bad—and eating lunch in the cold. “That’s the worst part, having lunch in the shade. You need a lot of layers because you’ll be cold on the chairlift in the morning, but once we start up the ridge, the layers start coming off. Even the coldest negative temp days aren’t that bad, because we’re constantly moving; it’s when we stop moving that you get most cold. There are times you’ll try to eat your sandwich or hold a fork without ever taking your gloves off. I like to bring a really thin pair of liners for lunch, because it’s really hard to eat in bulky gloves.”
For this female Packer, camaraderie was at the top of the “why” list. “One day, the snow was so deep it came up to the girls’ chests. We declared we were “boob” packing, and it turned into a big giggle fest. It attracts the most fun, amazing people…I love that the most.”
The whole experience—whether for one day, or 15—offers a new perspective on snow safety, and what goes into making exceptional in-bounds skiing accessible for the season. “If you drop out after Day One,” she says, “you don’t get any credit—but you do get a good understanding of what boot-packing involves. You get a real appreciation for your safe turns on this great terrain.”
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It’s winter in the lowlands of North Carolina, higher education’s back in session, and while the Atlantic Ocean is a bike ride away, there’s not a snow-capped peak—or a snowflake—in sight. Writing about my days in the Bowl and the men and women who make them possible makes me wonder. Maybe snapping a Selfie from 12,392 feet was the higher form of education, after all.