“It’s January and I still haven’t skied a single double black.” My son and I were driving after school on a blue, unseasonably warm mid-winter day. “This is ridiculous,” he continued as we watched a group of road bikers go by. And while the bikers may be happy this winter, we skiers have had a tough row to hoe, with a prevailing forecast of little snow, warm temps and lots of complaining.
This is not to say that we haven’t been putting in time on the slopes and enjoying it greatly. It’s just that skiing in December and January was different. These were months when we enjoyed groomers and appreciated the skill of snowcat operators. These were also months when we had to jump over rocks, instead of off of rocks. Core shots? Well, we used to think they were bad. This winter, they’re a fact of life. Ski double black diamond runs? Not a chance. There weren’t any open.
Less High-Pressure, More Good Snow
This all changed last week. Snow levels across the nation are still low, but at least in Colorado and Utah, a large, pesky and unrelenting high pressure system has moved on. A series of small storms came rolling through and it snowed, and snowed and snowed a little more. The payoff? Double blacks, at last.
We were in Aspen over the weekend for the X Games, so on Saturday, we had a full agenda watching skier pipe, big air and collecting swag. But on Sunday morning, we went to Aspen Highlands. Hoping against hope, we brought along our nifty Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol straps to carry our skis. Just in case.
In the parking lot, we ran into Aspen local and world-class snowboarder/organ donation champion, Chris Klug. Chris gave us the snow report. “The Bowl opened late Friday,” he told us. “The snow is as good as it’s ever been in some areas.” Done. Decided. We’d be hiking.
Hiking Highlands Bowl
If you haven’t hiked Highlands Bowl, it’s a bucket-list sort of event. Starting at the top of the resort, skiers and riders zip past Ski Patrol and through a gate. A snow cat loads at this point and gives everyone a bit of a boost. It doesn’t really go very far, and it certainly doesn’t go up the steepest parts of the climb, but it helps. Of course, not everyone takes it. Some prefer to hike from the top of Loge Peak. Others, like Chris Klug, simply skin up from the bottom of the mountain and just keep going.
Off the snowcat, you’ve got to figure out how to carry your skis or board. My husband has a Camelbak with ski straps that he uses. The rest of us use the Ski Patrol straps. You can buy them at the shack near the gate for Highland Bowl. They’ll show you what to do.
Once you’ve got your skis on your back, it’s all about hiking. Just keep going up. The trail is narrow in spots, but where there is room, trail etiquette dictates that slower hikers step aside for those moving more quickly. In years past, we’ve moved over a lot. Because the trail is like climbing an endless flight of stairs, people with short legs are at a disadvantage. But what a difference a year makes: Last year, our younger son made it to the top only with the amazing encouragement of Sheila, a pro with the Aspen Snowmass Ski and Ride School. This year, he put one foot in front of the other and took off. Yeah, we were passed. But only twice.
This year’s snow deficit was obvious as we were hiking up. Huge portions of Highlands Bowl are still closed. But once past the summit and into the trees, the conditions were sublime: all soft, fluffy chopped up crud. There were no fresh tracks. I’m sure those were gone by 11:00 a.m. Saturday. We were 24 hours too late. But then again, given the waiting we’ve endured this season, we were right on time.
Highland Bowl is an in-bound backcountry skiing experience. Monitored closely by the Ski Patrol, you don’t have to have taken an avalanche course to feel safe. Still, it’s a big, tiring hike. We met some guys on the snow cat from Florida. Their plan? Take it slow. As with any high altitude endeavor, that’s good advice. Also, just because you can make the hike, be sure you’re comfortable skiing or riding steep (up to 48 degrees) double-black terrain. The bowl isn’t groomed and conditions are endlessly varying. Plus, it’s a long way down.
Up for the challenge?
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