The Yin and Yang of Aspen? Part One: Aspen Highlands

Two weekends ago, our family was in Aspen. We love to ski Aspen/Snowmass and we spend a lot of time there each winter, generally at either Snowmass or Aspen. The lure of these two famous mountains is so great we often can’t get by them. Snowmass is the big mountain, perfect for families, with terrain for everyone. Aspen is the historic mountain, with no beginner runs and challenges packed into every square foot of its 675 acre terrain.

But what about Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk? Aspen Highlands, known affectionately as “The Skier’s Mountain,” is renowned for its extreme terrain and the “inbound backcountry” of Highland Bowl. Buttermilk was founded over 50 years ago to provide the progressive teaching terrain and a venue for beginners and families that Aspen Mountain lacked.

According to Wikipedia — the fount of all on-line knowledge — Yin and Yang are “complementary opposites that interact as part of a dynamic system.” Reading this, I thought to myself, “Clearly, these two mountains, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk, must be the Yin and Yang of the Aspen.” But are they really opposites? Are they complementary? This was our weekend to find out.

Part One: Aspen Highlands

The cat track and hiking trail up to the summit of Highlands Bowl.

The last time I hiked Highland Bowl, our younger son was 7. It was a nerve-wracking experience. The skiing was sublime. The hike? Let’s just put it this way: I waited four years to do it again. There is something about being a mom following a beloved son up a snowy knife-edge of a trail in the wind, that just didn’t sit well with me. My son was a trouper. He was, and still is, a good hiker and a great skier. But when we coupled the wind with a number of impatient skiers — notably a loud woman in a gold one-piece ski suit — who kept urging him to go faster or get out of the way (at places on the trail where there was no room to scoot over), well, I am just not quite that Brave a Ski Mom. We started skiing down before reaching the summit.

The Family Ski Lesson

Sheila helps us put straps around our binding to make our skis into a backpack.

So here we were on a Saturday, a family of four, mom, dad, and two sons, ages 14 and 11, at Aspen Highlands for the first time in two seasons. We had set our sights for the morning on Highland Bowl, a broad, expansive canvas of snow that crowns the mountain at 12,392 feet. It was time to do it again and to do it right. Our younger son was ready and I was feeling brave. Luckily for us, we also had Sheila, an Aspen Highlands instructor, to keep us moving.

When we told our sons that we were going to have an instructor with us they were mortified. “I am not going to talk to her,” said one. “I don’t want any tips. I just want to ski,” said the other. “That’s okay,” we replied. “We need the tips and we will take all the tips.” My husband is a tip junkie. He is an expert skier and he loves to take lessons. His philosophy is that no matter how good a skier he is, he can always get better and better is best gotten with tips from a pro. The adults in our party were looking forward to skiing with Sheila.

Sheila was great. On our ride up from the Highlands base, we told her what we wanted out of the day and explained that our boys, who were on a different chair, were a bit hesitant about the situation with “the instructor.” We got off the Exhibition chair at mid-mountain and skied over to the Loge lift to go higher. This is when Sheila made a brilliant move. She smiled at the boys and said “I’ll ride with you guys this time.” When my husband looked back at them about half-way up the lift, Sheila and the boys were chatting happily. And the first tip of the day? Well, it went to one of our sons, although it was applicable to all of us: Edge less and make flatter turns in moguls. Sure enough, it worked like a charm.

Hiking Highland Bowl

Our younger son approaching the summit with encouragement from Sheila.

To get to Highland Bowl, you have to hike. There is a snow cat that will take you part of the way up, but after that you are under your own power and getting to the top is truly an exercise in “earning your turns.” Skis and snowboards are carried and poles are used as hiking sticks. Some skiers have special straps or backpacks that they use to carry their skis. The Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol also sells long straps that are tied into a loop that can be hooked below the upper and lower ski bindings, thus making a backpack carrier for your skis.

Unlike the previous time my son and I ventured up Highland Bowl, Saturday was glorious. Blue sky, no wind, cold, but not too cold, an ideal day for a hike in ski boots. This time, without the wind, there was no fear. When faster hikers came up behind us, we simply found a spot to move over and let them pass.

The trail up to the bowl essentially follows a ridge line to a small, wide plateau (the perfect place to eat a snack!) and then up and over two more pitches to the top. The first section is by far the most difficult. Having said that, the biggest challenge of the hike came for us after we’d reached the first plateau. Our oldest son was freezing. Strong as an ox, but skinny as a rail, he had gotten chilled when we were waiting for the snow cat. Trying to warm up, he had set a torrid pace up the mountain. Our younger son, not wanting to be outdone, had set off too fast and was tired and hyperventilating in the thin air. He was feeling done in and ready to bail.

There are skiable lines from the first plateau and that was the problem. Our son knew that he didn’t have to reach the summit. He wanted to reach the summit, at least in theory, but he was beat. This is where Sheila was once again brilliant. She knew that he needed to get to the top. Me?  I was getting worried that he was too tired, too upset, too everything. In short, I was being “the mom.” With me, he could break down, he could complain and he could bail. With Sheila? Well, she wasn’t even entertaining the idea of him bailing. The best snow was on the other side of the summit. So with lots of smiles, a sense of humor and endless patience, Sheila, and a kind ski patroller named Steve, kept him moving.

Brotherly Love

It was worth the hike. Both boys partway down.

And then came the defining moment of our day. Our oldest son had reached the summit first and was soaking up the abundant sunshine, patiently trying to get warm. When I got up to the top, he asked about his brother and immediately started back down the trail to provide encouragement. This doesn’t always happen. My sons, much like any other siblings, alternate between love and hate, between rivalry and teamwork. On this day, our oldest was all about teamwork.

By the time we had rested and were ready to ski, our younger son was very nearly giddy. It wasn’t the altitude, but his pride in making it to the top. He had successfully achieved something that only minutes before he had feared would end in failure. And best of all, his brother had supported him 110%.

Sheila and the guys at the end of our family lesson.

The skiing was, of course, awesome. Sheila used her expertise to pick a great, steep line with fantastic snow. As we started down, I told Sheila that I often over-turn in steep terrain. She gave me some great advice about using less edge, the better to lengthen my turns and avoid catching a tip and flipping over in the variable conditions. As we made our way down, she continued to direct us to the best lines, the best snow and the most fun. We loved it. With Sheila’s help we learned a lot: About skiing, about the Bowl and about ourselves. It was a great experience for entire family, tips and all.

When You Go…..

A Bit More About Aspen Highlands

Although this post focused on our family experience with an instructor in Highland Bowl, I don’t want to leave the impression that Aspen Highlands is all about extreme terrain. The skiing at Highlands is laid out along and over a broad ridge. The terrain on top of the ridge is primarily green beginner runs and blue intermediate runs. The beginner terrain is found off of the Exhibition high-speed quad, while some fantastic blue cruisers (and what may be the most fun bump run in Colorado — Scarlett’s) are found off of the Cloud Nine quad.

The black and double-black terrain is primarily found on each side of the ridge, where the mountain runs down into valleys. On the east side is the Deep Temerity area with steep, open mogul runs and glades. Because this area is east-facing, the conditions can be crusty and icy, especially in the spring. In cold conditions, or after a good snow, it is a blast. On the west side is Olympic Bowl, which is equal in pitch to Deep Temerity, but with much shorter runs and a traverse that takes you back to mid-mountain.

If you want to hike Highland Bowl, you don’t need an instructor or guide. When you get to the top of the Loge lift, look for the wooden signs that tell whether or not the Bowl is open. Ski past them and you’ll come to a “boarding area” — a platform built of snow — for getting onto the snow cat. You can also forgo the cat’s assistance and hike the entire way. The Ski Patrol hut is also close to the top of the Loge lift, so you can buy straps if you need them and ask any questions.

The Aspen Rec Center

The "fun" pool at the Aspen Rec Center

After our triumphant hike up Highland Bowl, we figured we deserved some serious time in a hot tub. Our kids are not big fans of hanging out in hot water and chatting, so we headed over to the Aspen Recreation Center. The ARC has a big hot tub, a fun pool with fountains, a lazy river, a super-fast water slide and buckets that pour onto unsuspecting heads. It also has a “serious” pool for lap swimming, diving and basketball. We went about 5:00 p.m. and pretty much had the place to ourselves.

During the winter, the Aspen Rec Center also offers outdoor ice skating, sledding and snowshoeing. Equipment can be rented at the Center or you can bring your own.  For more information about the Winter Wonderland, please call the Aspen Rec Center at 970-544-4100.


Portions of this post were originally published at New West Snow Blog.

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