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The Other Aspen

The Other Aspen

Features
By Jay Cowan
posted: 01/05/2005

A good way to gauge which of Aspen's four mountains is considered the best is to watch where the locals go. Another is to see which mountain the locals resent. With Aspen Highlands, it's always been a thin line between love and hate.

Virtually everyone agrees that Highland Bowl, a sprawling chalice of sweetly steep and exposed expert skiing at the top of Highlands, is one of America's great black-diamond experiences. But there's also a feeling among the same locals that the whole All-Hail-Highland-Bowl! thing has gone way over the top and become just the latest trend in a famously trendy valley. "Oh yeah, it's epic, dude," they say and roll their eyes, mocking the big green "Epic" flag Highlands flies when conditions are especially great. They don't so much hate Highlands as hate how much everyone else now loves it.

Still, most people who live here, like Aspen native and high school teacher Andre Wille, are more fans than critics. "Highlands is a total locals' area, much more so than Aspen Mountain," says Wille, who won last season's brutal Highland Inferno, where racers start en masse, sprint-climb Highland Bowl and then ski down. "All your friends are here, their kids are in the Highlands ski school, the mountain has great terrain, and it's relatively uncrowded."

Wille has been skiing Highlands since 1965, when he was 3. "It's always been a family mountain," he recalls, and says the hill staunchly retains that feeling-even since Highland Bowl opened to great fanfare a few years ago. "The bowl scene may have gotten a little overdone, but for a lot of people it may be the only time they'll ever hike somewhere with skis on their back," says the veteran backcountry skier and climber. "We do it all the time. But for some of them it's special, a personal challenge, and they get to feel what it's like climbing to the top of a mountain."

If you don't ride the snowcat, which takes you about a quarter of the way up, the hike to the summit of Highland Peak-at 12,382 feet-is a 30-minute push up 700 vertical feet. It has become not just a winter conditioning ritual, but another local bragging rite. As Wille would be the first to say, Highland Bowl is what it is: a beautiful slab of precipitous terra firma and one damn fine piece of ski terrain. And what we silly humans choose to make of it beyond that, for good or ill, is mostly self-conceit.

The Bowl also is a window into the Aspen psyche. In Aspen, many people worship success and clamber to get close to it. Hence, they charge enthusiastically up the bowl at every opportunity, many becoming what resident sports guru Hunter S. Thompson calls "Body Nazis"-endlessly discussing who did how many bowl laps or who has how many bowl days nailed. Others tend to be naturally suspicious of publicity. They too charge into the bowl-it is superb skiing, after all-but they do so with great cynicism. The fact is, Highland Bowl has gone from being an insider's secret to a mega-hyped, bar stool-bragger's amenity, and that change isn't universally applauded.

In truth, Aspen locals have never been sure how to deal with the Highlands, with or without the bowl. When the mountain first opened in 1958, founded by Whipple Van Ness Jones, a maverick businessman from St. Louis by way of Harvard, some welcomed it and some scorned it. Naysayers included the Aspen Skiing Company, which owned Aspen Mountain and was just starting to erect lift towers on nearby Buttermilk. ASC turned down an offer from Jones to run his lifts, then spent the next 35 years alternately trying to buy Highlands or bury it. Those original ASC owners, Jones liked to say, were Yale men. Eventually he sued the company for antitrust violations, winning $10 million. But it was a short-lived victory for Jones, who still couldn't afford to run the resort over the long term and donated it in 1993 to Harvard, which turned around and promptly sold it to Gerald Hines, a Houston-based developer and part-time AspeniteHines then started building a new base village and brought in ASC to operate the mountain.

The first time I ever skied Highlands was as a kid in 1964, well before any of that. The term "extreme skiing" hadn't even been invented, but everything about Highlands seemed extreme to me. Like most people, I was struck immediately by its sheer drama-and my eyes never even strayed up to Highland Bowl.

The Loge Peak chairlift levitates skiers directly to 11,675 feet. The original chairlift suspended its riders over a seemingly bottomless chute near the summit that disappeared into the clouds below your feet. Even if you weren't a 12-year-old kid, it was a scary ride. Turning away from that clammy-handed view, you were confronted with the high, icy temples of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells. These 14,000-foot fantasies in stone dominate many of the views from the upper mountain at Highlands, where you can feel the wind blowing off their flanks and almost smell their sun-scoured stone. They always seem like hallucinations, too perfect to be true.

The same can be said of the skiing at the Highlands. From the first time you stand at its base, you know it can deliver the goods, whether you hammer Thunder Bowl and Grand Prix like they're the Hahnenkamm or test your limits on legendary steeps such as The Wall and Lower Stein's-runs so sheer that when they were cut by chain-saw crews from Oklahoma, one worker described the terrain as "steep as a cow's face, and her a-grazin'."

Highlands set its rowdy tone in the 1960s, when patrol leader Charlie Bolte created The Bash for Cash, a deranged, mass-start event where racers skied the most direct line to a pot of money at the bottom of one of Highlands' steepest runs. "We started it each week by blowing up a case of dynamite," recalled Whip Jones. And that was rarely the equal of the fireworks during the race. At the insistence of nervous insurance companies, both the dynamiting and the races were stopped long ago, but their spirit (and a faint whiff of mayhem and cordite) still lingers.

Today's patrol leader, Mac Smith, who enthusiastically has led the charge to open Highland Bowl and other adventure terrain, has some of Bolte's blood in his veins. Smith and mountain manager Ron Chauner have pushed the boundaries of off-piste-style skiing in Aspen further than many would have thought possible. That campaign continues as they work on a Deep Temerity (also called Deep Steeplechase) chair that will add another 1,000 vertical feet to the Highland Bowl/Castle Creek terrain. Preliminary lift work began this summer, but a final installation date is still undecided.

Last season, ASC rewarded the world-class work of the Highlands patrol with an overdue new headquarters on the summit. Designed by former Highlands patroller Kim Raymond, now an Aspen architect, and built primarily of recycled materials, the spectacular aerie boasts full views of the Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak and the patrol's special protectorate, Highland Bowl.

The rock & roll terrain and attitude at Highlands have always made it exciting. Still, as a relative runt in skier-days through the 1990s, Highlands (which had fallen from a peak of 312,000 to an annual average in the 150,000s) and its close neighbor Buttermilk (170,000 skier days), didn't get the press of their busier sister resorts Aspen (340,000) and Snowmass (775,000). During that same period, however, many locals began gravitating to the two hills, which were often so empty they felt like private clubs. The price of joining was simply being smart enough to ski there.

Today, the sleek, high-speed Highlands lift system and all of its exotic terrain have attracted so much attention that the Highlands can truly be thought of as Aspen's premier skier's mountain. Combine that with Buttermilk's extravagant terrain parks, national ESPN X Games exposure and a niche with locals who like to hike up for a lunchtime workout or hit the hill for a quickie after a storm (see sidebar on page 124), and the Highlands/Buttermilk axis has become the real local playground.

Over the past few years, Highlands skier numbers in particular have been climbing-up to 160,836 last season-and it isn't all due to the Bowl. In fact, some savvy skiers, having partly sated themselves on the high and wild terrain, are moving back onto the rest of the mountain, which is relatively deserted because everyone's in the Bowl.

"In 2003, I hiked the Bowl 70 times, with clients and without," says 20-year Highland instructor Eddie Sciarrone. "Last season I did it maybe 25 times. It's still great, but so is everything else. Last year the snow was so good you could spend whole days on the lower mountain-in the P-Chutes, the trees and Lower Stein's. And we went back into Steeplechase and Oly Bowl a lot, where there was no one. Almost anything between the main drags and off the beaten path here is untouched," he says, shaking his head and smiling.

It's true. The Bowl has taken the pressure off the other steep stuff, where I found few fellow travelers last winter, even on well-known drops, let alone the real insider terrain that patrol director Smith likes. "A few people know about No Name Zero, but not Tsunami or East of Eden," he says, referring to unmarked routes alongside chronically empty No Name Bowl.

You get the picture. Even during Highlands' current resurgence, you often have much of the place to yourself, with the mountain frequently hosting 1,000 skiers and riders. Besides, the terrain is so large and varied it absorbs people effortlessly. Even on the abundant groomers and fat blue rollers where I like to noodle around, lay down some big corduroy carves or just cut loose and fly.

The only place that might be considered busy, besides the ridge leading to the Bowl, is the grand marquee of Thunder Bowl. This big, drive-in movie screen of a face usually has a groomed swath down the middle, with Aspen Valley Ski Club gates, bumps and jumps to either side, showcasing the authentic action that has always helped make Highlands great.

It's also the kind of action many feel is sorely lacking in the new base village. Highlands never really had much at its base, and it actually devolved in the 1980s and 1990s to the point where it offered only the bare essentials for a ski area: a ticket booth, a cafeteria and a bar. It was an old-school approach, but clearly not a good business model for 50 acres of prime Aspen real estate.

Since Hines Resorts finished Highlands Village in 2003, there have been those in Aspen (surprise!) who feel it isn't much of an improvement, just bigger. Others view it more charitably, enjoying the quasi-European style and small-town feel of music drifting over the lower slopes, a gallery full of only local art and places like Durrance Sports, run by one of Aspen skiing's founding families, where there's always a ski race on the TV and plenty of room on the couch.

With the live wire that's Aspen sparking only a few minutes away, Highlands Village may never feature a major life of its own. But it would be wrong to believe that there isn't an authentic Highlands community. In fact, along with the seriously upscale homes, Highlands is home to a mix of employee housing inhabited mostly by longtime valley residents. Sciarrone is one of them. "I know some people don't care for the village, but I think it's great," he says. "I think people just hated to see it change from being a couple of big parking lots, but that was inevitable. And no matter what, this place will always have that cool, local vibe, and I love it."

Part of that vibe emanates from places like the midmountain Merry Go Round restaurant, where I always check out the big historical photos that record the Highlands story. This cavernous, 1960s-era cafeteria received some much-needed upgrades last summer, though nothing character-ruining. You can still loll on the deck and watch weekly freeskiing contests on Scarlett's Run. Contestantdebar on page 124), and the Highlands/Buttermilk axis has become the real local playground.

Over the past few years, Highlands skier numbers in particular have been climbing-up to 160,836 last season-and it isn't all due to the Bowl. In fact, some savvy skiers, having partly sated themselves on the high and wild terrain, are moving back onto the rest of the mountain, which is relatively deserted because everyone's in the Bowl.

"In 2003, I hiked the Bowl 70 times, with clients and without," says 20-year Highland instructor Eddie Sciarrone. "Last season I did it maybe 25 times. It's still great, but so is everything else. Last year the snow was so good you could spend whole days on the lower mountain-in the P-Chutes, the trees and Lower Stein's. And we went back into Steeplechase and Oly Bowl a lot, where there was no one. Almost anything between the main drags and off the beaten path here is untouched," he says, shaking his head and smiling.

It's true. The Bowl has taken the pressure off the other steep stuff, where I found few fellow travelers last winter, even on well-known drops, let alone the real insider terrain that patrol director Smith likes. "A few people know about No Name Zero, but not Tsunami or East of Eden," he says, referring to unmarked routes alongside chronically empty No Name Bowl.

You get the picture. Even during Highlands' current resurgence, you often have much of the place to yourself, with the mountain frequently hosting 1,000 skiers and riders. Besides, the terrain is so large and varied it absorbs people effortlessly. Even on the abundant groomers and fat blue rollers where I like to noodle around, lay down some big corduroy carves or just cut loose and fly.

The only place that might be considered busy, besides the ridge leading to the Bowl, is the grand marquee of Thunder Bowl. This big, drive-in movie screen of a face usually has a groomed swath down the middle, with Aspen Valley Ski Club gates, bumps and jumps to either side, showcasing the authentic action that has always helped make Highlands great.

It's also the kind of action many feel is sorely lacking in the new base village. Highlands never really had much at its base, and it actually devolved in the 1980s and 1990s to the point where it offered only the bare essentials for a ski area: a ticket booth, a cafeteria and a bar. It was an old-school approach, but clearly not a good business model for 50 acres of prime Aspen real estate.

Since Hines Resorts finished Highlands Village in 2003, there have been those in Aspen (surprise!) who feel it isn't much of an improvement, just bigger. Others view it more charitably, enjoying the quasi-European style and small-town feel of music drifting over the lower slopes, a gallery full of only local art and places like Durrance Sports, run by one of Aspen skiing's founding families, where there's always a ski race on the TV and plenty of room on the couch.

With the live wire that's Aspen sparking only a few minutes away, Highlands Village may never feature a major life of its own. But it would be wrong to believe that there isn't an authentic Highlands community. In fact, along with the seriously upscale homes, Highlands is home to a mix of employee housing inhabited mostly by longtime valley residents. Sciarrone is one of them. "I know some people don't care for the village, but I think it's great," he says. "I think people just hated to see it change from being a couple of big parking lots, but that was inevitable. And no matter what, this place will always have that cool, local vibe, and I love it."

Part of that vibe emanates from places like the midmountain Merry Go Round restaurant, where I always check out the big historical photos that record the Highlands story. This cavernous, 1960s-era cafeteria received some much-needed upgrades last summer, though nothing character-ruining. You can still loll on the deck and watch weekly freeskiing contests on Scarlett's Run. Contestants launch major air at the finish and nearly land in your lap while you're eating strudel and drinking Doggie-Style Ale.

When I want a meal less likely to be interrupted by a flying skier, I head to Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, Aspen's best on-mountain dining. On the deck or inside this intimate cabin, the wild game and pasta, the house-favorite raclette or the salmon piccatta are almost competitive with the overpowering views of Pyramid Peak and the Bells. It's a good place to ponder Highlands' fate.

In many ways this increasingly popular bistro, with a line out the door that's reminiscent of the one snaking up a ridge to the Bowl, mirrors the central Highlands conundrum, namely that it's going from being the town's private stomping grounds to being everyone else's favorite as well. That's an old story around this valley. We love these beautiful places-the bistro, the Bowl, Highlands and beyond. And we hate that they're getting so famous that there's always a line-the thin line between love and hate.

Click here to watch a video from Aspen.JANUARY 2005

tants launch major air at the finish and nearly land in your lap while you're eating strudel and drinking Doggie-Style Ale.

When I want a meal less likely to be interrupted by a flying skier, I head to Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, Aspen's best on-mountain dining. On the deck or inside this intimate cabin, the wild game and pasta, the house-favorite raclette or the salmon piccatta are almost competitive with the overpowering views of Pyramid Peak and the Bells. It's a good place to ponder Highlands' fate.

In many ways this increasingly popular bistro, with a line out the door that's reminiscent of the one snaking up a ridge to the Bowl, mirrors the central Highlands conundrum, namely that it's going from being the town's private stomping grounds to being everyone else's favorite as well. That's an old story around this valley. We love these beautiful places-the bistro, the Bowl, Highlands and beyond. And we hate that they're getting so famous that there's always a line-the thin line between love and hate.

Click here to watch a video from Aspen.JANUARY 2005

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