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The Other Sides of Aspen: The Highlands Report

Features
By Peter Oliver
posted: 06/27/2000

I might as well have been trying to find a keyhole in the dark. I thought I knew what I was looking for, that narrow opening through the trees. I had found it by accident earlier that morning, rummaging around through the evergreen forest and filtered sunlight, searching for decent snow and stumbling upon the untrammeled mountain meadows of Hyde Park.

Slipping through a gutter-wide slot between trees, I had unexpectedly landed myself on the threshold of powder-pig nirvana. Foot-deep snow without a track upon it. A 30-degree slope banking away like a fast, ramped runway. The high-arcing ridgeline of Highland Bowl, rising beyond the trees like some preposterously huge, bright-white cathedral.

For about 30 seconds, I was transfixed, disbelieving my dumb luck. After recovering my senses, I launched into two minutes of double-barreled, rip-happy, megakiller skiing-just the right snow texture, just the right pitch, just the right absence of humanity.

Of course, when you stumble into something like that, you'd be a world-class idiot not to go back for more. So there I was, rummaging around in the woods again, looking for that keyhole-sized portal to perfection.

Aspen Highlands is a mother lode of hard-to-finds like Hyde Park, just one reason why it is the most challenging, enigmatic, and often exhilarating of Aspen's four ski areas. Multiple exposures, breathtaking steeps leading to cat tracks, hidden tree shots and high Alpine chutes right on the edge of crazy, a backcountry aura inside the ropes, a 3,635-foot vertical drop with almost no continuous fall-line skiing of more than 1,500 vertical feet-welcome to the weirdly wonderful hodgepodge of Highlands. Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, and Snowmass are all open books compared with this complex, involute place.

Highlands has long been revered by a loyalist corps of local skiers who appreciate its complexity and steepness. Yet complexity and steepness are also probable causes of the vacationing mainstream's cold-shouldering of Highlands as if it were infected with the Ebola virus. In many cases, the few who do come leave thinking that the inspiring view from the summit of regal and rocky Pyramid Peak is the best thing Highlands has going for it. As for the skiing-give 'em Snowmass any day of the week.

Scroll the numbers: For the 1998-1999 season, Highlands reported in with 143,785 skier days, compared with 777,378 skier days at nearby Snowmass. That averages out to something like 800 Highlands skiers a day, and as meager as the numbers are, they're actually reason for optimism for the Aspen Skiing Company, which added Highlands to its fold in 1993. In the early '90s, annual skier days were barely nudging above 100,000.

On the day of my hunt for Hyde Park-a sunny powder day, for God's sake-I doubt there were more than 1,000 skiers on the mountain. And so there I was later on that very same powder day, essentially and existentially alone, scrambling along the ridge leading from the summit lift into Highland Bowl. At Highlands, it's actually harder to find company than it is to find powder.

Entering into some of the most stark and impressive terrain in all of lift-serviced Colorado, I felt a light-headed rush of intimidation, a feeling of almost naked exposure to a conspiracy of elements. A wind out of the southwest was rolling over the ridge, scalloping the snow and baring piles of rubble and scree. The air, stinging with a crisp, hard cold, was severely lacking in oxygen. When you're up there in a place like that, somewhere around 12,000 feet, you feel like you're just one step away from walking right into infinity.

As I neared the Y Zones, I finally did come upon a few other skiers who had made the 10-minute scramble out there. They were peering over the edge and were talking with one another with a cocksureness that I suspected was a mask for trepidation.

I entered the first of the Y Zone chutes at a shallow angle, initially tentative and reluctant to challenge t gravitational pull of the fall line. But as I felt the wind-rumpled snow begin to deepen around me, I knew that the moment of necessary commitment had arrived. Using my dwindling momentum to power into the first turn, I quickly arced into and across the fall line. And once I'd done that, everything else seemed to progress as if in a preordained, natural flow until the ridge and wind were far behind.

That places like Hyde Park and the Y Zones are now open to skiing is largely due to the mad genius of Ron Chauner, Highlands' mountain manager. Over the last few winters, Chauner has been gradually extending boundary ropes outward, boldly bucking conventional ski-resort wisdom in the process. Corporate paper pushers who see skiing mainly through the prism of potential lawsuits would surely have preferred to keep the boundary ropes cinched up. To extend the Highlands boundaries to include Highland Bowl or Temerity, the neighboring cluster of tree runs of which Hyde Park is a part, would be to invite corporate anxiety. Injuries, lost skiers, avalanche disasters-a regular Pandora's box of litigious misery.

But Chauner is a skier rather than a corporate mucker; in his 50s, he can still rip with the best of them. Beyond the boundary ropes, he saw the most heinously alluring expert terrain in all of Aspen, and he figured: Why be spoilsports about it? Sure, there were inherent risks. But wasn't that white-hot filament of risk the very essence of Y-level skiing?

To be honest, my first impression when I got wind of skiing in Highland Bowl was that Chauner was nuts. The bowl is, after all, classic avalanche country. Vast, steep, long, and outrageously exposed terrain funnels into a death-trap gully toward the bottom. Anyone caught in a slide out there would stand little or no chance, as was the case with three ski patrolmen who were swept to their deaths in 1984.Of course, Chauner knew what he was dealing with out there in the bowl. For all of his seemingly mad, corporate-bashing genius in pushing out the boundaries, he did not act with some reckless, perverse intention to throw open the gates to the death zone. Instead, he moved with a sober and calculated circumspection. The heart of Highland Bowl-the main avalanche channel-remains closed. Y Zone skiers must angle back into the ski-area proper well before reaching the treacherous gully.

Furthermore, knowledgeable mountain managers like Chauner will tell you that one of the best forms of avalanche control is skier compaction. Get skiers to consolidate new layers before those layers become dangerously unstable-that's the strategy. And finally, the push of the boundaries into the bowl-which continues-has been incremental. It has happened a sliver at a time, carefully watched, charted, and managed.

Having now experienced it for myself, I can see the good sense in the expansion. It fits right in with Highlands' reputation as the foremost experts' ski area in Aspen. There might be a handful of decent cruising runs and even an almost entirely unused patch of novice skiing about halfway up the mountain. But steep skiing is Highlands' forte, and Temerity and Highland Bowl only add to an already impressive portfolio of steeps.

On one side of the central Highlands ridge is Steeplechase, about 1,400 vertical feet of powder, small bowls, bumps, and tree shots. On the other side is Olympic Bowl (the locals call it "Oly") and, wouldn't you know it-about 1,400 vertical feet of powder, small bowls, bumps, and tree shots. Lower down on the mountain are the P Chutes and Lower Stein's and various gladed alcoves that even the reverential regulars who know where they're going have a hard time finding.

There is one, glaring shortcoming however: None of these runs comes close to taking full advantage of Highlands' 3,635 vertical feet. Both Steeplechase and Oly Bowl end abruptly in cat tracks that lead back to the front side and the lifts. More than a few Highlands skiers have been known to disregard the boundary ropes below Steeplechase and track up the remaining 1,400 vertical to the valley floor. Most skiers, however, simply look beyond the ropes, imagine the possibilities, and learn to live with their frustration.

Chauner feels their pain. Someday, he insists, there will be a lift that runs up the Steeplechase side of the mountain. The result will be more than 2,000 lift-serviced vertical feet of nonstop 30- to 40-degree fall-line skiing.

To complement all the new (and future) terrain, the Aspen Skiing Company has completely revamped Highlands' lift system, once one of the most antiquated in the country. Three high-speed quads and one triple now make for one of the swiftest and most efficient lift systems anywhere. The days of creaking along on the lifts originally installed when Highlands opened in 1958-the days of riding three slow lifts for every Steeplechase lap-are over.

I was initially wary about the lift reconfiguration. If skiers were doing faster laps, I assumed fresh snow on a powder day would be tracked up pronto. I assumed that bumps would form too quickly, and that all of Highlands' steeps were in danger of becoming hopelessly mogulized. I'd seen it happen at other ski areas.

I was wrong. The day before skiing the powder of Hyde Park and the Y Zones, I was able to find plenty of smooth, talc-dry fluff on steeps like Snyder's Ridge in Steeplechase. Lower down in the trees, there were still patches of untracked snow, and it had been probably a week since the last storm. On the Oly Bowl side, which was exposed to the warming, western sun, I actually wished that more skiers had been around to cut up and pack down the loose, sun-baked mush.

The lifts, the base village, and the expanded terrain is all part of a grand vision, and while Chauner never explicitly said it, I can surmise what that vision is: To elevate Aspen Highlands into a league with the likes of Jackson Hole, Snowbird, and Taos as one of the truly great expert ski areas in America. Already, Highlands is on its way.

In many ways, it is an odd time in the life of Highlands for Chauner to be bringing his expert vision into reality. Highlands is currently undergoing a radical transformation that has almost nothing to do with the skiing in general and expert skiing in particular. A $230-million base village is under construction, due for completion in 2003. While there will be some "affordable housing," the village will primarily be an enclave of wealth. If you happen to have $3 million to toss around, you, too, can own a one-acre lot at the new Highlands. You'd also better have a few million more if you want to build a house.

Talk about a makeover.... Highlands has long been Aspen's ghetto of glorified grunge, populated by rip-happy, hardcore, live-to-ski skiers. At Highlands, you'd not only feel comfortable showing up in duct-taped pants and a 15-year-old jacket with mud and axle grease on it, you'd feel out of place if dressed otherwise.

At Highlands, you'd feel right at home plowing through a couple of après-ski brews and then, what the hey, toss back a boilermaker to velvetize the beer buzz. You'd come to Highlands in appreciation of its lack of gloss and a state of dishevelment raised to the level of cult nobility. Highlands was the one sure place to find blue-collar brio in the fur-coat world of Aspen.

Blue-collar brio, of course, is not exactly the lifestyle of the rich and famous, nor is the best expert skiing in America exactly the skiing style of the rich and famous, and therein lies the incongruity in the coming of high-end Highlands. What's the duct-tape and boilermaker crowd going to make of the plush new village? What's the wealthy ski-a-week-a-year crowd going to make of Highlands' killer steeps? And what's each faction going to make of the other? Will it turn into some neo-Marxist class confrontation?

The response to any and all of these questions I got from the many people I talked to was a resounding amb the boundary ropes below Steeplechase and track up the remaining 1,400 vertical to the valley floor. Most skiers, however, simply look beyond the ropes, imagine the possibilities, and learn to live with their frustration.

Chauner feels their pain. Someday, he insists, there will be a lift that runs up the Steeplechase side of the mountain. The result will be more than 2,000 lift-serviced vertical feet of nonstop 30- to 40-degree fall-line skiing.

To complement all the new (and future) terrain, the Aspen Skiing Company has completely revamped Highlands' lift system, once one of the most antiquated in the country. Three high-speed quads and one triple now make for one of the swiftest and most efficient lift systems anywhere. The days of creaking along on the lifts originally installed when Highlands opened in 1958-the days of riding three slow lifts for every Steeplechase lap-are over.

I was initially wary about the lift reconfiguration. If skiers were doing faster laps, I assumed fresh snow on a powder day would be tracked up pronto. I assumed that bumps would form too quickly, and that all of Highlands' steeps were in danger of becoming hopelessly mogulized. I'd seen it happen at other ski areas.

I was wrong. The day before skiing the powder of Hyde Park and the Y Zones, I was able to find plenty of smooth, talc-dry fluff on steeps like Snyder's Ridge in Steeplechase. Lower down in the trees, there were still patches of untracked snow, and it had been probably a week since the last storm. On the Oly Bowl side, which was exposed to the warming, western sun, I actually wished that more skiers had been around to cut up and pack down the loose, sun-baked mush.

The lifts, the base village, and the expanded terrain is all part of a grand vision, and while Chauner never explicitly said it, I can surmise what that vision is: To elevate Aspen Highlands into a league with the likes of Jackson Hole, Snowbird, and Taos as one of the truly great expert ski areas in America. Already, Highlands is on its way.

In many ways, it is an odd time in the life of Highlands for Chauner to be bringing his expert vision into reality. Highlands is currently undergoing a radical transformation that has almost nothing to do with the skiing in general and expert skiing in particular. A $230-million base village is under construction, due for completion in 2003. While there will be some "affordable housing," the village will primarily be an enclave of wealth. If you happen to have $3 million to toss around, you, too, can own a one-acre lot at the new Highlands. You'd also better have a few million more if you want to build a house.

Talk about a makeover.... Highlands has long been Aspen's ghetto of glorified grunge, populated by rip-happy, hardcore, live-to-ski skiers. At Highlands, you'd not only feel comfortable showing up in duct-taped pants and a 15-year-old jacket with mud and axle grease on it, you'd feel out of place if dressed otherwise.

At Highlands, you'd feel right at home plowing through a couple of après-ski brews and then, what the hey, toss back a boilermaker to velvetize the beer buzz. You'd come to Highlands in appreciation of its lack of gloss and a state of dishevelment raised to the level of cult nobility. Highlands was the one sure place to find blue-collar brio in the fur-coat world of Aspen.

Blue-collar brio, of course, is not exactly the lifestyle of the rich and famous, nor is the best expert skiing in America exactly the skiing style of the rich and famous, and therein lies the incongruity in the coming of high-end Highlands. What's the duct-tape and boilermaker crowd going to make of the plush new village? What's the wealthy ski-a-week-a-year crowd going to make of Highlands' killer steeps? And what's each faction going to make of the other? Will it turn into some neo-Marxist class confrontation?

The response to any and all of these questions I got from the many people I talked to was a resounding ambivalence. The future, they figure, will be what ever it is, and Highlands habitues are just living for the moment anyway, reveling in their current good fortune.

Paula Morse, a member of a dedicated group of Highlanders who call themselves Chicks on Sticks, explained to me the new math of Highlands in simplest terms. "There's more terrain (in Temerity and the Y Zones), and there aren't more skiers," she said.

So in assessing the imminent changes, Morse said, "It's not scaring me away. I'm just not going to worry about the future." She's probably right not to worry. The new base village might transform the base of the mountain, but I bet it won't change the character of Highlands' skiing very much at all. And that character looks something like this: In the here and now, perhaps at the very moment you read these words, fewer than 1,000 skiers are ripping and rummaging around at one of the best expert ski areas in America.

DESTINATION: Aspen Highlands
TOP ELEVATION: 11,675 feet
VERTICAL DROP: 3,635 feet
ANNUAL SNOWFALL: 300 inches
SKIABLE ACREAGE: 700 acres
TERRAIN: 20% (beginner), 33% (intermediate), 17% (advanced), 30% (expert)
LIFTS: three high-speed detachable quads; one triple
INFO AND RESERVATIONS: 800-525-6200, 800-262-7736; www.skiaspen.com
PRICES: Full-day weekend lift ticket: $57 adult*, $45 youth (13-17), $37 Child (7-12). Seniors 70 and over and kids six and under ski free. Three-day adult pass: $177; five-day: $285.

*NOTE: Aspen's full-day adult lift ticket prices vary throughout the season. The $57 price was quoted on January 20.

Go back to The Other Sides of Aspen. ambivalence. The future, they figure, will be what ever it is, and Highlands habitues are just living for the moment anyway, reveling in their current good fortune.

Paula Morse, a member of a dedicated group of Highlanders who call themselves Chicks on Sticks, explained to me the new math of Highlands in simplest terms. "There's more terrain (in Temerity and the Y Zones), and there aren't more skiers," she said.

So in assessing the imminent changes, Morse said, "It's not scaring me away. I'm just not going to worry about the future." She's probably right not to worry. The new base village might transform the base of the mountain, but I bet it won't change the character of Highlands' skiing very much at all. And that character looks something like this: In the here and now, perhaps at the very moment you read these words, fewer than 1,000 skiers are ripping and rummaging around at one of the best expert ski areas in America.

DESTINATION: Aspen Highlands
TOP ELEVATION: 11,675 feet
VERTICAL DROP: 3,635 feet
ANNUAL SNOWFALL: 300 inches
SKIABLE ACREAGE: 700 acres
TERRAIN: 20% (beginner), 33% (intermediate), 17% (advanced), 30% (expert)
LIFTS: three high-speed detachable quads; one triple
INFO AND RESERVATIONS: 800-525-6200, 800-262-7736; www.skiaspen.com
PRICES: Full-day weekend lift ticket: $57 adult*, $45 youth (13-17), $37 Child (7-12). Seniors 70 and over and kids six and under ski free. Three-day adult pass: $177; five-day: $285.

*NOTE: Aspen's full-day adult lift ticket prices vary throughout the season. The $57 price was quoted on January 20.

Go back to The Other Sides of Aspen.

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