Aspen Highlands' new and improved Highland Bowl was a true test of my confidence and ability. And my hiking skills.
"So you'd call yourself an expert skier?" Steve asked.
"Yeah... I guess," was my not-so-confident- sounding reply.
Little did I know that my answer would weigh heavily on the next hour and a half of my life.
I was visiting Aspen Highlands for Freestyle in Style on Fridays at Highlands (see related links at right), but I also wanted to check out the recently opened Highland Bowl area high above the rest of Highlands' notoriously extreme terrain. Steve was testing me to see if I was capable of doing it.
Often referred to as the locals' favorite, Highlands had opened the complete face of Highland Bowl several months earlier. Unfortunately for my fitness level, the top of Highland Bowl is not lift-serviced. The routine with the bowl is as follows: ride up Loge Peak chairlift and ski over to a snowcat, which takes you about halfway up the peak. Then, hike (with your skis) up the rest until you feel like dropping into one of the ominous chutes below.
Steve, an instructor at Highlands and my guide for the day, considered my answer to be "yes" and led the way to the bowl. The conditions seemed right: great weather and lots of snow the previous week. So at the top of the Loge lift, we skated off toward the snowcat.
After five minutes of waiting in line and staring in wonder at the surrounding mountains, the cat came lurching to a stop right in front of us. The cat comfortably seats 12 people in its back section; alas, we discovered that it fits 18 people slightly less comfortably, but we withstood the tight fit for the five-minute ride.
Then began the hike from hell. Though only in the vicinity of 500 vertical feet, it seemed like 500 miles with the altitude (around 12,000 feet) and the warm temperatures (around 35 degrees). Upward we trudged.
We hiked past menacing-looking drops with equally menacing names: "Whip's Veneration," "Filip's Leap," and "Steep 'n Deep" among others. I wasn't all that worried about the terrain, and focused more on the fact that not only was I having trouble breathing, but I was sweating like a pig. We stopped several times to take some deep breaths and to remove our helmets for some air. I wanted to stop with the hiking and start with the skiing, but Steve convinced me to keep on going. "You're gonna regret it if you don't make it all the way up," he insisted. I followed, cursing him under my breath.
A solid 45 minutes into the trek, we arrived at Highland Peak, 12,382 feet above sea level. The drop we were set to take was called "Ozone," and for good reason. It felt like I was at the top of the world. We admired the view and each tried to catch our breath, which took me somewhat longer than Steve.
Then, we dropped into Ozone. Steve ripped! He handled the precipitous terrain with the greatest of ease, bounding confidently from turn to turn. Then I dropped in. It was without doubt the steepest, gnarliest terrain I had ever skied. My quads throbbed with each jump-turn I made in the thick powder, and I had to gather up that much more confidence to convince myself that I could keep myself in control before turning again. I was literally worried that I would start an avalanche, as each turn sent a sluff of snow tumbling downward. What a rush! "You're right! You are an expert!" yelled Steve before taking off again.
Doing Highland Bowl once was enough for one day, but I'll definitely be heading back sometime soon. Anything that exhilarating is worth the hike.
The Highland Bowl Snowcatoperates daily, weather and conditions permitting, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Steve Henleyis a PSIA-RM fully certified ski instructor and can be contacted in care of the Aspen Skiing Company Ski Schools at 970-544-3020.