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Highlands’ Next Act

Aspen prepares to open its most extreme terrain ever.

aspen highlands loge bowl

By Kelly Bastone 

The view from Picnic Point is like an Aspen Highlands Rorschach test: Sightseers focus on the jagged symmetry of the Maroon Bells, but expert skiers and riders stare longingly at the steep, cliffy cirque in the foreground known as Loge Bowl. Although they’re technically within the resort’s permitted area, these avalanche-prone chutes and aprons have always remained closed. But if patrol director Mac Smith has his way, Loge Bowl will become Highlands’ next proving ground. “Kids are gonna tear it up,” says Smith, of Loge’s hairball lines. “They’re gonna do stuff I can’t even imagine.”

Vision has been Smith’s hallmark since 1973, when he joined Aspen’s ski patrol and helped pioneer lines down Highland Bowl, which didn’t seem—to most people—tame enough to become a sanctioned part of any U.S. ski resort. A 1984 accident only confirmed those predictions: Three on-duty patrollers doing control work died in Highland Bowl when a 1,000-foot-long slide buried them beneath avalanching snow.

Still, the cold and chalky skiing in Highland Bowl beckoned. So along with Smith, veteran patrollers Jeffrey “O.J.” Melahn and Peter Carvelli devised ways to stabilize the massive, 250-acre bowl. Bombing wasn’t an option—at least not with the unrestrained approach used by coastal mountains like Squaw or Baker. “That type of blasting shoves all the snow downhill and throws it away,” says Smith. “We don’t get enough snow to do that.”

The Aspenites, instead of using blasts to rip all the unstable snow downhill, used the blasts to stabilize the snow where it lay. “They figured out how to use explosives as a compaction tool rather than a release tool,” explains Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The Aspen patrollers were also among the first to take the practice of bootpacking—which resorts had been employing throughout the 1980s and 1990s to control slides in small terrain traps and gullies—and expanded it to stadium-sized Highland Bowl.

Bootpacking—not to be confused with sidestepping; here you’re actually stomping the snow by foot—mitigates avalanches by churning up the base layer of faceted, unconsolidated snow that develops near the ground beneath a typical Colorado snowpack. The process also breaks up the early season slabs of consolidated snow that are responsible for big slides. That mixing of layers, which Silverton Mountain has also employed to great success, might be the key to inbounds stability in high altitude snowpacks. “Fracture lines can’t propagate through a jumbled-up mess,” says Smith.

To do that, back in 1997, Aspen Ski Company recruited a squad of paid patrollers and hardy volunteers to bootpack Highland Bowl before the first portion of it opened to the public in 1997. Today, ticketholders enjoy access to the bowl’s entire 250 acres. And each season, some 170 people apply for the grueling honor of becoming a Bowl Patrol bootpacker. “The fact that they have that kind of terrain open to the public, year after year without accident, it’s impressive,” says Greene.

Expect Smith to deploy similar avalanche control methods in Loge Bowl, slated to open within the next two to three years. But he’s developing additional strategies specific to the cliffed terrain as well. Patrollers are currently expanding their rope skills to both secure bootpackers in avalanche terrain and execute rescues in Loge’s rockier zones. When Loge opens, it will change what seems possible at ski resorts operating within the continental climate—just as Highland Bowl did in the 1990s, and Silverton Mountain did at the turn of the millennium. “The only equivalents in the Rocky Mountain West are in parts of Jackson, or maybe Moonlight Basin,” says Smith. “Once you’ve skied Loge Bowl, you’re going to be ready for Chamonix. It’s going to bring you to that level.” 

From the Early Winter 2016 issue.

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