by Rob Story
Don’t bother looking for “Lift 6” on the Aspen Highlands trail map. Though longtime Aspenites gripe often about how slow Lift 6 moves, the lift does not, in fact, exist.
Highlands has only five real chairs. Lift 6 is a knife-edge ridge of wind-blasted snow that skiers and snowboarders kick steps up in order to plunder the fresh bounties of Highland Bowl. A steep, narrow staircase better suited to mountain goats than human beings, the ridge sucks the wind out of your lungs long before it tops out at 12,392 feet above sea level. Stop when you see the Tibetan prayer flags.
A collection of avalanche paths and expert slopes as steep as 45 degrees, the bowl is a vessel that holds some of the most European-style, exposed alpine terrain in America. Ascending Lift 6 to Highland Peak is tough for anyone, let alone a withered carcass fresh out of spine surgery. Yup: On January 7, 2016, a surgeon at the Mercy Spine Center for Excellence in Durango, Colorado, cut open my neck and installed a titanium bracket to fuse cervical vertebrae C4 to C7. (Always ride your cruiser bike with a light, kids!) I was told not to ski for 12 weeks. But then Helly Hansen invited several ski writers and me to come to Aspen in mid-March, just nine weeks after the knife. I accepted, of course, since ski trips always take precedence over doctors’ orders.
I was an utter junk show the first morning. Ensconced in a pitch-black basement room, I overslept and missed breakfast. Moving like Frankenstein’s monster—uhhhhh—I gathered gear in a panicked rush. I hadn’t worn ski boots in more than two months and it showed, as, with my weakened core, I struggled mightily…to…jam…my…foot…into hard…unfamiliar…plastic! Sweating profusely, I race-walked to the bus for Aspen Highlands. Not until the first Highway 82 roundabout did I realize my (rather ripe) cervical collar rose too high to permit a helmet. Which to jettison? The helmet, of course. My healing vertebrae demanded protection, while the bulk of my brain damage occurred already.
We met several patrollers at their Loge Peak HQ and commenced the nearly 800-vertical-foot hike to the apex of Highland Bowl. It was strange to walk in ski boots again; the awkward lurching recalled a dog on its hind legs. My breath came in ragged gasps, which one might expect given the hike’s 11,675-foot start—but not this ragged. Most people step off the bootpack to adjust their boots or pack straps. I stepped aside to loosen the Velcro on my cervical collar.
I’ve hiked the Bowl dozens of times, in all manner of conditions. Once—a brilliantly sunny closing day blessed by 22 inches of fresh—the path was astonishingly crowded. It was closing weekend, and Lift 6 reeked of lungs expelling the previous evening’s liquor vapors. At the summit, joints and flasks circulated freely among girls in bikinis and guys in bunny outfits.
Another time, my partner and I battened down hoods, yanked up neck gaiters, and leaned into a vicious blizzard. Blowing snow obscured the bootpack and coated our goggles. Every other step required a back-wrenching post-hole. We dropped the third shot we saw, Ballroom, because you don’t quibble when the howling wind seeks to blow you way to the nearby town of Rifle.
Last March’s attempt happily unfolded beneath cobalt-blue skies on a warm, windless day. The spring weather soothed my nerves. Soon, I would ski again! Our group spread out along the ridge as you’d expect. I edged toward the front, among a sub-group of six.
I’ve lived 18 years at altitude, so I’m somewhat acclimatized. I’m also naturally hot-blooded. I never overdress. On Lift 6, I ratcheted up my speed methodically while overtaking sweaty peers who’d stopped to shed a layer. When the lead billygoat, an Aspen P.R. honcho, paused to extinguish a corporate fire over his cellphone, I surged into the lead and never lost it. I took the last of some 1,400 steps and tapped my pole against the summit marker in a display of victory.
“Hooray for me,” you say. To my right, pristine, rocky cliffs fell off into the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area. A range as pretty as their name, the Maroon Bells are said to be the most-photographed peaks in Colorado. A long rainbow of prayer flags fluttered gently above. I plopped onto the old lift chair patrollers erected at the summit and waited for the others.
As sublimely peaceful as the moment was, aggression boiled within me. I felt inordinately proud that I’d conquered the climb faster than anyone else, all of whom were younger than me, some by decades. Granted, we were on a friendly outing on a lovely day; nobody but me knew it was a race. And to be fair, some competitors lived at sea level. Hell, one bloke was from London. I wasn’t proud to beat them, necessarily. I was more proud to wallop my post-surgical torpor and inertia.
Still, it should be noted that I was also the first to reach the bottom of Highland Bowl. I skied it fast and strong with only one minor biff. My first run of 2016 had been an unabashed triumph. I blitzed merrily down to Deep Temerity chair. The liftie looked alarmed. “Should you be skiing in a cervical collar, dude?” he shouted.
“Yes,” I answered. “Yes I should.”
From the Deep Winter issue.