High on Aspen

Aspen, CO – It all starts far out over the Pacific when pulsing rivers of cold, wet air begin swirling eastward.

The vaporous waves wash ashore and then heave up against the mountains, cresting and breaking in a spray of fresh powder – crystalline grace for skiers and riders.

Rich and I meet the waning storm at dawn, heading west from Summit County on I-70. We top Vail Pass just in time to watch the moon slip bashfully out the sky. Sunrise creeps up the snowy ridges like a bride lifting her veil, aglow with the blush of dawn.

Roaring down into Glenwood Canyon, we realize that it’s been four years since our last road trip, an epic early December session in Summit County, when A-Basin’s Pali Face opened with a four-foot base – way before Christmas. That same trip included a midnight three-pin jaunt on the streets of Breck, hitting the rails at the post office, launching off roadside berms and worm-turning on the sidewalk outside the Brewery, we recall ruefully.

Rich, a California longboard surfer at heart, has been riding snow for nine years, and he’s stopped in to visit during the first leg of a month-long snow safari through the Rockies. After a couple of days exploring the Loveland Pass backcountry, I suggested base-camping in Glenwood Springs for a few days, near the hot pool, with forays to Aspen and Sunlight. It’s the heart of the season and the snow’s been flying. The surf, as they say, is definitely up.

We rush down along the highway, across the river from the railroad tracks – the gristle and grit of old-time Colorado – with eons of eviscerated earth history on display in the canyon walls. Through the haze of the Roaring Fork Valley, Mount Sopris shows off a generous frosting of fresh. By 9:30, we’re gearing up at the base of Aspen Highlands. Someone says the Epic Flag is up, only for the second or third time this season.

We warm up with a blast of jump turns down a steep pitch in the Steeplechase area, punching through soft powder bumps before joining the lineup of hikers in Highland Bowl, a wide open powder playground that tops out near 12,400 feet.

Long a deadly avalanche trap, the bowl has been at least partially tamed by state-of-the-art management – but not before several backcountry travelers lost their lives, including several Aspen ski patrollers who are commemorated on the mountain, notably at the comfortably funky Merry-Go-Round mid-mountain restaurant.

Rich and I – along with legions of fellow powder-starved snow junkies – benefit from the good work of the patrol and dedicated bootpacking crews.

From the saddle past Loge Peak, the Bowl looks like one of those crinkly edged coffee filters with a line of ants creeping up the edge. Surface conditions are inviting, with eight inches of wind-kissed atop a mostly solid base – not to mention an eagle’s-eye views of the iconic Maroon Bells.

A special trail map, “The Highlands Extreme Guide,” describes the terrain in words and pictures, with plenty of common-sense advice on skiing in natural conditions. Study the guide, hike the bowl a few times with a knowledgeable local and you’ll start to get a tempting taste of what the backcountry can be about.

Along with important information on safety and ski area boundary policies, the guide includes a lively discussion of pitch, and how aspect can radically change the nature of the snow, from heavenly fluff one side of a ravine to lumpy mashed potatoes on the other.

I was curious to know the vertical footage on the face, and the total acreage in the bowl, but couldn’t find that info in the guide.

A paragraph or two with environmentally useful information would also be cool. For example, if you see a lynx, don’t harass it. Or, use snow trails when possible to avoid damaging the tundra during ridge hikes. Little tips like that can go a long way toward educating on-the-ground users and it would only add luster to Aspen’s already gleaming green reputation, as the company continues to garner accolades for environmentally progressive policies.

And for anyone interested, Buttermilk, just down the road, offers naturalist-guided tours focusing on the alpine environment, and the ski school does a similar kids program called Winter Wild Things (call 970-925-5756 for info).

The hike to up to 12,382-foot Highland Peak takes about 40 minutes with a few stops for photos. Looking out over the craggy skyline, we breathe deep, drinking in with our lungs the clean, crisp air and absorbing the majesty with reverent awe.

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I feel like the king of the mountain, at least partially responsible for stewarding this incredible alpine environment. Skiers should be part of the solution and not the problem, I decide then and there.

The guide says the chutes range in pitch from 35 to 48 percent. We eye the White Kitchen, a natural direct line, straight down the maw of the giant avalanche funnel.

We drop into the steep face and the snow heaps up in front of us like gopher furrows, then explodes in puffs of smoke over our shoulders. With plenty of vertical, I find a rhythm and settle in for a run with a real big-mountain feel. I can see Rich out of the corner of my eye. He’s got a big powder-eating grin on his face, and he’s kicking up a glittering rooster tail of frozen diamond dust – for an old dude strapped to a cafeteria tray, he’s ripping.

Near the bottom are some obvious transitions, so we slow down, looking for obstacles, Best to get acquainted with a new mountain of a respectful basis, I figure.

The same goes for the environment. Talk in the news the day before was about some lynx living near the slopes of Telluride. We look out at the expanse of forests surrounding this mountain, wondering if one of the infamous powder cats is nearby, enjoying the fresh fall of snow as much as we are.

I tell Rich about the White River National Forest debate – how as a community, we are trying to resolve how to enjoy our chosen sports – skiing, mountain biking, hiking, snowmobiling – while still leaving room for all the other critters who need undisturbed forests.

The traverse back to the lift is a long heel-side grind for snowboarders. But the run was worth it. In fact we’re ready to do it again, having scouted what looked llike a near-perfect fall line; a mile-long creek bed running steeply down through thick old-growth spruce and fir.

We stop to ask directions, but the locals, waiting to catch a snow cat out toward the bowl, are cagey about their lines. We drop into the trees just beyond the saddle. The mountain shows us the way. We let our boards drift down the path of least resistance – the way water would flow.

It’s a rewarding choice. We bounce down the line along a series of marshmallow-soft powder bumps, skimming through speckles of sunlight and moss-draped evergreens.

The day ends soaking in a giant hot saltwater pool in Glenwood Springs, watching crazy shadows dance on the fog above the water.

The hot springs facility is a must-see for Colorado West Slope visitors. Super-heated by a pocket of molten earth, millions of gallons of water per day surge up through a deep fault, making it one of the largest hot springs around.

On its way to the surface, the water picks up a full load of minerals, including salt left behind when ancient oceans evaporated – maybe during some early-day version of global warming.

In a steamy haze of conversation, we decide this hot spring symbolically shows that the mountains and ocean are part of an unbroken system, forever connected by the lakes, rivers and waterfalls that carry rain, snow and eventually, the mountains themselves, back to the sea.

Somehow, the realization makes it easier for us to rekindling our own 20-year friendship, harking back to other shared adventures, like a bike tour down the California coast, for example. Riding Highway 1 through Big Sur in darkness to make a middle-of-the-night trek to the famed cliff-side Esalen Institute, where from hot pools in the face of the mountain, you can look straight down several hundred feet to the waves pounding at the rocky shore.

Our soak leaves us with just enough energy to devour some tasty but only partially cooked enchiladas, along with a fine pint of ale at the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company, located in the Hotel Denver, across from the train station. As we hustle out the next morning, we blame the weird hotel room for the fact that we overslept. Instead of a window to the outside, our view encompassed the hotel atrium and a suite of offices.

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We head for Snowmass but somehow miss the turn of Highway 82. Too much fun playing “name that tune,” as The Eagle (KTUN) blares golden oldies. We definitely date ourselves by shouting out the name of each song within a few bars, but who cares.

We end up in the Buttermilk parking lot next to a woman who is attaching a customized set of spiked snow treads to her running shoes. Later, we see that thanks to low skier densities, uphill skiers and walkers share some of the trails safely with downhill riders.

We check out the Summit Express quad first. Amazingly, two days after a storm, we find mile-long stashes of gently tilted powder fields with only a few tracks through an honest 10-inches of grade “A” Rocky Mountain fluff. Some of the runs drop off into mellow aspen and evergreen glades with names like Ptarmigan and Timber Doodle, but there are
hefty pockets of soft stuff even directly under the lifts.

I bend over to fasten my binding when a candy wrapper blows by. I chase it down, trying to pounce, but a rising wind hurries it along, until it ends up at the edge of the trail. From there I spot more untracked lines in the trees, and signal Rich to cut in higher up. We spend the rest of the morning silently tracking the soft stuff, barely able to contain our glee.

The runs aren’t steep, but the ride is long – kind of like the slow rollers at Waikiki. We reckon that with most of the locals out carving the steep and deep at Ajax and Highlands, we have stumbled on some forbidden fruit. But we enjoy it without the least bit of guilt.

Buttermilk has a great family feel, and the resort company has geared up for the younger set by distributing a just-for-kids trail map of Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, loaded with great information on gear and safety, along with good directions to an amazing number of kid-friendly features.

We cruise to Snowmass in the early afternoon, finding close-in parking. It’s a broad-shouldered mountain where we  quickly ratchet up to GS tempo on top-to-bottom, roller-coaster cruisers, most nearly devoid of people. Off the High Alpine Chair we veer skiers right, dropping into the East Wall, through KT Gully and into Camp 3.

Near the top, the snow is bouncy and forgiving, like a brand-new mattress. It feels like we’re carving on a thick layer of avalanche debris, buffed on the surface but still deep and springy. Farther down, there are sweet sheets of windblown and some powder pokes sheltered by some dense glades.

We have time for one more ride up, so we jump on the Sheer Bliss chair. We drop into the renowned trees of the Big Burn, ending up in a long drainage that dumps us onto the doorstep of the Cirque, where the Fat Tire is flowing freely – now that’s what I call mountain planning!

It’s a boots-on après-ski joint where a trio banters with friends in the crowd, taking requests and blasting more hits from the past. Judging by their whole-hearted renditions, these guys have lived the music they are playing.

Again the day winds down at the hot springs and ends with a late Italian soup-and-salad dinner, featuring a chunky minestrone and a fabulous straciatelle – a made-from-scratch broth infused with handmade spinach egg drops.

Conversation fades to thoughtful silence as we realize it might again be a few years before we hook up for another trip. But at the same time, we know our mutual passion for the outdoors will help to keep the bonds between us strong, despite intervening miles and years.

It’s hard to explain. Why do we ski or ride? To caress the mountain. To feel the snow, the wind and the rush of gravity – in short, to live.

And what an incredible thing it would be to harness the energy from that life-affirming high – to use the mountain vibe to build sustainable social and economic ties across religious, ethnic and political boundaries. After all, there are people around the globe who get their kicks the same way.

One world, one turn!

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