Aspen Highlands and the Highland Bowl keep Aspen’s “renegade spirit” alive

Comments by Tess Weaver/

The history of Aspen Highlands would make for a terrific film plot. It would star an eccentric Aspen resident, a California billionaire, a Chicago billionaire, a Texas millionaire, Harvard University and the Supreme Court. The story goes something like this:

In the ’50s, Aspen resident Whip Jones took a 30-year lease on 4,200 acres of national forest land at the base of Highland Peak and decided to develop a ski area. He hired Dick Durrance to do a feasibility study and Stein Erickson to run the ski school. When the area opened in 1958, it had three lifts, including the world’s longest single-section double chairlift, and boasted the longest vertical in the state. Highlands soon became known as the affordable, laid-back ski area in Aspen.

Throughout the years, Jones remained at odds with Aspen Skiing Company (ASC), which owned and operated the three other local ski areas, Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Snowmass. In 1979, when neither company could agree on how to sell a multi-mountain pass, Jones filed a restraint-of-trade suit against ASC. The case made it to the US Supreme Court and in 1985, Jones won an $11.4 million judgment.

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Greg Ernst shot by Matt Power

Meanwhile, in 1981, as part of his purchase of 20th Century Fox for $725 million, Los Angeles oil billionaire and notorious Hollywood entertainer Marvin Davis acquired ASC. Four years later, Chicago’s Crown family purchased 50 percent of the company.

In 1992, after the longest continuous ownership of any ski area in Colorado, Jones donated Highlands to his alma mater, Harvard University, which then sold it to Houston-based developer Gerald Hines. Hines developed the base area and handed over operations to Aspen Skiing Company. Finally, in 1993, the Crowns purchased Davis’ remaining 50 percent share of ASC, giving the family complete ownership of the operation.

But the history of its ownership only tells a fraction of the story. The spirit of Highlands has been shaped by a long list of passionate locals, devoted patrollers and fun-loving characters. Despite the changing management and growing pains, the freak flag still flies. Ultimately, the mountain itself has emerged the unflappable victor.

Aspen Highlands straddles a long ridgeline between the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys, ten minutes down valley from Aspen. From the lift-served summit, a single intermediate trail runs the length of the ridge, the off-piste steeps dropping off either side toward the valleys below. Wide groomers roll through thick lodgepole pines from midmountain to the lower slopes, with tight chutes and steep glades hidden on every aspect. Even the lower mountain offers some steep surprises, like the last-minute Thunder Bowl right above the base.

The area’s biggest draw is the 12,392-foot-high Highland Bowl. Requiring a 45-minute ridge hike, the bowl seems far more sidecountry than in-bounds. The hike awards a 1,500 vertical foot run with either wide open, sustained pitches littered with big-mountain features or steep, adventurous tree lines. Line up early on a powder day, hike fast and you’ll experience a run that rivals any heli drop.

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Highland Bowl shot by Jeremy Swanson

Generally, the best snow lies in the north-facing G zones (“G” corresponds to green ski wax, for the coldest snow). The B zones (blue wax) face east and descend down the center of the bowl. The south-facing Y zones (yellow wax) are the steepest, with slopes as steep as 48 degrees. The bowl also offers access to steep and highly avalanche-prone out of bounds terrain on both sides of the ridge.

Though it seems a defining part of its character, the bowl wasn’t completely opened until 2002. Its history begins in the ’60s, when mountaineers first climbed the ridge and skied the bowl. In 1969, the Highlands patrol started offering paid tours of the bowl.

Mac Smith, 60, director of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol since 1979, first skied the bowl when he joined the patrol in 1973.

“I skied in the trees—probably G4—and it’s burned in my memory,” he says. “We were sinking really deep, but you could still really crank turns because there was so much pitch to it. I remember thinking, ‘This place is really special.’”

The bowl was off limits in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Smith, a former renegade himself, was told to pull passes and arrest bowl poachers. In 1984, patrollers Tom Snyder, Craig Soddy and Chris Kessler set off to prepare Highland Bowl for a state-wide ski patrol party and a powder 8 competition. While they were testing stability, they were caught in a 1,000-foot-wide avalanche that swept them 1,800 feet to their deaths. Following the tragedy, Highland Bowl closed to the public.

In 1993, in light of new ownership, Smith and snow study supervisor OJ Melahn presented a proposal to study the bowl and install computerized weather stations. In the season of 1995, the bowl opened to the public.

“As kids, we always used to look longingly up at the untouchable, permanently closed area known as Highland Bowl,” says Lorenzo Semple, a long-time local and Highlands regular who obsesses about skiing 100 bowl laps per season. “There was always something daunting and forbidden about it. When it finally opened for skiing, it was almost as if us local ski die-hards were presented with a lifetime achievement award.”

The patrol quickly learned what needed to be done to keep the bowl stable.

“If we compacted the base layer and mixed in every layer that came down after that, it was a recipe for keeping the deep slab from failing,” says Smith. “People told us we couldn’t physically pack the whole thing, but if you have enough want, you can make it happen. Patrol put up a Herculean effort, but eventually we needed other people.”

And so Highlands’ infamous bootpacking program was born, where locals can work hiking up and down the bowl for 15 days at the beginning of the season in exchange for a season pass.

“The community understands what we have to go through,” says Smith. “They are servants to the bowl. I don’t think a lot of other ski areas get that cooperation from the locals. It’s such a blessing to have that kind of a relationship, that kind of camaraderie.”

For the next decade, more and more terrain was opened up. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Highland Bowl opened all the way to its 12,302-foot summit. On December 14, 2002, the entire bowl opened, from the south to the north face, doubling its available terrain. The next milestone was set in 2005, when the Deep Temerity lift opened. It eliminated the long traverse out of Highland Bowl, allowed for fall-line laps and added 180 acres of new steeps.

On top of its rich history and legitimate terrain, what really sets Highlands apart is its authentic culture of fun. Anyone who’s attended the mountain’s notorious closing-day party can attest.

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Highlands Closing Day party, shot by Matt Power

Smith says it started when Jones brought in Swiss ski legend Fred Iselin to co-direct the ski school. He was known as an entertainer and elevated Aspen’s après-ski from famous to legendary.

“He was all about fun,” says Smith. “He sold fun. That culture continued to grow while we were under Whip’s ownership. A lot of it was having a young patrol. Our average age was probably in the late 20s. We jumped over the deck on Cloud Nine, we had resources to have great parties. We even had a time-share on a houseboat.”

The fun continued throughout the decades, from the liftie-made chocolate chip cookies in line to hosting some of the first freestyle and big-air events to the storied wine and cheese parties to the dance parties at Cloud Nine, the midmountain bistro.

“Aspen Highlands is a microcosm of our old ski town,” says Semple. “It’s the keeper of the sacred funk vault, the old anything-goes, renegade spirit of Aspen.”

*This article originally appeared in the 2013 February issue of Freeskier. Subscribe to the magazine, or get it on the iTunes Newsstand.