Ski adventures at Aspen

by Rob Tiller

Why would a sensible person take up skiing?  The negatives are many.  It’s expensive.  The logistics are complicated.  It’s difficult to do well.  It’s physically arduous.  There is an element of danger and an element of fear.

But the transcendent beauty and wealth of sensations overwhelms all logic.  I had three ski days based in Aspen last week with Charles, Chuck, David, Emily, Steve, and Beau, in a small condo situated a block from the Ajax gondola.  We did Ajax on day one, and Gabe drove up from Telluride and joined us for days two and three.

As we started our day at Snowmass, Gabe declared that his primary interest was finding challenging terrain.  I quickly learned that he was not kidding.  He led David and me for most of the day in several long runs with many bumps, steeps, and glades.  It snowed heavily throughout the day with an eventual accumulation of about eight new inches.  With lots of powder, I quickly logged at least double my previous lifetime experience of tree skiing.

There were, of course, mishaps.  During aggressive mogul skiing I had four or five tumbles.  (I blame my bindings for releasing too soon on a couple.)  Falling in deep powder usually does not hurt, and I had only one minor injury (a sprained thumb).  But getting back into the skis in the steep and deep stuff is hard.  Once I had to ascend a good ways to retrieve a ski.  I stand by my theory that more falls correlate positively with improvement, and that if I’m not falling at all, I’m probably not trying hard enough.  At any rate, it wasn’t always pretty, but I skied with heart and integrity.

After lunch with the whole group at  Ulrhoff,  Gabe persuaded me to come with him to the famed Cirque headwall.  We started up the T-bar in heavy snow conditions, and it got worse and worse.  At the top, we found a total whiteout.  I couldn’t see enough of the snow to tell up from down, and at first had the odd sensation of skiing upwards.  The terrain was rated double black diamond EX, but it was impossible to see either threats or safety.  The only distinguishable features were orange marker disks, and we decided to follow those.  We turned, then turned, then turned.  A few hundred yards down, visibility improved, and we made our way into and out of some glades.

On my last day we went to Aspen Highlands, where we looked for and found fresh powder.   We had a few fine bump runs before we met the group for lunch at Merry Go Round.  Gabe then declared he wanted to go to Highlands Bowl, with the summit at 12,500 feet.  This involved riding to the top of the highest chair, taking a snow cat ride, and then hiking another several hundred feet up.  David and I agreed to have a go.  I bought a strap ($8) to put my skis on my back, and we headed up.

The hike was along a narrow ridge that at places was barely wide enough for one person.   It ascended sharply enough that most of the way felt like walking up stairs.  And it turned out to be incredibly arduous for those not well-acclimated to the altitude.  It was difficult to breathe, and eventually became difficult to place one foot in front of the other.  At one point, I proposed to David that we ski down without completing the route.  He told me he’d heard from another pilgrim that we were most of the way there.  It turned out that his informant had said we were not halfway there, which was wrong; we were in fact two-thirds finished.   A lucky call.  After almost an hour, David and I reached the summit, where Gabe had been waiting for fifteen minutes.  I was drenched in sweat and had a serious cramp in my left leg.  Such happiness!