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The Season’s First Descent Of Highland Bowl

a snowy mountain with trees

Writer and long-time local skier Erik Skarvan shares what it’s like to lay the season’s first tracks in Highland Bowl.
Locals and Aspen Highlands loyalists long await the opening of their mountainparticularly the Highland Bowl, renowned for being steep and deep, offering an in-bounds backcountry-like experience. For many, hiking or skinning from the top of Loge Peak to Highland Peak is a rite of passage. A feather in one’s ski cap. A spiritual adventure, and so much more.

A few weeks ago, I was among the lucky ones who put down the season’s first tracks in the Bowl. And there’s nothing like an early season run to leave you with a powerful memory.

Pushing off the Loge Peak Lift, I had a Cheshire cat grin from ear to ear. “It’s going to be good no matter what,” I thought, “even if the G Zones are the only open terrain.” Thinking of the looker’s left runs that shoot down from the North Woods, known as G-1 in the trees, G-2 to looker’s right, and so forth, with G-8 running from the top of the peak and skier’s right of the Bowl’s gut. What kind of coverage and goodness could they hold? What obstacles may lurk just under the seemingly benign white surface?

Highland Bowl first descent of the 2016/2017 season - Aspen Snowmass

Highland Bowl first descent of the 2016/2017 season - Aspen Snowmass

On that day, the Bowl cat wasn’t running. Normally, the short lift from the snowcat helps to shave off about 15 minutes of boot packing to the Bowl’s entrance. There was no way to cheat the hike, and I prefer it that way. It guarantees a full hike to the top in peace and quiet. Part of Highland Bowl’s allure is a wonderful and spiritual connection with nature, escaping the noise and distractions of the real world.

While shouldering my fat skis, I hiked briskly to the Main Gate at the edge of the mighty Bowl. It was still roped off at noon. After a challenging hike—feeling exhausted in the face-battering wind—I managed to be one of the first fortunate arrivals to Highland Peak at 12,392 feet and was grateful that my fall hiking with my dogs paid off. Would this be a day for powder hounds?

A compact, but excited group of locals had gathered. This “meeting of the minds” grew to a few dozen skiers and snowboarders. Ski Patrol finally stepped up and the rope dropped down. The wind picked up and all seemed right in the world. The increasing gusts—pushing to over 40 mph—drove us to the leeward side of the peak, where I, and another half dozen skiers, bundled and buckled up for the first adventurous descent of the ski season.

Heading skier’s right toward Child’s Play, it was me and one other skiing down the untracked gully, uncertain if each turn would prove there was insufficient coverage. I knew banking up to the right or left could be sketchy, considering the rock formations beneath. So, I let the other rider lead the way. Looking and listening, I figure-eighted his line, and fortunately didn’t hit anything underneath.

Early season in the Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands

Early season in the Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands

I stayed right and headed for one of my favorite lines in the Northwoods (pictured above); a runway of untracked whiteness lined and protected by evergreens on each side. The wind subsided, the visibility improved and I could feel the awesome float of powder. It was only about boot deep, but it was pow-pow nonetheless! I lightly bounced like a snowshoe hare down the middle of the run, then took a sharp left turn into the trees and headed towards G2.

Carefully negotiating turns in the thick trees—aware natural obstacles were sure to be lurking—I funneled into the top of G2, which was completely untracked. There was a ski patroller working on the side of the runhe smiled, nodded and gave me the thumbs up to proceed. I didn’t need any further incentives. I dropped into the main headwall and it was awesome skiing, an exhilarating sensation as the snow pushed against my shins. I ended up skiing a narrow line through taller fir and spruce down to the runout zone and toward Deep Temerity chairlift.

The stoke was high and my smile was widethe signs of a successful first descent of Highland Bowl for the season. The first of many to come.

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