Writer and 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 mountain, particularly Highland Bowl, which is renowned for being steep and deep, with an in-bounds backcountry-like experience. 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. Since then, several storms have passed through, filling in many of the bowl’s zones with awesome powder. But there is 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 were the only open terrain.” What kind of coverage and goodness do they hold? What obstacles may lurk just under the seemingly benign white surface?

On that day, the “bowl cat” wasn’t running. 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.”

I hiked briskly, while shouldering my fat skis to the Main Gate at the edge of the mighty bowl. It was still roped off at noon. 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.

After a challenging hike — feeling exhausted in face-battering wind — I managed to be one of the first fortunate arrivals to Highland Peak at 12,392 feet. (All that hiking with my dogs this fall paid off!) Would this be a day for powder hounds? The increasing gusts — pushing to over 40 mph — drove us to the leeward side of the peak, where about a me and half dozen skiers bundled up, buckled up and got set for the first adventurous descent of the ski season.

Heading skier’s right toward Child’s Play, it was me and one other guy “skiing by Braille” down the untracked gully. I knew banking up to the right or left could be sketchy, considering the rock formations beneath. So, I let the other guy go first! Looking and listening, I more or less “figure-eighted” his line and fortunately didn’t hit anything underneath.

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 none the less! 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 run. He 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! Again, not super deep pow, but a super 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.

The stoke was high and the smile was wide. It was the first of many incredible 2016/17 runs in Highland Bowl!

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