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How the Bowl Gets Born - A Day in the Life of an Aspen Highlands Bootpacker

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

At 12,392, Aspen Highlands Bowl, aka the Bowl, may be the most fun you’ll ever have, in-bounds. Locals know it well, and hike and ski it often; regular visitors look forward to their annual hike up the Bowl and bring first-time visitors along, who feel like a zillion bucks upon their first summit. Hiking the Bowl makes any given day that much better; whatever’s ailing, nagging, weighing you down seems to evaporate as you crest Heart Attack Hill (that little steep section) and make your way under the prayer flags onto the lookout bench, to catch your breath and gaze out over the plethora of peaks at the top of the world as most of us know it.

I’m a Bowl junkie. Every time I hop onto the bench, I send a picture message to someone, somewhere (there’s good cell service in the mountains once you get on top of those pesky peaks) and I know it’s a parallel universe situation: I’m certain that the picture in their inbox makes them smile and I’m certain they’re doing something less exciting (oh, I’m certain) - or at least, at a lower elevation.

But as invigorated and capable as I feel at the top of Highlands Bowl, I know that the true hard-core insiders are those who did the legwork, literally, to get the Bowl and many of the more challenging parts of the mountain ready and safe and user-friendly for the rest of us.

These worker bees are called bootpackers.

Aspen Highlands Bootpacking program takes place before the mountain opens, usually starting around mid-November and wrapping up as late as Christmas Eve, when the bootpacking elves call it a wrap and leave the rest of us with a really good Christmas present.

The Bootpacking program, as outlined on bootpacker.com, is a volunteer program; packers work a minimum of five days to get credit in the form of ski pass vouchers and each day is worth $100 voucher dollars. The goal is (15) days, for a full ski pass; this year, eight days earned enough credits for the new Flex Pass option.

It’s arduous, to say the least. The program is strictly volunteer: packers bring their own food and water, avalanche gear is required and while packers work towards a ski pass, they are not Aspen Company employees and are required to sign a release indicating that fact. The website states a few incontrovertible facts: “Boot and ski compaction at the ski area involves long days spent outside in severe weather conditions at high altitude. The work is extremely strenuous and is comparable to mountaineering. All the inherent risks of that sport are here also, including falls or possible avalanche involvement.”

Then, in bold caps: “THE CHANCE OF INJURY EXISTS. AGAIN, YOU ARE NOT COVERED BY WORKMAN’S COMPENSATION.”

Bootpacking means time off your paid job, long hours and frigid days and what feels kind of new and exciting on Day 2 most likely feels endless and almost intolerable on Day 9.

Is it really worth it?

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Essentials for the Elements

Aspen Skiing Company employees and supervisors denied requests for interviews and declined to comment on the program, but I spoke with current and alumni bootpackers willing to share their experiences, for a closer look behind the scenes.

The life of bootpacker, in 15 days or less:

Long-time local Dave Sims is a father of two and a seasoned waiter at L’Hostaria, one of Aspen’s finer bar and restaurant choices. Sims was a one-time bootpacker, as well, gaining a thorough knowledge of the hows and whys. “Basically, we stomp through all the various layers of snow – to the ground! This perforates the snow (like swiss cheese),” he explains, “to keep it from behaving like a cohesive unit, thereby greatly reducing the likelihood of any slab avalanche activity.”

“The actual packing only happens on the downhill; the packer does a downhill row, then traverses over to an uptrack, where he hikes back up and traverses over to the next downhill row, then repeats. This is done in rows of several hundred feet across the steep stuff, and when we’re in the actual Bowl we use ropes, and self-belay devices (shunts) for emergency backups.”

One particularly memorable day on the hill, his avy gear came in handy. “I was avalanched through 50 feet of trees at the bottom of Snyder’s,” he recalls; “The slide puked me over a 15 foot drop onto a catwalk, where I landed harmlessly in chest-deep snow.”

The wear and tear, mental and physical exhaustion, comes over time. There’s no way of knowing how you’ll feel until you put in the days. “No one day is that hard; it’s the cumulative effect of many days that seems to be the most difficult part; we upload around 8 a.m., ski to the packing area, wallow in snow, repeat till lunch, then wallow some more. Try to ski down with very tired legs at no earlier than 4 p.m.”

Yet it’s this same exertion, the exercise and strengthening, which became his favorite part of it all. “I love the physicality of the days, and knowing that I’ll smoke my friends on Bowl hikes all season. It’s supreme ski fitness.”

Then there’s his least favorite part: “Arguing with some ski co pass authority who has never even heard of bootpacking, in order to get your hard-earned pass.”

Todd Hartley, columnist, bartender and stand-up comedian, bootpacked 12 days in 2004 and came back on board this season. “Potential bootpackers should know it’s exhausting, hard work. It can be very cold when you’re in the shade; conversely, it can be very hot and sweaty if you’re in the sun. A typical day involves hiking or skinning to Ozone of Full Curl, for example, then…walk up the hill, walk down the hill, walk up the hill, walk down the hill, repeat ad nauseum. One Saturday, we walked straight up the hill basically from the bottom of B1 to the top. That was ridiculous, definitely a new one for me.”

But there’s more. “Potential packers should also know that it’s kind of fun, and it beats the hell out of sitting in an office! I like getting to know every inch of the bowl up close and personal. And I like the camaraderie,” he continues. “Every bootpacker respects the others because we all know we have to be a little nuts to be up there. The group tend to be pretty close-knit. No one is particularly chatty, since we’re all so exhausted, but after a few days of working in close quarters you find that you’re pretty friendly with everyone. Everyone tends to go at their own pace, which is fine as long as you’re giving it your best effort. Pacing yourself, slow and steady, is the best way to make it bearable.”

Hartley points to some of the personalities on the hill, whose antics and presence add to the overall effect. “The main characters are the Highlands patrollers themselves; there’s Pimo, in his mid-50’s, with a big bushy beard, who walks all over the mountain setting off bombs. Karen Sahn, the #2 person in charge is the smallest person out there, but as strong as anyone on the hill. Then there’s a packer named Doug who does it every year, and makes t-shirts and stickers for everyone.”

Like Sims, he seems drawn to the masochistic effort, from time in the elements to extreme physical exertion, knowing the payoff is “supreme ski fitness.”

“I like knowing I’m getting this amazing workout. And at the end, you get a pass, get in great shape, have a little fun and make some new friends. Not everyone can actually do it, and even fewer people actually would do it. It takes a special breed, and we’re all pretty proud of that fact. “

Ladies are bootpackers, too.

There aren’t a lot of female bootpackers, however, so they like to keep ‘em around. Word on the snow is, they’re left to their own pacing and progress: “we leave the ladies alone,” declared an anonymous team leader type. It’s also said the gals are pretty strong in the camaraderie department, multi-tasking as women do - able to talk and laugh and pack, all at once.

One anonymous bootpacker shared her thoughts on the good, the bad and eating lunch in the cold. “That’s the worst part, having lunch in the shade; you need a lot of layers because you’ll be cold in the morning on the chairlift but once we start up the ridge, the layers start coming off. Even the coldest negative temp days (of which there were many this December) aren’t that bad because we’re constantly moving; it’s when we stop moving that you get cold the most. I like to bring a really thin pair of gloves for lunch because it’s hard to eat in bulky gloves and believe me, there are times you’ll try to eat your sandwich or hold a fork without taking them off!”

Like her male counterparts, camaraderie was at the top of the reasons why list: “It attracts the most amazing, fun people and I love that the most about it. This one day, the snow was so deep, it came up to the girls’ chest. Two girls declared they were “boob” packing. It was just a big giggle fest.”

The whole experience, whether for one day or 15, offers a new perspective on snow safety and just what goes into making this most exceptional in-bounds skiing accessible for the season. “If you drop out after Day 1,” she says, “you don’t get any credit, but you do get a good understanding of what bootpacking involves. You get a real appreciation for your safe turns on this great terrain.”

Dear Bootpackers,

We, the people who hike the Bowl on our lunch break, who take the snowcat half-way up and let everyone pass us, or haul ass the whole way, doing three laps before lunch; we, the skiers of Highlands Bowl, salute you.

Photo Courtesy of Amos Whiting.