For serious bragging rights, the Highland Bowl is a must-do for hardcore Aspen-area skiers and snowboarders. The adrenaline-pumping, 2,500-vertical-foot descents down pitches as steep as 45 degrees are there for the taking for the adventurous souls who hike to the summit all winter.
But these epic off-piste, in-bounds conditions take some serious effort behind the scenes to maintain. Just ask the bootpackers: the hardworking folks who painstakingly walk every inch of the extreme terrain to make it safe for the duration of the season. Before anyone is able to shred the steep snowy slopes of the infamous Highland Bowl, these unsung heroes, who include local bootpackers and professional ski patrollers, put in the major (and literal) legwork necessary to set the snowpack for a season of safe skiing. Bootpacking takes about 45 days of stomping snow as storms accumulate.
The program allows locals to earn a pass by walking around Highlands and setting the snowpack. Fifteen days of bootpacking gets you a full premier pass for unlimited days of skiing all year; 12 days, a two-day/week pass; and eight days, a Flex Pass for one day a week to ski the resort. The program can take up to 50 bootpackers a day, depending on the ratio of bootpackers to patrol.
But you don't have to have any previous experience to give it a go. “The only requirement is to be able to walk uphill at an efficient pace," says Mike Spayd, assistant snow safety director of Aspen Highlands. "Everything else we teach you while you are up here."
Even so, bootpacking is certainly not for the faint of heart (or leg or lung, for that matter). Days are long, starting around 8 am and running until after 4 pm, and spent outside in severe winter conditions at high altitude. And that's just the beginning.
The exertion is exceptionally strenuous, with all the inherent risks of mountaineering, including falls or possible avalanche danger. In fact, an avalanche recently occurred during bootpacking operations at Highland Bowl, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. A slide with a maximum width of 40 feet and 700 feet long was triggered, but because the bootpackers were roped in, no one was hurt.
As Spayd explains, avalanches need undisturbed surfaces to slide, with a cohesive layer of snow above a weaker layer. So by disrupting the snow layers all the way to the ground as soon as snow falls, patrol is able to eliminate dangers in the early season and keep up throughout the season with skiers and explosives.
“The pockets we kicked down in B1 and B2 are a totally acceptable occurrence during bootpacking season,” says Spayd, explaining that everyone was on fixed lines, with ropes with harnesses. Bootpackers are exposed to a little more risk than the general public on a day of skiing, but only because patrol can manage them by controlling where they go and how close or far apart they work. Bootpackers don’t work in one group, instead breaking up into smaller groups with size depending on the terrain.
From the veterans to the newbies, everyone seems to take something away from the experience of trampling the slopes. In just over a week at it, novice bootpacker Carey Favaloro said she has already learned a lot. Favaloro moved from Vermont last season and has been taking advantage of access to patrollers and snow experts to learn about snow safety and general backcountry knowledge.
For Travis Andrews, the training that comes with the program is a huge bonus: "I have never had a stronger ski season,” he says. Andrews also admits he has to take it one step at a time, but all that hard work really makes the end-of-day beer something to look forward to.
There is a strong sentiment among the group that there is something about suffering alongside everybody that binds the group together. Some bootpackers return year in and year out. The diverse group is an interesting cross-section of people from throughout the valley, putting people who might never meet alongside each other for hours on the hill.
“I bootpack for the people; there is something about people who think hiking up and down a mountain is a fun way to spend the day," one volunteer told RootsRated. "And it's amazing to get to bond with those people." And that bonding can help get you through the challenging moments: "Some days are brutal. Some days you just aren't feeling it, but pushing through that is super rewarding. I think bootpackers are just wired a little different.”
On another lap up the steep track in B3, local Bryan Bennett called out what he considers the five rules of bootpacking: “Never set the up track; always check your footing; never be ambitious; whatever you do, don’t sweat; shred hardcore when you can.”
Bootpacking the Bowl certainly brings new meaning to earn your turns. Only after this dedicated group arduously stomps out the terrain is it safe and skiable the entire season for everyone.
So, if you're headed to the famed summit of The Highland Bowl this season, perhaps take a moment to thank the unsung heroes whose hard work goes into making your adventure possible.