Mac Smith celebrates 40th year as director of Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol
If Mac Smith ever decides to hang up his skis as Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol director, he will immediately have seat on the pantheon of Aspen ski industry greats.
Smith has racked up numerous accomplishments in his 40 years as patrol director but he will probably be celebrated for decades to come as the person who did the most to open Highland Bowl.
U.S. Forest Service officials were skeptical of allowing expanded skiing in the Bowl when Aspen Skiing Co. started an environmental impact study of the concept in 1997. Smith pleaded, cajoled and nagged federal officials to keep an open mind.
“I don’t want to take all the credit for it, but I was talking to all these guys a lot about it: ‘You have to give us the opportunity to do this. We’ll study it and get it done,’” he recalled during a conversation from the Highlands patrol hut at the top of the Loge Peak chairlift on a recent snowy Saturday.
The problem, as the Forest Service winter sports staff saw it, was the terrain didn’t provide lift-served skiing, one of the criteria for allowing use of national forest. To demonstrate that it was lift-served, Smith and his crew developed the first of the Y-Zones on the north end of the Bowl in winter 1997-98.
“We had this unbelievably gnarly catwalk that came out,” he recalled.
That narrow, spooky path connected to other catwalks until it linked to the Grand Traverse beneath Steeplechase and provided access back to the Loge Lift. Problem solved — the Bowl terrain linked to a lift.
“You could always tell a Highlands skier because they had a monster calf on that downhill ski (leg),” Smith said with a signature grin that punctuates at least half of his sentences.
He credits a lot of past and present colleagues with helping advance the development of the Bowl. Former Aspen Skiing Co. executive John Norton gave an under-the-table nod to pursue the idea. Former Aspen Highlands Mountain Manager Ron Chauner enthusiastically pitched expansion to Skico brass. Former Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell realized the appeal and unlocked the funds necessary to study the avalanche mitigation that was key in making the Bowl accessible to the public.
And, of course, the Highlands ski patrollers and particularly snow safety staff figured out how to get the job done.
Twenty-two seasons after that initial work, the Bowl has made Aspen Highlands a bucket-list destination for truly passionate skiers and the bread and butter of many Roaring Fork Valley residents. Once it was fully developed, it attracted 800 to 1,000 skiers on a busy day. Now it lures twice that many, Smith said.
“I go up to the Bowl sometimes and just stand there and listen to the people yelling and screaming and having such a great time,” Smith said. “That’s the thing that drives all these (patrollers) to be able to put out the effort that needs to be done.”
MR. SMITH GOES TO OLD SNOWMASS
Smith is adept at getting things done. He credits his upbringing. He’s as comfortable in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat as he is in ski boots and a ski helmet.
Smith spent his early years in upstate New York as part of a skiing family who made Mount Mansfield their ski area of choice.
“I’ve been skiing since I was 3,” he said.
His family moved to Ogden, Utah, when Mac was in elementary school and they started skiing Snow Basin. His dad had skied Aspen Highlands in 1958-59, its inaugural season, and developed an affinity for the Roaring Fork Valley. His parents bought what they named Gateway Ranch in Old Snowmass in 1960 and started a guest ranch. They were as out of place as the lead couple in the old TV show “Green Acres,” according to Smith.
“They didn’t know which end of a horse to ride,” he quipped.
They had a big red barn, which still exists today, and eight guest cabins. They offered pack trips into what is now the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Mac was thrown immediately into the operation. Youth was no excuse. He recalls plucking ice balls off horses’ eyes on frigid winter mornings so they could feed. As early as 10 years of age, he was tasked with taking a couple of loaded packhorses alone to places such as Snowmass Lake to restock a camp.
He was always hanging around the wranglers, picking up their skills and their nasty habits, such as constantly pulling pranks on others.
“It was almost permission to be crazy,” he said.
He was a regular at Aspen Highlands during winters. He recalled as a 10- and 11-year-old “terrorizing” ski school classes just for the fun of it. Repeated misbehavior got him tossed from Highlands.
He began skiing Buttermilk after his mom started working in the kitchen of one of the restaurants there and his dad drove a bus. While it was a different ski area, it was the same problem. Young Mac was always in trouble with the ski patrol.
“I got caught blind jumping all the time by the patrol so I had to sit in the corner, like a dunce corner,” he said with a laugh. “An hour later, they’d say, ‘OK, go ski again.’”
And the scene would repeat itself. Eventually, he was only allowed on the slopes while with patrollers.
“That was really cool because I had a spotter for my jumping,” Smith said.
Since his mom reported for work before the area opened, Smith got to ride first lifts with patrollers. He would tag along while they attended to their early morning chores. The die was cast for his career.
“They became my mentors,” Smith said. “The wranglers were, then the ski patrollers kind of were. I think that’s where it really came from.”
Late in middle school he returned to Aspen Highlands and he skied there throughout high school, becoming a very good skier and learning all the nooks and crannies. They would gain access to the terrain that became the St. Moritz Trail, ski what is now Boomerang Woods and sneak back into the ski area on the established Boomerang Trail, keeping an eye out for the two patrollers stationed on the upper mountain at the time.
HIGHLANDS LEGACY IS BORN
Smith graduated from Basalt High School in 1971 and took a job at Merry-Go-Round restaurant at mid-mountain at Highlands for the 1972-73 season. He joined the ski patrol the following season.
He was promoted to co-assistant patrol director in 1974-75. In 1977-78, the patrol director wasn’t around much. Smith became de facto patrol director, though not in title. The next season he gained the title, as well.
Early on in his tenure with the patrol, he forged a relationship with Whipple Van Ness Jones, the founder and overlord of Aspen Highlands who has since died.
“My second year — this is where Temerity came from — I had the temerity to go into Whip’s office and say, ‘Hey, Whip, as a kid I used to ski down into Steeplechase and get back to Boomerang. A little goat trail was out there. We could open all of this without any new lifts.’”
It was a moment of truth.
“At that moment, I didn’t know if I was going to get fired or if he’d be OK with that,” Smith said. “It was a start of a relationship with Whip that I think was unique to anybody else at Highlands except maybe (longtime manager) Don Robinson.”
Jones let Smith regularly ski the Steeplechase terrain to figure out how to get skiers out of there. They created a frighteningly narrow catwalk called the Grand Traverse. It was initially so narrow a patrol toboggan would barely fit.
But the Steeplechase terrain put Highlands on the map for steep terrain, much as the Bowl would rekindle 20 years later. When terrain was opened between Steeplechase and the Bowl, it was named Temerity in honor of Smith’s conversation so many years ago about terrain expansion.
Jones had a longstanding policy to shoo ski patrol members away after about three seasons. A 1960s effort to unionize left a bad taste in his mouth. He busted the effort and wanted quick turnover thereafter. That policy changed with Smith.
“I got to be really good friends with Whip,” Smith said. “I think he liked the entrepreneurship that I had. Maybe it’s because this became my mountain at that point and time. I called it that and I think he was good with it.”
WATCHING IT GROW
Starting with Steeplechase and most recently with Highland Bowl, Smith and his team have pursued and accomplished impressive terrain expansions (see sidebar). The ski area was at 380 acres when Smith joined the patrol. It is listed at 1,040 acres now and skis even larger because of all the lines through trees.
But it’s not the terrain expansion that makes Smith most proud. It’s the culture he helped create. He takes pride in the accomplishments of the ski patrol and their close relations with the public.
Ski patrols regularly hold exchanges where a handful of members from one resort will go to a different resort for a few days. Aspen Highlands doesn’t have a lot of turnover with its patrol staff, but when there is an opening, it is typically filled quickly by a patroller from another ski area who liked what they saw at Highlands and wants to join.
“I’ll probably sound a little braggadocious,” Smith said. “I think we’re the most celebrated ski patrol among our communities. Even the Jackson Hole boys who were here for five days (earlier this month), they couldn’t believe all the thank-you’s we were getting from our guests. It’s so typical of every patrol that comes here because they get to see how tight we are with our community.”
Smith said he doesn’t have to be an overbearing manager, which is good because it’s not in his nature.
“I’m really under the philosophy that I hire the best people I can,” Smith said. “Give them the tools, time and training and stay the hell out of their way.”
Peer pressure within the patrol and the appreciation from the public usually provides the ski patrollers with all the motivation they need to perform well. The ski patrol has 40 members, with 26 working any given day. There are five snowcat drivers.
When the new patrol hut was built in the early 2000s, the initial plan was for it to be in a rather inaccessible perch that wouldn’t have been nearly as inviting for the public. Smith intervened and persuaded Skico brass to locate it at its current site just off skier’s right of the Loge lift’s upper terminal. It’s got a stunning view of Maroon Valley and the surrounding mountains that invite the public to soak it in. They are also welcome to venture inside where they are offered “guide-quality information” on what terrain is skiing best.
“I really felt like I built this building and this relationship with the community because it’s very easy for a ski patrol to slip into that stereotypical hardcore, don’t-penetrate-my-bubble (organization),” Smith said. “I’m very fearful it could morph back into that if I wasn’t there.”
STAYING AHEAD OF THE HORSE
At 66 years of age, he knows that retirement is in the not-too-distant future. He addresses it with one of the “cowboy-isms” that regularly emerges from his thinking.
“Somewhere down the line, the horse is going to be faster than you,” he said.
He swears retirement won’t be a problem. He has plenty of fences to mend and other tasks to tackle on his midvalley spread, where he lives off the grid with his wife.
On the other hand, he’s not looking to hightail it out of Aspen Highlands even after 47 total years at the ski area.
“I’d sure love to be at 50 (years of service),” he said. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be as patrol director, he volunteered.
Whenever the time comes, he hopes he is able to achieve one final goal. He wants to see Loge Bowl on the upper west side of the mountain opened and added to the expert skiing experience. A side benefit is the Loge terrain possesses a series of progressively higher cliffs that skiers can huck off. The patrol refers to them as Mac’s Air.
“I don’t have anything named after me after all these years,” Smith said with another laugh. “I’d like to get there.”
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