Four colorful days at Snowmass
“Why don’t you ever go to Snowmass?” my son asks. “It’s a great mountain.”
Because my favorite mountain is Aspen Highlands. Because I love hiking Highlands Bowl up to those long, steep shots down from the far ridge. Because I don’t know Snowmass, and it’s huge, with lifts everywhere, and if you don’t know where you’re going — the nooks and folds and backcountry-like steeps — you can traverse all over and go nowhere.
What he didn’t know is that I do have experience there. Not much; mainly, four colorful days.
The first was in 1989, when I had just moved to Colorado, and my new friend Brian, who lived at the base of Snowmass, took four of us on a tour. It was my first time on the mountain, first run of the day. I was a little confused when Brian took off his snowboard, the other three doffed their skis, and we started hiking. I’d mostly skied in Vermont; had probably never hiked to ski.
In thick fog we traversed off the Cirque to Gowdy’s, a 48-degree chute on top of which a cornice had built up. I looked over it into an abyss. The headwall dropped immediately into miasmic cloud. What was below? Were there rocks? Did that angle maintain for 40 feet or 400?
Brian, Michael and Mike dropped in and vanished. I froze.
“Julie, I don’t know if I can do this.”
I have never before or since felt such fear on skis.
“You can, Alison,” she said. “Look. One turn at a time.”
Sidestep, knees shaking. Pole, turn, stop. Pole, turn, stop. I joined the others not ebullient but mute … possibly for days.
My next encounter with Gowdy’s was secondhand, but touched lore. My younger sister had moved to Aspen, and our mother came out to visit. Lucy selected the restaurant, the Parlor Car in Aspen, where Mom was to take us and our dates to dinner.
Lucy’s then boyfriend, Jason, still tells the story: “Hello, Mrs. Osius, nice to meet you. Sorry I’m a little late, just got out of the police station, [cough] got arrested today.” Jason had snowboarded down Gowdy’s in an era when ski areas were struggling over what to do about snowboarders, and the mountain in a curious compromise allowed them on some runs but not others. And not Gowdy’s.
At its bottom was the ski patroller who had just opened the run.
Apprehended, Jason at first refused to give his name, then said, “Fred Schmid” — a noisy car dealer of the time.
Taken to the police for breaking the Skier Safety Act, he was found to have on his person a plant form that would be legal today. He was busted for snowboarding and possession. The next day, his story was on the front page of the newspaper. Jason became a cause célèbre: “Free the Beav!” (His last name is Beavers.)
Jason had to hire a lawyer and go to court, faced a “big” fine but ultimately went free.
My third Snowmass event began one snowy day when a crew of us set out to ski, and one guy’s housemate, a woman friend who had just moved to the area, joined in but had to rent gear. Did her housemate or her own brother take responsibility? No, her sister-in-law, a visiting woman and I accompanied her and waited. Meanwhile, the four guys outside looked at each other in the falling snow, amended the old saw “No friends on a powder day” to “no girlfriends on a powder day,” and ditched. No trace. We later found them, and somehow events segued into the best powder day in the creamiest snow I had ever experienced, but I’m still surprised I married one of those guys.
Just lately I skied Snowmass with a friend who used to work there. We got the joy of jumping into the 40-degree AMF Gully (“Adios, MFer,” though the polite explanation is “Adios, My Friend”) and skied it among showering, lit-up snow cookies. Gowdy’s, at long last, followed. My heart was still pounding. The snow was hard and thin, and it’s obviously a no-fall zone. But I was careful, and thrilled, and could even see. After that we took the funky poma lift again up the mountain’s bald dome, way above treeline, to the wide-open Cirque, with its rock bands and headwalls.
“Snowmass is sick,” my son says (that’s a compliment). “It has so much terrain and so many options.” It just took me a while to find them.
“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at email@example.com.
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