Bootpacking Highland Bowl: Hard work but rewarding
The Aspen Times
Here’s a job description for you: Eight hours at high altitude in freezing temperatures roped to the side of a nasty-steep slope. Lunch not included.
Sound good? Then the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol has a deal for you: Spend 15 days bootpacking Highland Bowl — making it safe for your fellow skiers and riders — and you’ll receive a full, unlimited season ski pass to all four area mountains.
“We’re really lucky to have this program,” said Brad Unglert, a Roaring Fork Valley native and two-time bootpacker. “For Skico to offer a free pass — it’s pretty unique I think.”
In fact, skiing or riding the vaunted Highland Bowl — which requires a hike from the top of the Loge Peak lift at 11,675 feet to Highland Peak at 12,392 feet — wouldn’t even be possible without the efforts of the community volunteers who bootpack it at the beginning of every ski season.
“Ski patrol always says the Bowl wouldn’t be able to be opened without us,” Unglert said. “It’s rewarding to give back to the ski community and make it skiable.”
Bootpacking is necessary in the steep bowl because it compacts the layers of snow and creates a solid base that is less likely to slide in an avalanche. As proof, look no further than the current conditions in the gut of the bowl, said Jeff Hanle, Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman.
Bootpacking started later than usual this year because of late snow, so bootpackers had yet to get to that central area near Ozone and it slid on Sunday, he said. That area of the bowl remains bare of snow, though Skico officials are hoping the forecast for snow this weekend changes that and bootpackers can get to work next week stabilizing that section, Hanle said.
Those who want to bootpack sign up at highlandspatrol.com in the fall, then show up at the Aspen Highlands base in response to an email after the snow begins to fall, Unglert said. Ski patrollers can take a group of up to 50 people, who hike up to the bowl from the top of the Loge Peak Lift, he said.
The bootpackers then break into smaller groups of between 10 to 15 people who are each led by a ski patroller and work in a grid in a particular area of the bowl, Unglert said. They walk from the top down and are often wearing harnesses and are roped up because of the steep grade and avalanche danger, he said.
For example, Unglert, who worked seven days bootpacking this year, helped stabilize part of the G-zone areas, he said.
“I really enjoy it,” Unglert said. “It’s hard work but really rewarding. I look at it as a workout.”
Blake Gordon, a local photographer who’d spent four days so far bootpacking this year when he spoke to The Aspen Times earlier this week, said he likes the fitness aspect of it. But he also said he appreciates the snow and avalanche knowledge he receives as part of the bootpacking program because he does a lot of backcountry skiing.
“Knowing about base layers is very helpful for me,” Gordon said.
Bootpackers are responsible not only for bringing their own gear, they must also bring their own lunch. And therein lies the key to remaining comfortable, Unglert said.
“The hardest part of all bootpacking is figuring out your system,” he said. “You have to make sure you keep yourself comfortable.”
That includes wearing the right number of layers, bringing the right food and drinks, and knowing when and how often to drink water, he said.
“The hardest part of the day is getting going after lunch,” Unglert said. “It’s cold.”
This year, Skico plans to use bootpackers seven days a week through Dec. 23 provided there’s enough snow, said Mac Smith, ski patrol director at Aspen Highlands. Because the snow fell late and people have had to report to seasonal jobs, the patrol is only getting about 20 people per day, he said.
“We’d put on 50 if they showed up,” Smith said. “We have good snow, just not a lot of it.”
Bootpackers must volunteer a minimum of five days to receive a discounted ski pass, according to the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol website. Those who volunteer eight days receive a Flex Pass, while those who serve 12 days get a Double Flex Pass. Those who volunteer 15 days receive a full Premier Pass, according to the website.