“Okay, let’s go,” Smith said, and within a minute the room was empty.
I rode up the lift with Smith, a native of Basalt, who was monitoring the radio strapped around his chest the whole way. When I asked him about the history of the Highland Bowl, he surprised me by getting emotional. He tried to open it first in 1984, but three of his patrolmen were killed while purposely triggering an avalanche. It took him four years to get back the strength to attempt the challenge again. On the day the Bowl opened, he laid three wreaths for his friends. “It’s kind of like a dream you don’t know will ever come true,” he said. There have been no deaths since.
When we got to the top, we skate-skied over to the patrol station, a solar-powered cabin hovering on wood stilts. Soon a drill was being organized to train two black Labrador “dog techs” to rescue avalanche victims. With a devious smile, Smith suggested I volunteer to get in “the hole,” to which I first agreed, then changed my mind after seeing the tiny chamber six feet under I was going to be buried in. While Smith laughed, I took up a shovel and helped bury two rookie patrolmen. The dogs had never been tested before on the mountain but within a minute of being set loose, they had located by scent both sites, and stood barking above them.
Finally, it was time to do the Bowl. I put on my helmet and goggles, and strapped my skis onto my back. “Good luck,” Smith said, as I headed to the Sno-Cat that would take me up the first third of a mile of the two-mile hike.
The sky was just beginning to cloud over as I got off the cat and began my ascent. Within 20 minutes, there was no trace of life around me. My world had been reduced to wind. I remembered how Smith had told me he’d used more than 10 times the amount of dynamite to control the snow this year than he ever had. I’d also been told how Aspen resident Neal Biedelman, a world-renowned mountaineer who survived Everest with Jon Krakauer, had nearly been buried alive earlier in the season while skiing out of bounds. (For the record, Aspen would finish the season with 510 inches of snow; the average per year is 300. For the first time in history, it opened for an encore day of skiing in June.) That’s it, I thought as I stepped blindly into thin air, this is my Everest.
Then I heard a noise. Someone was coming up behind me. I looked over my shoulder to see Semple. “Right on,” he said, giving me a thumbs-up and hoofing by. Even as he disappeared into the cloud ahead, I knew then that I’d be okay. When I reached the summit, the sky began to clear and I stood gasping at the 360-degree view. At last one thing was wonderfully clear: as disparate as the interests and impressions that define Aspen are, the staggering physical beauty of the place was the reason they existed at all. Minutes later, I was knee-deep in champagne powder and falling once again for the town I knew and loved.