December 12, 2017 4 min read

By: Ted Mahon

Every November, after early season snow starts to accumulate up in the Highland Bowl, an army of volunteer bootpackers get to work. Under the supervision of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol, this group “packs” all of the steep terrain of the Bowl, Steeplechase and Oly Bowl. They meticulously bootpack by walking up and down each run, breaking up the base layers of snow; which, if left untouched, could pose avalanche concerns later in the season. The tireless efforts of this anonymous army of aerobic mutants, fitness junkies, masochists, and ski bums are motivated by the simple desire to get in shape and earn some credit towards a ski pass for the upcoming season.

I recently caught up with Sean Shean, a 15-year veteran backpacker who shed some light on some of the details of what being a bootpacker is all about.

Skier in highlands bowl powder
What’s the history of bootpacking at Highlands? How does it work?

The first year it started was right around 2000, when they opened the Bowl. Back then there weren’t as many people doing it, maybe 25-30. Now I’d say there are probably 100 people who sign up. Most people make it a day or two and then forget it. You have to do five days to get any kind of pass credit. Eight days of bootpacking gets you a one-day a week pass, 12 days gets a flex pass, and 15 days for a full.

Early bootpackers looking down Highlands Bowl
What’s a typical day? Is it as hard as it sounds?

Show up at 8:00 AM, and you’re usually back down at the bottom 4-4:30 PM. Bring your lunch. You’ll usually have it in the field, but every once in a while you might get to eat inside Patrol Head Quarters.

It’s winter up there even if it doesn’t feel like it in town. The early packing is always in the shade of the G Zones so the sun is almost never out.

Even if you dog it and just take it easy I’d say it’s equivalent to around three Bowl laps a day. You know… depending on how hard, how fast you want to go, how many uptracks you want to make, that kind of thing. A big day is probably an equivalent effort of hiking the Bowl 5-6 times.

Bootpacker going up Aspen Highlands Bowl
Is it a teamwork environment? Or competitive? Maybe both?

We’re always trying to look out for everyone else, showing the new people better ways to do things. You see people you think totally think aren’t going to make it through the first day, and then you see them a week later and they’re showing some other new person what to do.

Everyone has their own pace though, no one really wants to be lapped. The fact is there are really fit people doing this. They’re sort of in their own little world of fitness, no one could keep up with them. I like to mess with some of them, they never want to be outdone and they want to prove it to you every single time.

Rocks in the pack? Yeah, I’ve had that done to me, load it up with rocks, not a lot of them, but one or two so you might not know, only to discover it at lunch.

Line of bootpackers going up Highlands Bowl
Advice for those newbies?

Don’t go out too hard the first day. You won’t want to not come back on the second.

Don’t waste your money on anything new, spend $50 on old AT boots, no more than $100, ever. Lots of duct tape on your pants and boots to keep the snow out. If you’re a snowboarder, it can be hard. You’ll waste a lot of your energy with those boots on your footing.

New packers go too light, they don’t bring enough stuff to keep warm, and then at lunch, they get cold. Instead of sitting down and relaxing, and using up our entire half hour lunch, they’re standing after ten minutes ready to work again. It gets everyone uneasy and then we end up having a short lunch.

Early season bootpackers
In the pack?

Three pairs of gloves every day— two gloves, one mitten. I always bring as much as I can, because s#*t hits the fan and you end up freezing. It’s really hard not to sweat. A down jacket is a must, the last few years I’ve actually been bringing down pants for lunch, you can open them up and use them like a blanket.

I usually bring three bottles to drink, usually something warm like soup for lunch. I always have coffee, some bring tea, usually a few bars, and a few gels, in case I lose the will to be there altogether and I need some help.

What’s a bad day?

The worst days… probably when it’s just cold. Super-cold and windy, that’s sort of the worst. We’ve had days where you’re packing in a balaclava and a down jacket, which when you kind of think about how cold that is and how much heat you’re generating, marching uphill, that’s Alaska cold. You don’t want to have lunch, because as soon as you stop you’re frozen and you just want to keep going and be done. That weeds out a lot of people.

You and many others keep coming back, so it’s all worthwhile?

My reasons for doing it are definitely different than others. Some are just in it for the pass, others just can’t get enough exercise.

I do it to get more fit, like boot camp. There’s a point every day where I’ll just go and hammer and try to make myself hurt. But I enjoy the conversation out there too. It’s a cool group, new people to town, old friends, badasses. You always have two patrollers per crew, that’s sort of the standard team. It’s great to get to hang with them as well.

The reward is that you are in peak fitness at opening day. You’re able to ski 5-6 laps where most of the public can only pull of one, maybe two and they’re smoked. You’re ready for the season, you’re in shape to ski.

Bootpacking in the snow