“You don’t make plans, you just show up. I know I will run into someone I know by lap 2. It’s a ski area filled with friends, but without lifts.” - Pete Gaston
Aspen Highlands officially opens for operations on Saturday, but the area has seen a steady stream of ski traffic since the first week of November. Hard-working patrollers, dedicated boot packers, World Cup ski racers, eager Aspen Valley Ski Club freestylers and motivated members of Aspen’s uphill community have all racked up early-season ski days on Aspen’s favorite mountain.
Strafe Outerwear founders John and Pete Gaston trained more than ever on what has become Aspen’s community ski touring hill in November and early December. They’ve each skied 21 days on the closed ski area since the first major snow in early November. Pete has racked up close to 80,000 vertical feet, while John accumulated half that just last week.
It helps that their office is a stone’s throw from the skin track. Strafe’s headquarters and retail shop sit at the base Aspen Highlands, the resort that bred Pete and John into the skiers they are today. Their reverence for the area shows itself in everything from daily office lunch laps to the new technical apparel collection bearing its name. Come opening day, it’s 12,392-foot Highland Bowl that satisfies most of the Gaston’s ski appetite, but early season, it’s the skin-accessed terrain above Highland’s Merry-go-Round lodge.
“The upper mountain above the mid-station has been skiing good for a month,” says Pete. “Highland’s relatively late openings offer a unique five-week season of good skiing on grassy terrain with perfect skin tracks.”
Pete estimates there have been 20 or more people skinning up Highlands during the week and up to 100 people on the weekends since early November.
“You see everyone from the ski-mo crowd to people skinning for the first time.” - Max Taam
For the past eight winters, Strafe athlete and Aspen Mountain patroller Max Taam has started his ski mountaineering season by skinning Highlands. This fall he accumulated a dozen days at his version of a ski-conditioning gym.
“Every year there are more and more people taking advantage of this unique asset we have,” says Taam. “You see everyone from the ski-mo crowd to people skinning for the first time. There’s room for everyone to spread out across the hill and it offers moderate angled terrain that’s manageable to skin and still fun to ski down.”
Though Highlands isn’t entirely controlled prior to opening day, many beginner ski tourers who lack backcountry and avalanche education feel comfortable skinning at a resort. They also find learning the ropes of their new gear much easier on a groomer than in the backcountry.
It’s not just the uphill crowd who is taking advantage of Aspen Highlands in the fall. Early season race training at Highlands began on November 10th at the Stapleton Training Center, which consists of lanes in Thunderbowl and Goldenhorn that lure racers like Olympic bronze medalist Henrik Kristoffersen from Norway and the U.S. Ski Team’s best female racers. Beyond a steep pitch for training gates, Highlands offers a world-class mogul course and an airbag for aerial practice.
Despite the logistical concern of preparing the hill for operations while dozens of uphill skiers and their dogs weave around snow making machines and winch cats, Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol embraces the passion of the local ski touring community and simply asks uphillers to avoid crossing hoses, cords and snow cats.
“Highlands is my favorite mountain and getting up there pre-season to access the goods before it’s open to the public is such a cool opportunity that’s worth the effort of splitboarding.” - Zach Hayes
About 10-15 percent of the early-season uphill crowd is made of of splitboarders, a growing segment of the backcountry community. Tyler Lindsay, Event Marketing Coordinator for Aspen Skiing Company, split boarded up Highlands once a week throughout the fall. He likes to skin to the top of Cloud 9, eat a snack on the deck of Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro and descend rider’s left of the lift. He links that up with Apple Strudel and takes the old poma line down Memory Lane.
“There’s a nice bank on the left side that feels like an endless surf wave,” says Lindsay. “My goals on the splitboard this time of year revolve around getting some quiet exercise and long conversation with friends. Once things settle out in the spring, I turn my efforts to the backcountry.”
Fellow splitboarder and Strafe Outerwear retail manager Zach Hayes shares a love for Highlands this time of year.
“Highlands is my favorite mountain and getting up there pre-season to access the goods before it’s open to the public is such a cool opportunity that’s worth the effort of splitboarding,” says Hayes.
Beyond the turns, it’s time to reconnect with like minded winter-loving folks.
“You don’t make plans,” says Pete. “You just show up. I know I will run into someone I know by lap 2. It’s a ski area filled with friends, but without lifts.”
Much like the Strafe offices have helped return a vibrancy and culture of fun back to Highlands’ base area, the skinning season at Highlands brings an energy to the area that starts the season off on the right boot.
Thanks to Aspen Snowmass’ progressive uphill policy, people will continue to ski tour on Highlands throughout the season. Though once the mountain opens, uphillers must follow a designated route and pass the Merry-Go-Round by 9 a.m. to continue up the mountain. As for four-legged friends, their Highlands season ends today.