Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Bowl

As far as my skiing life goes, the Aspen Highlands Bowl in Colorado is as intense as it comes. Following a couple of chairlift rides to the top of the mountain, I hiked for almost an hour with my skis on my shoulder to the top of the Bowl. It was fun and tiring, just for one run.

As it turned out, skiing was the easy part. And that’s saying a lot considering it was the toughest terrain in the area, and Colorado for that matter.

The Bowl. That’s what everyone calls it. Located at the top of Aspen Highlands Mountain, The Bowl faces Aspen Mountain. It’s steep enough to attract Warren Miller. Skiers have been making the trek up The Bowl since it opened to the public in 1997. On an Aspen Highlands extreme skiing guide, it says, “The Bowl is truly for experts only who desire an ‘in-bounds’ backcountry experience. PLEASE give this area the respect it deserves and ski and snowboard with caution at all times.” With all that said, and being an intermediate skier, I naturally had to do The Bowl at least once this season. And what better day than in late March after a good snowfall the night before?

Get plenty of sleep. Besides being in good shape or an expert skier, sleep is the only other component for success on The Bowl. Or so I found out a few hours after I woke up at eight. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been skiing much or exercising. March Madness was consuming my time and thoughts when I wasn’t working at the Hotel Jerome. So I was not in good shape, but I figured youth and athleticism would compensate for lack of preparation. But it’s even harder to compensate for a good night’s rest. I worked until a quarter after midnight and didn’t go to sleep until a quarter after one. When I woke up the next day, I felt good for some reason. Maybe it was adrenaline and the thought of finally facing The Bowl. I knew there weren’t too many more powder days left. So I ate a ham sandwich, it was all I had in my fridge, and I walked to RubymPark, the bus station in Aspen. Above, the sun peaked in between a cloudy sky.

As the bus drove down Maroon Creek Road, anxiety spread throughout my body. At the same time I was excited, too. I rode two chairlifts up to the top of the mountain. I saw a wooden sign, which read, “THE BOWL, CLOSED.” I expected that due to a fresh layer of powder, it wouldn’t be open early in the morning. As I looked into the distance at The Bowl I saw snow eject in two spots near the top of The Bowl. A second later I heard a pair of “booms.” The ski patrol was setting dynamite in certain areas of The Bowl to prevent an avalanche.

I decided to take a few runs. The powder was great and so was the weather, partly cloudy and sunny at times. After taking three runs I waited in a short line at the Lodge chairlift. There were more people now in line. That was a good sign, I thought. Sure enough, I looked at a bulletin board next to the lift attendants, which read, “The bowl is open.” I felt relieved, but I was still a bit apprehensive. I sat on the right side of the chair. Next to me, a man asked the two women sitting next to him if they were going to ski The Bowl. They said no. He said they should because of the good conditions. I noticed the man had a Camel Pak filled with water and he sipped it as we rode higher. His skis were much wider than mine and I knew I’d be one of the least prepared people to do The Bowl. But there was no turning back.

I got off the chairlift and skied down a little way to the Ski Patrol office building. I walked up the medal stairs and onto the patio. I looked out and saw people walking up The Bowl’s crest. It looked like something you would see in a magazine. Grayish clouds surrounded The Bowl. I peed in the restroom and then walked down, put on my skis and skied down a short slope. To my left there was a large group of people. They looked like sightseers, staring at the steep white slopes and jagged peaks. They were waiting for the snowcat, which drives skiers about a fifth of the way up. The line was too long so I walked.

No more than five minutes of walking and I already started feeling tired and a bit winded. The adrenaline was fading and lack of sleep kicking in. With my red Rosssignal Rebels over my right shoulder and my black poles in my left hand I hiked up to the point where the snowcat drops people off. By then I was tired, but the scenery – deep valleys and snow-covered pine trees – gave me the excitement I needed to keep going. A man next to me said to his friend, “Let’s get going before the snowcat arrives with a big crowd.”

“I need to rest for a little while,” said the other man.

“We really need to get going.”

“I understand, but I need to rest.”

I decided that the first man had a point and started up the narrow and crest. I followed another skier and walked in the only set of footprints I saw. To my left and right were steep slopes of untouched powder. It was hard to look up and enjoy the scenery because the footing was in a very narrow path. I felt the altitude, taking in deep breaths and concentrating on each step. I took a short rest and the people from the snowcat caught up to me. I continued hiking up with a large group of hikers behind. At one point, because of tough footing and exhaustion, I fell to my right and clung to the area of the footprints. Instead of helping me, a few hikers pushed ahead without even a nod or any acknowledgment of my predicament. A man in his twenties or early thirties saw me struggling and waited for me to climb back up and regain a spot in the single-file line. During the entire time hiking, I never heard anyone say a word. It was too difficult a hike to talk.

The wind blew at times, but it felt good because I was perspiring even though I only wore a T-shirt under my ski jacket and ski pants. I continued the ascent and fell in an area where it became less narrow. After resting a minute or so, I saw a girl, about my age, hiking past me with a look of anguish on her face. It was the steepest part of the climb, the final ridge before hikers headed left to the top of The Bowl. Seeing the girl force her way up in obvious pain, I decided I had to do the same. Each step felt like it might be my last. After a while, I was almost numb, almost indifferent to the struggle.

As the top of the crest approached, the pain came back. I felt delirious. I stumbled several steps on a much flatter surface and collapsed onto my left side in the snow. My right arm covered my face. I felt my lungs expanding and deflating as I sucked in oxygen. I had used up so much energy that I whimpered to myself. I felt beat. Destroyed. Annihilated. At that point, the mountain had won. A couple minutes later a man walked by and asked me something, but I couldn’t make out his words. I told him I was fine and leaned up. I sat there for a while. I stood up and took some photos and continued on.

It turned out to be a great day. It was cold enough for good powder, but not too cold. Behind the large clouds were spots of blue sky. And the sun had poked its head out, beaming rays down on the bright white snow.

I walked a few steps and saw a buddy of mine that I played basketball with last summer. He said, “So that was you laying in the snow.”

I told him it was me, but in justifying the situation, I told him I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. He said he never does The Bowl without a good night’s rest. I understood that by then. But it was too late. I was too close to the top.

I trudged up the last part, which was wide and not too steep. At the top everyone seemed to be sitting or standing and enjoying the view. As I arrived, I heard a woman ask her friend, “W hat is the elevation here anyway?”

If the woman had turned around, she would have noticed the wooden sign that read, “OZONE, ELEV. 12302 FT” People were sitting or standing around a tall medal tower, which had lines with colored flags attached, blowing in the wind. In the opposite direction of The Bowl’s face was a yellow sign, which read:



It had two arrows pointing in different directions with “BOYS” and “GIRLS” under the respective arrow. One man took the advice of the sign while I took photos of the snowy valleys and peaks in all directions. I had a man take two photos of me, too.

By then, I didn’t seem too worried. Maybe it was because everyone around me seemed in such a good and relaxed mood. Maybe it was because I saw women skiing down The Bowl. Maybe the beautiful scenery put my mind at ease. Maybe I used up all my energy on the ascent and had no more energy to waste on worrying. It probably was a bit of each.

I sat down for a while and then put on my skis. I skied to the edge and asked another guy where the best part was to ski down. He said it was his first time down The Bowl. I told him it was my first time as well. I waited for about half a minute and then decided just to live by Matt Foley’s (Chris Farley in Saturday Night Live) motivational speech titled, “Go For It.” So I slid over the middle crest and away I went. My skis sunk into the deep powder and after a turn or two, every bit of negative or anxious thought disappeared. I was free. I was doing The Bowl. It felt like a longer version of the Head Wall at Snowmass Mountain. Each turn was easy to make because of the foot-deep powder. However, I had to ski more sideways than usual. Otherwise, I’d be flying down the slope and a wipeout would be imminent.

I stopped about three-quarters of the way down and looked up. I unzipped my camera case and took a video of the face. As I shot the video, a snowboarder flew down, spraying me and my camera with snow. He stopped a just past me and asked if I was shooting a video. I told him I was. He said, “Can you e-mail that to me?”

“Yeah, if you have an e- mail address.”

“Yeah, that would be awesome.”

“Hold on, let me get to the bottom of the mountain.”

I skied to the bottom without a fall, but not skiing it as aggressively as some other people. I met the snowboarder who had nailed me with snow. He told me he works at The Little Nell and I told him I’d burn a CD and give it to him since we both work in town.

I looked at The Bowl, still amazed at what I had just done but too tired to dwell on it. I continued skiing along the catwalk. I took one last stop and looked up at The Bowl. The fear, the anxiety and other thoughts that had gone through my head just an hour and a half ago were gone. I had done it. Now all I needed was some sleep.

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