Aspen Highlands: Rage against the machine

by Lorenzo Semple, Aspen Daily News Columnist
At the beginning of the ski season I was convinced it wasn’t going to snow. Now I’m starting to think it may never stop. I enjoy the snow and the mountain lifestyle that’s often whined and opined about, but I’ve come to the sad conclusion that powder makes me a bad person. It turns me into a complete A-hole. This week has pushed me almost over the edge. What’s so great about powder?

Every time it snows it becomes a race to ski it first. I call it the “powder panic.” It starts before you even get out the door of your own house. Get your gear together, slam a cup of coffee, race to the mountain through traffic, parking, waiting in line to get on the lift, and then deciding where it’s going to be best. Am I in the right place? Is it better over there? Should I be up higher or down lower, and where did all these people come from? Oh, that’s right, they’re here for the same exact reason I am — to ski powder. At that point all you can do is get ahead, and stay ahead.

Powder has become a valuable commodity in this day and age — and it’s only going to get worse. It’s like highly addictive crack cocaine and people will go to all kinds of lengths to score, isolate and get off on it, hence the telling saying “No friends on a powder day!” The skiing at Highlands was OK this week — if you’re into that kind of thing — large swaths of untracked powder.

Highlands is a unique mountain. It draws a little bit different skier — a bearded renegade, a dirty rogue, a lone wolf, a duct-taped maverick, a free-spirited rebel. Let’s get something straight — there are distinct traits that differentiate the true Aspen Highlands skier from the rest of the pack.

There are three cardinal rules that the archetypal Highlands skier doesn’t break. The true “Highlander” never pays to park, they don’t take the escalator and they never, ever, under any circumstances, even if it’s empty, sitting right there and the driver is the nicest guy in the world — ride the bowl cat. The other day I saw the cat take off up the ridge with one person on it — impressive!

Paying to park for skiing is an ethical thing for me — I don’t care if it’s only a dollar. I won’t do it. I buy a pass, all the gear and occasionally a meal on the mountain, but that’s where I draw the line. It’s out of principle that I don’t pay to park at the base of a ski area where I have a pass. There are way too many free options that just require a bit of foresight.

The escalators are proof that the people who designed the base village at Highlands have never skied before, and likely never seen snow. If I was in charge of redesigning the entry portal, I’d tear out the escalators and sell them to an airport, where they belong. Then I’d resurface the fake cultured-stone steps with that safe comfortable non-slip rubber flooring and put in a handrail — what a concept!

The bowl cat, though, is the thing that really gets my goat. I’ll admit, I used to (gulp) take it. The first time I did I burned my parka on the exhaust pipe. The fumes and dragging motion made me ill. It was an omen. The cat operator used to give a sobering speech about how dangerous the Highlands Bowl was, and then they stopped that because it was scaring valuable intermediate skiers away.

I saw people that I knew and respected, even burly tourists walking in lieu of taking the bowl cat. I looked at everyone riding the cat with me and realized that those people are not my people. I stopped taking the cat. One day it got stuck and I laughed, out loud, hard.

You’re a mountaineer. You’ve climbed some of the world’s biggest peaks. You behave stoically. You have all the expensive lightweight gear. You’re wearing a state-of-the-art backcountry pack. You’re in peak shape, one of the best hikers in town. You have a robust Coppertone goggle tan and chiseled jawline to complete the look. Admit it, you’re a badass. So, now do you mind telling me what exactly you’re doing riding the bowl cat? If you’re going to “hike the bowl” then for Pete’s sake, hike the freaking bowl.

How much diesel does that thing burn? If you take a conservative estimate of 30 gallons of diesel a day and multiply that by the number of days it runs — approximately 100 — you’re looking at an ecological party foul. What part of that meshes in any way, shape or form with the Aspen Skiing Co.’s environmental policy and mission statement? That’s right, none! Aspen Highlands can do much better.

What about compaction? It’s an argument I hear all the time about the necessity of the bowl cat. The jig is up on that — the bowl is packed and has been for some time now. Face it, the smell of diesel and beeping sound of a reverse beacon at over 11,000 feet is whipped.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to grapple and live with what I like to refer to as the Aspen Mountain-ization of the Highlands Bowl. What’s next, a diaper-changing table at the peak and a sign that says “Easiest way down?” Us locals can only imagine. I blame it all on the powder. It makes people crazy.

To reach Lorenzo, email him at