January 30th 2016
After a chat with Aspen Highlands ski patrol and his assurance that the Highland Bowl was in great shape despite the pre-storm warm temperatures that had plagued the Roaring Fork Valley for the previous few days, my good friend Ryan and I decided to make the hike. As we waited by the snow cat pick up, the wind began to howl, driving tiny chunks of ice into the exposed no-man's land of face between where our goggles ended and our beards began. We exchanged uneasy glances largely obscured by the tint of our goggles and stepped aboard the cat along with the rest of the throng who had gathered in the insatiable pursuit of fresh lines.
The hike went well. In fact, this particular hike stood out to me more than the previous times we had hiked the bowl, for no other reason than the expediancy of our ascent. The wind blew, but only mildly and without the gusto or violence which it had seemed so intent on delivering at the cat dock. We made steady progress and passed the rock gate without incident. Ryan began to lag slightly behind, but not unexpectedly as I am 10 years his younger and pride myself on my cardiovascular endurance. I was lost in my own thoughts, mostly consisting of deciding my line down the bowl, when the wind arrived. The first we heard of it was like a hurricane coming over the ridge, bringing with it the fury of the storm God himself, and demanding recompense for our blasphemous trespass upon his holy mountain.
For as long as I could stand, I trekked. One boot after another, digging my poles in with all my strength and praying silently to any God who would hear my pathetic pleas, that the wind would abate, and that I would not be cast headlong as an icy sacrifice into the depths of the frozen abyss. My prayers went unanswered and the ferocity of the wind would not be culled. By my best estimate the top was some 300 yds further up when my desire to fight the wind utterly ceased to exist, I had just finished summitting one of the final uplifts, and having been utterly battered by the storm, I threw myself down in a crumpled heap in front of a 4x4 ski patrol post, upon which hung a rope store. The path along the ridge had long since ceased to be anything but an icy slick; unfit and indeed unsafe to even be upright upon in such a tempest.
Within a few moments, Ryan appeared and narrowly escaping being blown off the false summit's crest, he struggled across the trail and collapsed beside me. "We've got to drop in!" I brayed over the roar of the wind. "Let's wait it out!" came the strained reply. We sat with our thoughts for what seemed like hours, desperately waiting for a break in the wind. Below us on a lower section of the trail some 500 yds back, a large group of skiers, seemingly a group lesson, sat huddled in a dense mass also waiting for the furious wind to subside.
The wind didn't break. On the contrary. Where once there were only small balls of ice no bigger than a dozen grains of sand being driven across the ridge, intermittently there began to appear larger chunks of frozen snow. We were at an impasse. As a coffee cup sized ball of snow smashed into the pole behind us, I made a choice. If I could inch my way across the icy trail and into the bowl a few yards, it might be possible that being off the ridge would offer enough reprieve from the squall to clip in and drop into the steep, but relatively sheltered safety of the bowl. "I'm going for it."I screamed above the gale. "What if we get cliffed out?" Ryan yelled back. "We'll fuckin' deal with it! We can't stay up here." Ryan nodded, and I gave him a thumbs-up.
I left our huddle and crawled, prone before the glory of the storm, into the Highland Bowl. The few yards of shelter that climbing down provided me was enough to get my skis off my back and onto my boots. A hundred yards later found me in knee deep powder making turn after glorious turn. When I reached the bottom there was no wind, but there was also no Ryan. I stood staring up into Ullr's holy temple and waited on my friend. Within a few minutes the tiny form of a snowboarder could be seen traversing across the bowl toward the trees across from where I made my descent. It was Ryan. A few minutes later my friend carved to a stop above me. His beard was more iceberg than hair and I imagined I fared no better. We hugged. "Holy fucking shit, dude." He said, happy to have survived. I looked up at him: "That was foolish. We can't tell our wives."