Aspen's Crown Jewel - The Highland Bowl

Highland Bowl

Aztech Mountain chats with Assistant Snow Safety Director Mike Spayd to discuss what makes Aspen Highlands “the local’s favorite.”

Aspen Highlands’ steep and varied terrain that cascades down either side of a long ridgeline dividing the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleysoffers enough skiing for a lifetime, but it’s Highland Bowl’s 1,500 vertical feet of steep, hike-to skiingthat makes it the favorite hill of many Aspen locals.

There is perhaps no hour-long workout in the world as effective and rewarding as hiking and skiing Highland Bowl. The bootpack above treeline to 12,392-foot Highland Peak delivers as much cardio as you can take, and the longest sustained steep skiing in Colorado offers variable conditions that strengthen the legs like no other. While multiple bowl laps in a day are commonplace - local John Gaston holds the record for most bowl laps in a day (11) - one or two bowl laps satisfy most Aspen skiers, especially mid-week. Those lucky enough to work at the base of Highlands can (if fitness allows) hike, ski and return to their desks within an hour. From Aspen, many can pull off a bowl lap within a 90-minute lunch break.

Highland Bowl offers an experience rivaling backcountry skiing within an environment controlled by ski patrol and local bootpackers. Highlands’ famous bootpacking program, born to keep the bowl stable, allows locals to earn a season pass by hiking up and down the bowl for 15 days at the beginning of the season. Though it seems a defining part of its character, Highland Bowl wasn’t completely opened until 2002. The bowl was off limits in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and patrol was told to pull passes and arrest bowl poachers. In 1984, while testing for stability, three patrollers were killed in a 1,000-foot-wide avalanche. Following the tragedy, Highland Bowl closed to the public. In 1993, in light of new ownership, Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol (AHSP) presented a proposal to study the bowl and install computerized weather stations. In the season of 1995, once patrol convinced Aspen Skiing Company that Highland Bowl could be safety controlled, it opened to the public. For the next decade, more and more terrain opened. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Highland Bowl opened all the way to its 12,302-foot summit. On December 14, 2002, the entire bowl, from the south to the north face, was game-on, doubling its available terrain. The next milestone was set in 2005, when the Deep Temerity lift opened. It eliminated the long traverse out of Highland Bowl, allowed for fall-line laps and added 180 acres of fall-line steeps.

Mike Spayd in Aztech's Hayden 3 Layer Shell System

In 2006, following four seasons of patrolling at Snowmass, Mike Spayd joined Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol to work on its snow safety team. The 41-year-old father of two also owns and operates a ranch and farm in Missouri Heights that raises cattle and poultry for many local restaurants and farmer’s markets. Come winter, he spends five to seven days a week in Highland Bowl. Aside from a life-long fascination with snow science, Spayd loves the high level of uncertainty his job offers every day.

“There’s something about coming to work each day and not knowingwhat hand you’re going to be dealt,” says Spayd. “Some people like structure—I deal a lot better with uncertainty. I enjoy being in situations that require decision making. There’s no algorithm; you have to figure it out on your own.”

On a typical day during ski season, Spayd leaves his house at 6:15 a.m. On a storm day, or a “high-hazard day”, it’s an hour earlier, and that’s after a night of checking the remote weather stations. “I can hit a button on my phone and look atwhat’s happening in real time, at Highland Peak, the North Woods and Cloud 9,” says Spayd. The wind speeds at the peak and the snow amounts from the North Woods give Spayd an idea of how the wind has affected snow conditions and where deposited snow might cause hazards. At patrol headquarters, the four-member snow safety team begins to formulate a plan. They meet with the rest of AHSP at the base by 8 a.m. to group up according to route assignments before loading an 8:15 lift (or earlier on storm days). The team works from the bottom up on a high-hazard day, opening all the ungated terrain first. Then it’s onto Steeplechase, Deep Temerity and, finally, Highland Bowl. Within the bowl, Spayd usually runs the centrally located Ozone/B1 route so he can have a visual on most of the routes and communicate with teams on either side. “What’s going on in G3 is totally different than what’s happening in B3, which might have a cornice and some wind loading,” says Spayd. Some days, ski patrol only needs to ski cut, other days, explosives come first. The teams work their way down the bowl, traveling to and from various safe zones. Communicating over radio, teams open terrain they’ve been working or meet in the run-out to discuss their findings.

“Some of us have titles as a management formality, and just like any expedition, it helps to have a leader to help facilitate the decision-making process, but when we’re up there, it’s really a huge team effort,” says Spayd. “Everyone contributes to the decision making.”

This season, while Aspen Snowmass is tracking average with snowfall, Spayd says the cold temperatures and relatively calm winds have helped Highland Bowl hang on to everything it has received. His favorite shots—Ozone and the left side of B3—have been skiing excellent. After last season’s low-tide, Aspen is certainly hoping for many more of those high-hazard days. When they come, AHSP will be ready.

“Skiing powder on sunny days is great, but from but an operational point of view, the challenging days are the most appealing,” says Spayd. “Nobody up there is seeking out danger, but the days when there’s a lot going on and everything has to be thought out—those are the days we do our best work.”