By Michael Conniff.
ASPEN HIGHLANDS–Around here–and throughout the skiing world–it is known as “The Bowl.”
Highland Bowl hangs there above you wherever you are in Aspen, and if you’re a skier the shadow is longer still. The purity of it here at the peak of Aspen Highlands is all but beyond description, and even if you don’t dare hike it and then ski it, you can see the human ants bent over by their tools of ignorance, crawling to their destiny at the top.
As I’ve improved as a skier during seven winters in Aspen, I have looked upon The Bowl as something that I would put in my pocket whenever I was ready. I was (and remain) a fool, completely underestimating what was to come when my name was called. That day came Saturday in celebration of my friend Matt’s birthday. He was 37 and I’m not but neither of us had tried the inevitable. We had never hiked The Bowl.
Not only was there no way out for me, but I looked upon The Bowl as no big deal. I could have gone up last year or the year before–whenever I felt like it. I knew it was steep, but steep was no big deal (right?) because you can always just traverse your way down, back and forth. And I knew I could survive the hike. Right?
The hike was murder but misery had plenty of company. We took the cat crammed with adrenalized skiers and snowboarders and a few kids about a third of the way up, and then we trudged with our skis slung in a rig we bought for a few bucks at the ski patrol shack. Three times I had to stop just so I could stop sucking wind, but I made it, just as I thought I would. We chose a spot in the middle of The Bowl, took a couple pictures, and off we went with Matt following his friend Voss, and me following Matt.
Not even looking up at The Bowl ten thousand times prepared me for what came next. From our starting point I could not see how steep it really was but it took my breath away and I was unable to control my speed on the traverse. After a few times across I looked down and saw Matt and then Voss in the distance, waiting to see if I was okay.
I was not okay.
I was not even close to being okay. I was not only scared but shocked that I was so unready for this challenge after all these years. The best I could do was take it one traverse at a time, slip-sliding down to improve the odds. I finally fell near the bottom in lieu of running into one of the few trees–but it wasn’t fear of falling that I was feeling, but fear of everything that is bigger and more awesome than you are, which is of course most things.
I finally made it to the bottom thinking I had skied The Bowl but there were myriad bumps to come, grumpy and gnarly, and by this time–after the hike and then the descent–I was sopping wet and all but defeated spiritually. Still, slip-sliding away, I got down the bumps and onto the catwalk without incident, and followed Matt to find Voss waiting for me at the Deep Temerity lift. Matt, great friend that he is, would never leave me behind.
For me, The Bowl was a place to experience life and death all at the same time, without really feeling up to the challenge of either one. Even so, I hiked the bowl, I skied down to Deep Temerity, and I lived to tell the tale.