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A Tale of Two Highlands – A Family Enjoys Both Groomers and Steeps

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My ski tips hung over the pitch of Steeplechase at Aspen Highlands. One little push, and I’d be ripping turns and playing with gravity on the elevator-shaft pitch. That’s my favorite thing to do on skis. (Well, aside from powder). I love me some steeps.

“I am not skiing that,” my daughter announced. “No way.”

My husband, Jeff, and my 18-year-old son, Quinn, inched closer to the edge—the snow below looked enticingly creamy. They exchanged a look, salivating ever so slightly.

“Okay, fine,” I said, martyred. “I’ll take Arya on the groomers, we’ll meet you later.”

As they skied down the double-black-diamond slopes, Anya and I skied the blues, jumping in and out of the bumps, but mostly scribing arcs in soft corduroy on trails like Broadway and Meadows. We took turns leading and following. I took lots of pictures that she refused to smile for. (“Enough, Mom. Let’s go!”) On the chair, we chatted and took selfies. From the top of Cloud Nine, we made lazy turns down Grand Prix and Red Onion. I never knew how many blue groomers there are at Highlands. Every time I’ve skied at the mountain, it’s always been about hiking and skiing Highland Bowl and the steeps off the Deep Temerity and Loge Peak lifts.

After a few runs, though, I settled into the realization that sometimes skiing isn’t all about the terrain. It’s about the company. My little chickens will be flying the coop before I know it. My son is heading off to college next year, and his younger brother just started high school (he was at Highlands for a Super G race, which we had come to watch). In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, he’ll be a high school senior too.

Time flies, as everyone tells you but you don’t believe until the college acceptance letters start filling up the mailbox. I know I need to celebrate these precious moments on skis with my kids. My daughter, even though she has entered the ranks of sassy middle-school teenagers, still loves to wear furry ears on her helmet and snuggle on the chair. Thankfully, she’s still a kid.

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A kid who sometimes gets pooped. The next day, Anya said she was too tired to ski. Despite my cajoling, she wanted to take the day off, do some homework (read: watch YouTube crafting videos) and eat cheeseballs in the lodge next to the stone fireplace. That meant Jeff, Quinn, and I were free to hoof it up the Bowl. We made a beeline for the Loge Peak chair, but when we got to the top, it was cold, the wind was howling, and it was snowing sideways. Highland Peak was barely discernable through the fog.

“I don’t know if today is the best day to hike the Bowl,” I said, feeling a little bit wimpy.

“We are not not hiking the Bowl,” said Quinn (with the same emphasis my daughter had used the day prior about not skiing Steeplechase).

So, that was that. We caught a ride on the open-air snowcat, which probably shaved 15 minutes off the hiking time. Then we marched up. We all had ski- and snowboard-carrying packs filled with snacks, water, and handwarmers. (The last time I’d hiked the Bowl with Quinn, we had gone unprepared. Read that story here and an accompanying story on gear for hiking Highland Bowl here.) Quinn had on my old TNF pack, which in another lifetime, I’d used for ski-touring in Val d’Isere and heli-skiing in Valdez. The pack is literally older than he is. This time, I had a brand-new Sweet Protection Switcher helmet with 22 adjustable vents, which proved to be key for hiking. I opened the vents so my head didn’t get too hot on the way up, and then for the descent, I closed them up again.

At the top, the mountain was seriously socked in. The first dozen turns gave me vertigo.

Jeff called back to me, “Watch out for the….,”

But his warning was lost in the wind. I tripped right over a wind lip and face planted. Not the best start. But once we got down to the trees, it was pure Highland magic. We leapfrogged past one another on the fluffy snow-covered steeps. When we stopped in the woods, the snow was coming down so hard it felt as if we were inside a snow-globe and someone had just given it a good shake.

Just like the day before, when I embraced the moments spent skiing the groomers with my daughter, I relished the quality time with Quinn. It brought me supreme joy to be plunging down vertiginous slopes with my teenaged son. There in the woods, as we caught our breath, I turned to him and told him that I loved him.

“I love you too, Mom,” he said breezily. Then he skied off, dropping off a small boulder and hooting, the straps of my old pack fluttering behind him like ribbons. 

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Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. She blogs about outdoor adventures with kids at Read more of Helen’s stories here