The fall line
Staring over the cornice serving as sentinel to the rocky, 50-degree hourglass chute known as Gowdie’s, Jason’s sage wisdom echoed once more in the ringing space between my ears: Nothing good ever came from opening a bottle of wine after 2 a.m.But for the indisputable throb extending from my brain stem to my Achilles, the moment felt like a dream. A seeming eternity had passed since my old pal Monaco Bob had invited us back to his uncle’s Villa to sample from the wine cellar the night before.After way too many vinos and a way too early wake-up, Jason and I stumbled out to the roadside near Buttermilk Mountain in hopes of catching a ride back to our ski gear in Aspen. Several buses and a swarm of assorted Land Rovers, Mercedes and Hum-Vs passed us by before a kindly local newspaper reporter in a Subaru wagon took pity enough to carry us back to town.From there it was simply a matter of driving the 10 miles to Snowmass, catching a shuttle from the base and riding three chairlifts to reach the traverse to Gowdie’s atop the Snowmass Cirque. Now I looked over the edge and wondered exactly how to convince my incompliant knees to drop into a telemark turn on the steepest slope they had faced in a year. This was going to hurt.I tried not to act surprised when my edges actually dug into the chalky, north-facing snow, and attempted to muster an air of confidence when I purposefully paused at the narrowest point in the chute to yell back to the last of our clan still gripped at the summit.”It’s not so bad once you get past the first turn,” I hollered. “And you can side-slip your way around the rocks down here until it opens up.”As I turned back to the slope, the dream me found itself taking my own advice and nailed an ethereal line of gravity-fed tele turns to the base of the bowl. With some more snow, this wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend eternity at all. Beats Purgatory anyway.Truth be told, I’ve always loved skiing in Aspen. Near Aspen, I should say, specifically at Snowmass and Aspen Highlands. I don’t have the time, money and rock skis to be bothered with Ajax, and Buttermilk always seemed like a good place to play golf. But those other two areas, they’ve got that little extra somethin-somethin’ that genuinely gets my stoke on. Call it what you will declivity, pitch, steeps, gnar.Snowmass has basically brought East Vail in-bounds at the Cirque and equally intense Hanging Valley Wall, and now that it is 100 percent open, Highland Bowl is perhaps the premier line in all of Colorado for folks who want to up their pucker factor with a big mountain experience.But be prepared to work for it. We spent the remainder of our day hiking laps to the goods on the Wall, and an hour the next morning hoofing to the 12,400-foot summit of Highland Bowl. Between hikes, we saw some sick terrain, amazing vistas, and even managed to ski off four bottles of wine. But it was skiing of the earn your turns variety, and given the return on the effort, it should have been better.The reality is, it takes four Aspen ski mountains to accomplish what two do at Vail and Beaver Creek. No, Vail will never have a Highland Bowl (notice the lack of plural), but there are dozens of shorter hikes that offer kind turns for days after a storm. And if you walk uphill for an hour anywhere around here you will reap the reward of deep, untracked powder for your efforts. Of course, you’ll need a beacon, shovel and educated partner to ski it.But there is something to be said for keeping places like the East Vail Chutes out of bounds, that being that only those who put in the time not only to hike, but to prepare themselves for the potential problems that may ensue, are the ones who are rewarded. Not some hack on fat skis scraping snow between lift terminals.If it is in-bounds skiing you seek, all the more reason to stay right here. With 33 lifts, 14 high-speed quads and a gondola serving 5,500 skiable acres at Vail alone, you can cover more ground in the time it takes to get from your buddy’s Villa to the Snowmass summit than in an entire day skiing Pitkin County. Factor in Beaver Creek’s 14 chairs and soon-to-be seven high-speeds, and most skiers are begging for a new pair of legs before they finish the Birds of Prey. Never mind hiking the Bald Spot.The secret to Vail’s success is variety, with seven Back Bowls, Blue Sky Basin and World Cup-worthy front-side groomers able to accommodate every ability level (Prima Cornice anyone?). With ribbons of corduroy occupying the attention of most every tourist at Beaver Creek, the rest of us are stuck skiing the steep and deep on Grouse Mountain, Rose Bowl and Permagrin, er, Peregrine.But the one element most important to the sport of skiing is snow. And the bottom line is Vail has it, Aspen doesn’t. Maybe it’s because we’re farther north, or because we seed the clouds (something Aspen officials say they are unable to do because of the way their storms track). Maybe it’s because Vail is flatter and grassier. Maybe it doesn’t matter.What does matter is that we’ve got consistently better coverage on this side of Glenwood Canyon and we don’t have to walk anywhere to get some. We could if we wanted, though. Just be sure not to make any rash decisions after 2 a.m.Scott Willoughby thought he was an Aspen guy before he moved to Colorado 10 years ago. Turns out he’s a Minturn guy who can be reached at Scott_Willoughby@hotmail.com.