When Aspen Highlands opens Saturday, skiers and riders will have access to the most challenging in-bounds terrain in Aspen, thanks to the work of hard-core volunteers. These are the boot packers who help prepare the iconic Highland Bowl.
Before Highlands opens to the public, about 50 boot packers gather early in the morning at the base of the mountain and prepare for the day ahead.
One packer explains a critical component: “Duct taping the bottom of my pants to my boots.”
That’s to keep snow from piling into your boots. Any opening means a long day of soggy feet. Makeshift gators intact, the packers jumped on the chair lift, and then hiked up to the top of Highland Bowl.
And that’s when the work begins. The volunteers line up shoulder to shoulder in the woods below Highland Peak. Their skis and snowboards are piled in a clearing slightly uphill, and their boots sink into the powder.
A ski patrol calls up the hill for everyone to begin, and the line moves downhill, one trudging step at a time. With each step, you sink to your hip in the powder, hurl your weight to one leg so you can dig out the other, and swing that one around only to sink to your hip again, until the sun sets.
This is boot-packing.
“You’re just walking up and down all day. It’s kinda like a boot camp,” explained Sean Shean, who has been doing this for about 15 years.
The slow downhill clomping is a little like a zombie invasion, only they’re after powder instead of brains. It’s is a sort of do-it-yourself avalanche mitigation technique, because there are real snow safety challenges in the Bowl.
“It’s a big piece of consequential terrain,” explained Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “All of the terrain in the bowl is steep enough to produce avalanches.”
Avalanche danger starts when early-season snow forms a weak layer close to the ground. When future storms drop snow on top of that, it can create another layer — a slab — that can slide.
“Boot-packing breaks up both the weak layer and the slab on top of it,” Lazar explained. “That’s the whole idea.”
Mike Spayd is one of about a dozen ski patrollers who oversee bootpacking and make snow safety calls all year.
"We need to see the snow from the dirt up to make decisions throughout the whole year from a snow safety point of view," Spayd explained.
This kind of manual labor has been effective in preventing dangerous avalanches, and it offers a chance for volunteers to earn a ski pass. Essentially, 15 days of stomping through the snow equals a full season pass, and volunteers can get discounts after five days. Andrew Chapman is getting ready for his first day of bootpacking this season. He said he’s doing this to earn a ski pass.
“I mean it’d be cheaper for me to just go out and buy it and, you know, work more,” he said.
If you put in the 15 days for a full season pass, it’s equivalent to about $15 an hour for the labor. It’s not exactly a windfall, but bootpacking at Highlands is something of a tradition — or an initiation — for a certain type of skier. It’s a terrific workout.
Madeline Dunn moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in June. She heard through the grapevine that there was a way to earn a free pass and was hooked.
She said long days bootpacking have been a good introduction to her new home mountain.
"I like that you get to see the snowpack build from the ground up,” Dunn said. “Getting to know the community has been a really nice benefit to this since I’m new.”
Long-time boot packers agree that the culture of the pre-season work keeps them coming back year after year. Walking up and downhill all day makes for some quality time to catch up with friends.
"You meet some great people out here that do some amazing things. You got some of the best kayakers up here, people who've climbed Everest,” Shean said. “The stories you hear up here are pretty inspiring. I think that's why I keep coming back to hear the stories of what people are doing when they're not up here."
And with a little help from Mother Nature, soon, some those stories will include the latest powder days.