While the story may be about the ride, in this case, it is the destination that counts.
The terrain has been there for thousands of years and, when people moved from two boards to one, it was waiting.
A pow-pow powwow, skiers regroup to discuss their ingress and egress to a Snowmass super-stash.
The chairs sit silently in the cold, waiting on their cargo, as another perfect morning dawns on High Alpine.
We look at one of the few remaining double chairs and make a toast to slow skiing.
The lift that introduced black diamond terrain to Snowmass is today’s perfect antidote for our addiction to distraction. Kelly Hayes meditates upon 1,388 feet of steel cable and lift towers that could be just the cure you need this winter.
We live on cellphones and tablets, tethered to social media that gives us instantaneous communication and data at the speed of sound. Even our recreational activities are timed. On a hike up the Ute Trail, we calculate not only time on the trail, but also heart rate and calories burned, checking texts on our iPhones before racing off to a yoga class.
But when I turn to face the center pole of the old fixed-grip double chair at High Alpine, I know that I will have a 10-minute ride to paradise at a slower, more leisurely pace—a pace that contrasts to just about everything else I do in my life. In an era when faster is better, there are certain things that should remain slow. Just as the Slow Food movement tells us to take our time and take pleasure from our meals at an unhurried pace, so, too, can a “slow lift” movement encourage us to relax and enjoy an unhurried ride up the hill. High Alpine is analog in a digital world.
While it may feel like it’s from the 1950s, the High Alpine lift is a comparatively recent addition to the face of Snowmass ski area. Made by the now-defunct Riblet Tramway Company out of Spokane, Wash., and added for the 1978 season, High Alpine climbs just 1,388 feet up the center of a trident of black diamond bump runs and provides access to the wondrous terrain of the Hanging Valley Headwall and beyond. When first installed, it was revolutionary, opening a whole new world of backcountry, in-bounds skiing at what had always been considered a family mountain. At the top, the High Alpine lift offers up choices broader and deeper than any lift in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Take a short walk to the right, and you’ll find yourself at the entrance to local-favorite Green Cabin. “When I first skied [Green Cabin] 25 years ago, it talked to me,” says Victor Gerdin, Aspen Skiing Company’s current director of mountain planning. “It is the most aesthetically perfect alpine ski run in the country. At the top, you have a high-alpine environment above tree line; rocky outcroppings and cliffs surround you. Then you drop into the run lined by towering pines, before it opens up into a wide first-class groomer. And it goes on forever.” There are people who make a point of skiing Green Cabin slowly, just to make it last. It is the perfect extension to the High Alpine lift experience.
But that is just one leg of the three-pronged stool that is the High Alpine lift. Directly down the lift line, and to either side, are three of the best black diamond bump runs on the mountain. Showcase follows a fall line right, and I mean right, under the footrests of the chairs. For skiers who like to parade their bump-busting skills, the name says it all. Spectators on the chair get to enjoy all the visual adrenaline of a short ski film.
Then, of course, there is the feature film—the main event. For High Alpine is the gateway to the spectacular Hanging Valley Headwall. Steps away, perhaps a quarter-mile hike uphill, is the entrance to a magical kingdom of backcountry skiing. Pausing at the top of Roberto’s to put on your skis for the ride into the powder-filled trees and faces of the valley is a heart-pumping experience, and the beat quickens when you remember this run is named for Italian skier and Snowmass ski patroller Roberto Gasperi, who lost his life in an avalanche while blasting near this very chute.
My affection for High Alpine stems not just from the runs it allows me to reach easily. More importantly, it is the lazy pace of the lift that keeps me coming back. The rhythm of the ride provides a sharp, stark contrast to the rhythm of our daily lives. It’s like taking a New Orleans streetcar in a Japanese jet-train world. Old and slow, some may say, but, for me, Snowmass’s High Alpine lift travels to the top of the world at just the right speed.
Make no mistake, the center pole of the High Alpine chair has busted more than a few noggins of those reacting too slowly as they got on the lift, an anomaly in our litigious society. The chairs may be the coldest and most uncomfortable on the mountain. The wind can howl and make you duck your head into the top of your jacket to keep warm. And once on top, you may have to hike for your turns. But that’s all part of the charm.