Posse’ing Up At Highlands

It is always wise to answer when Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol puts out the call for the Powder Posse. This morning, Nov. 29, say; 12 days before opening day. Photo: T. Mutrie

It used to be that the fabled Powder Posse—a pre-season phenomenon at Aspen Highlands that combines volunteerism with powder skiing in the name of public safety—was summoned with an actual telephone call. Mac Smith, Aspen Highlands’ longtime ski patrol director, had this list and he would call up everybody on it. “Powder Posse tomorrow. Bring your beacon…” Mac would say.

It was damned hard to get on that old list, so it was a damned treat to get that call. It was easy, though, to get crossed off the list. Mac always liked to say, in closing, “You know, you’re welcome to bring a friend along. But of course you know the rule: If you bring a friend who can’t keep up, well, then you’re off the list.”

The list is long gone. So nowadays when the AHSP wants to rally the Posse it does so through public channels: Facebook, Twitter and the patrol’s quasi-blog, Bootpacker.com.

Highlands has always had a free and easy vibe (once known for its dirt parking lot and Star Wars bar), and the move to open up the Posse privilege to more people is right in step. But, like everything at Highlands, there’s a greater utilitarian function: They need the tracks.

It’s all part of the patrol’s ongoing, somewhat legendary and definitely rigorous “bootpacking” program, wherein patrollers and civilians march up and down the mountain’s considerable and many avalanche-prone slopes in order to churn up the snow and, if history serves as a guide, mitigate slide hazard into the season. Bootpacking starts pretty much as soon as the snow falls and continues right up to, and often through, opening day. And that’s the hitch.

See, there are four mountains in the Aspen Skiing Co.’s quiver. Aspen Mountain and Snowmass traditionally open Thanksgiving Day (as they did this year, with excellent conditions), but the lesser trafficked resorts, Highlands and Buttermilk, usually don’t open til mid-December (Dec. 11 this year). This is where the Powder Posse comes in: All those already bootpacked areas need to keep getting beat up (ie., “vertical ski cuts”) to deter the formation of possible sheer surfaces.

And that’s why this morning some 160 or so folks showed up at the base of Highlands—12 days in advance of opening. Ski passes are meaningless as all these good volunteers needed was a functional avalanche beacon (and signed waiver) to board the lifts. Then, it’s a sort of have-at it fest, with certain restrictions. As in, “Fellas, over there in Highland Bowl, we need some tracks. Thanks in advance for your help.”

Conditions today were pretty stellar, particularly if maybe you’ve suffered through some boney-lean starts in the past in these parts (perish the thought of certain unmentionable seasons that went by without a single Powder Posse). So while things look, and ski, mid-wintery, one’s smile is likely to deepen when considering the fact that we all just finished Thanksgiving dinner. I could go on… but hey, I suppose I’ve spent enough time and space burying the lede: The third Powder Posse of the 2010/11 campaign is tomorrow morning; that’s Tuesday, Nov. 30, 9:30 a.m. Bring your beacon (and lunch if you care to spend the whole day), sign the waiver and lend your energies to a genuine public good. But remember this too: You’re welcome to bring a friend, of course, but if your friend can’t keep up, you’re off the list. (Actually, that last part is patently untrue, but it’s still fun saying it.) —Tim Mutrie