It’s not even noon yet and my chest is already caked with glitter. At least I didn’t get it as bad as Mike. The lifties at the bottom of Aspen Highland’s Cloud 9 chairlift blew glinting sparkly silver-purple-pink-neon stardust right into his face. His beard looks like it just got back from a Vegas bachelor party and, with every blink, his shimmering eyelids make him look like an extra from Xanadu.
Mike laughed it off though and high-fived the lift op. This is his fifteenth year ski patrolling, and therefore, his fifteenth time working this party. It’s closing day at Aspen Highlands, the greatest show on snow. This is the day when public nudity and general debauchery on skis is not only passable, it’s expected. And patrol is tasked with keeping the goofy from getting too out of hand. The glitter is merely a garnish.
In my former life as a real deal ski bum, I patrolled at Telluride. I’ve worked closing day before myself. It’s fun, in a voyeuristic way. You watch from the safety of the deck of your duty station as skin tight hyper colored oneseis zoom by, leotards on snow blades, face paint and feathers, and any other costume that makes its wearer scantily clad or ridiculous looking. The hope is both.
The hard part of working closing day as a ski patroller is corralling over-served adults flopping around in ski boots. Remember that time in college when your best friend was ten drinks past the point of no return and you were in charge of getting them home safely? It’s just like that but on a mountain, with skis, and you’re accountable for few thousand “best friends”… and there’s probably more nudity involved, too.
“We just want to make sure everyone is safe and has a good time,” Mac Smith tells me. “We’re not cops, ya know. We’re not here to bust anybody. People just want to say goodbye to winter and party. We get it.” Mac knows what he’s talking about. He’s patrolled at Highlands for 45 years, forty of which have been as ski patrol director. Suffice to say, he’s seen and done it all. Over the span of his career, Mac has helped put in new lifts, cleared trees for new terrain (he used those logs to build his house just outside of Aspen), hand irrigated the mountain countless times, and been the best part of an incalculable amount of skiers’ worst days. The end of the season party is merely another day for Mac Smith, it’s just a little weirder.
After the morning meeting at the base of the resort, Mac and I load the Exhibition Lift and then Loge on our way to patrol head quarters. It’s windy, overcast, and cold. He sends me out with a group of ten to hike up the Highlands Bowl, check trails, and open ‘er up for the public. The other ten or so patrollers on duty will cover the rest of the mountain. The wind rips across my face as we put skins on our skis, my nose begins to run, and a few minutes after we start uphill I unzip vents in my pants and jacket to dump heat. My body is hot, my face is wind chapped, and my mustache is a frozen push broom. It’s still early. I’ve been up since 6 a.m. and have only a cup and a half of coffee in me. A storm came in last night but it barely deposited an inch of fresh snow on top of frozen death bumps from hell. It’s going to be horrendous skiing in the bowl, but I can’t help but think the entire time Man, I miss this shit.
However, I am a bit happy I’m not wearing a white cross on my sleeve when we return to the top of a sunny Highlands Bowl at the end of the day. We have to sweep every wig wearing, onesie-clad partier downhill and a struggling New Yorker wrapped in golden spandex can’t quite figure out how a boot pack works because she thought tequila paired well with 12,000-feet. It’s a shoulder-to-shoulder party at the top of the bowl but the revelry’s been amped since midday at the Schneetag pond skim, right after the glitter came out.
A hefty crowd forms around the 50-foot pond and watches as locals don costumes and courage while attempting a high-speed water crossing on skis. It’s hard to say which garners a louder cheer, a successful glide, which a few participants accomplish including two patrollers, or a mousetrap face slam into the drink. Perhaps the noisiest applause though is for the young man who completes the watery skid bear assed. Let’s be honest, full frontal man nudity will always get a big laugh. I just feel sorry for the people behind him as he leans over to buckle his boots. From there, the crowd splits. Some head for the top of the bowl, some head for picnic point, and some goofballs head for the techno insanity of the Cloud 9 Bistro. I head for PHQ, lunch, and a little bit of quiet.
At the end of the day, after all the smiling looney tunes have been cleared off the resort, and no one is on the hill except for the 22 ski patrollers, Aspen Highlands feels like a private ski hill, a frozen calm sanctuary. The group gathers at Jerome Bowl, the last pitch before the base of the resort, to hug and high-five a job well done. The season has been long and filled with early mornings, late nights, and enough hard work to curl the shoulders of the most grizzled silver back. Bodies are sore and achy, and feet are ready for flip-flops. A palpable sense of accomplishment permeates the weary patrollers of Aspen Highlands. But there is one last piece of business to take care of before the season is officially over.
From where we stand, only the slight whoomp of dance music beats can be heard from the party at the base. We all have our fingers in our ears. Bow, powpow, bow, powpow! Four two-pound avalanche mitigation charges explode, signaling the DJs to cut the music below as ski patrol turns tips downhill for their final descent. As we arc through sun-cooked slush, weaving in and out of one another’s rhythm, I hear the speakers blast, “Ladies and gentleman, give it up for your Aspen Highlands ski patrol!”
The volume of clapping and whoops-n-hollers hits me in the chest like a ten-pound sledge. The crowd parts to let the group walk to their locker room after they skid to a stop, unclick, and shoulder their skis. The goof troop merrymakers cheer, high-five, shake hands, and stop patrollers in their boot waddle to say thank you. It is one of the greatest acts of community gratitude I have ever witnessed.
Ski patrolling is typically a thankless job. But not at Highlands. Yeah, days are long, starting pay is 12 bucks an hour, and the work is both highly dangerous and highly taxing. But the locals get it. And the patrollers here are a tight unit. There’s something about this job that gets into you, that takes a hold of you, and, even though rationality, bank account, and girl/boyfriend/spouse may suggest otherwise, you just can’t let it go. The classic rock is on and the boots are off in the locker room. It’s time for the patrol to let loose themselves. As I scan the room of sunburnt, goggle tanned smiling faces I can’t help but feel some outsiders envy. It not the cool guy feeling of wearing the cross that I miss, it not the work or the frozen digits or the type 2 fun or throwing bombs or even the skiing. It’s that something about patrol that clings to your heart.
“It’s a damn good group we got here,” Mac says to me. I nod and smile in agreement.
Well, damn. I miss this family. Closing day, when you’re with the right group it’s kind of the best.
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