Breaking the Mold at Aspen Highlands

The irony of the ski race is that kids don’t ski. Much. But at Aspen Highlands, the terrain demands a new plan of action for race day.


Highland Bowl is a long soul cleansing hike.

Highland Bowl is a long soul cleansing hike. Photo: Helen Olsson


The last time I boot-packed up Aspen’s Highland Bowl, I was pregnant.  I was skiing with my then boss, who insisted we had plenty of time to hike the bowl before we had to be back in Aspen to meet the rest of the staff. It was a quasi work weekend. Given my delicate condition, I questioned whether we really had time. He said no problem, then proceeded to race to the top of the bowl and ski down without me. I wore a heart rate monitor and trudged along at a pace approved by my obstetrician. The boss sat fuming at the base, waiting on me.

The lesson: Never listen to your boss. He’s a nincompoop.

Ski racers after their 44 seconds of skiing.

Ski racers after their 44 seconds of skiing.

I made the Highland’s Bowl hike again last weekend—ten years later—while my two boys competed in a slalom race down low on the mountain. The whole family had made the trip to Aspen (epic slog over a stormy Vail pass) for the ski race, including our daughter, who tagged along to ski and spectate.

The Irony of Ski Racing

The trouble with ski racing is that you don’t ski. Well, not much anyway. You get to the mountain early, get bibs and tickets, meet the coaches, head for the racecourse for inspection.  Maybe take a free run, but more likely a pit stop then head for start. Wait. Ski out the starting gate and through the finish in 44 seconds.  Wait at the finish for your coat. Eat lunch.

Inspect the afternoon course. Spend more time wriggling out of a speed suit to go to the bathroom than you did in the gates. Head to the start and wait some more. Race for 43 seconds. Wait at the finish. Head for the awards ceremony, which usually includes waiting around for scores to be tabulated.

Now for this particular race, we were at Aspen Highlands, one of the best steep mountains in North America, so we decided it was time to break that race day mold. After the second run on Saturday, my husband, Jeff, took our youngest, who was tuckered out, to the awards ceremony on Saturday, while I took the boys to the top of Highlands’ Loge chairlift.

The hike-to Bowl was closed already (plus, I told Aidan, my 10 year old, that he’d already been to the top a decade ago in the comfort of my womb). Instead, we headed down the steeps under the Temerity Lift.

Happy Mommy in Highlands Bowl at Aspen Highlands.

Happy Mommy in Highlands Bowl at Aspen Highlands.


It had dumped three feet in Colorado in the last week and snow draped the hillsides like piles of loose velvet. The incline: heart-in-your throat steep. The boys ripped it.  In the middle of the run, I pocket-called Jeff, who said all he could hear was, “I could do this all day.” I really don’t care if my kids come in first place or 71st in the races—and they’ve done both—as long as they can rip steep lines like the ones at Highlands with me. Likewise, I don’t think they’ll remember what place they came last weekend, but I’m convinced they’ll remember skiing this run.

Freeskiing Protocol, Part II

On Sunday, Jeff and I split the day. He marched up through the fog in Highlands Bowl with a group of ski-racing parents. They skied powder that billowed up around their belly buttons. Down below, I arced hero-turns on soft groomers with Anya before carrying coats down the side of the course and cheering on the boys.

Happy Daddy. Shown here at the side of the racecourse, but shortly after hiking Highlands Bowl.

Happy Daddy. Shown here at the side of the racecourse, but shortly after hiking Highlands Bowl.

After lunch, it was my turn to lap the Bowl. Maybe it’s because I’m a decade older or because I just finished a stressful, four-month, locked-to-the-computer-keyboard project, but that hike is a long way. It took me about 50 minutes (I skipped the snowcat that takes you part way), as locals with big lungs and meaty quads were passing me by.

With the wind howling at the top, I had one of those “Man, it’s good to be alive” moments. One of those clear-the-cobwebs, forget-all-the-kids’-belly-aching moments.  I didn’t get the blower a.m. powder Jeff was frothing about—the line I picked was mostly set-up bomb debris–but it was still a long steep powder-filled descent that rebooted my inner soul.

When I got back to the base, Jeff took the boys out for more freeskiing. It was storming again and we decided to stay at the mountain while the rest of the ski-racing families hightailed it to I-70. We figured either way, Vail Pass would be a cluster. They took another few grin-inducing runs on the vertiginous pitches under Temerity.

The plan turned out well, as the high-tailers ended up stuck on Vail Pass, which closed just as we left Aspen. We took the long-cut through Minturn and Leadville, and beat them all back to Frisco.

And the kids actually skied at a ski race.


Aspen Highlands is a quirky place with cool mailboxes.

Aspen Highlands is a quirky place with cool mailboxes. Photo: Helen Olsson

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  1. LOVE this description of your ski time in my ‘hood!

  2. Love!!! Your kids are so lucky to have you and jeff. And you can tell them I said so.

  3. Ha! I can relate to two things: that boss was a nincompoop! And a trip up Highland Bowl 10 years later is extremely long — but so worth it! I think the last time I’d hiked it (prior to last winter) I was pregnant, too (although I didn’t know it at the time)>

    • Helen Olsson says:

      What is with the hiking pregnant! It reminds me of the time I did a story on Lake Placid and went bobsledding while pregnant. Afterwards, I remarked to the fella running the bobsled that I was surprised that they let pregnant women do it. He totally freaked out and said they didn’t and then he showed me the giant sign I had walked past “No Pregnant Women” (or something….) oops.

  4. Helen Olsson says:

    Notice how we are not talking about the heinous drive back! Selective memory. Side effect of all that snow is the I70 cluster. It was worth it, though.

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