To figure out where to go on a powder day at Aspen Highlands, it helps to think about weather and aspect (meaning the features of the mountain and landscape). With so many of the runs facing east or west, a lot of variables are at play: From which direction did the storm blow in? (Most come in from the west, which often means windloading on easterly aspects.) Was or is there a lot of wind? (If so, seek shelter and powder in the trees.) Was it sunny and warm the previous day? (This question is especially relevant for spring skiing.)
Here are some powder day tips from Jeff Nagel, a longtime Pro based at Highlands and avid Highlands skier.
On big powder days when it can get busy, most locals will go straight up to Steeplechase or Highland Bowl, leaving the rest of the mountain available for more leisurely exploration. The lower half of the mountain, accessible from the Thunderbowl chair, contains some great steeps and phenomenal terrain, such as the P-Chutes, Epicure, and Upper and Lower Stein.
The Deep Temerity area warrants exploration off the beaten track on a powder day. Highlands Patrol has done some selective glading over the last few years, creating areas where the trees are spaced just perfectly or where you just might stumble upon an open meadow in which you can link half a dozen fresh blissful turns. Look for some of the newer gladed areas at the top of Canopy Cruiser and looker’s left from the bottom of the Deep Temerity chairlift. Or just follow a cat track and see where it takes you — but do not pass any ropes or boundary signs.
Most people won’t even touch the Olympic Bowl area until the afternoon, as its westerly aspect makes it prone to windscouring and sunbaking. But a lot of the gullies have small, north-facing aspects that hold good, deep winter snow, and there are plenty of pockets not affected by the wind. In the lower Oly Bowl area, Jug’s Hill is often overlooked — here the terrain is mellower than up above, but still has a few steep pitches and great tree skiing.
In Steeplechase, there are lots of little secrets and shots to be found, especially on the lower portion. Don’t be afraid to get into the woods and poke around — but stay away from the gullies, which tend to get quite bumped up.
Of course we can’t talk about powder without talking about Highland Bowl. This legendary, hike-to terrain encompasses 250 acres and entails walking or skinning about 800 vertical feet to reach the 12,392-foot summit. A short snowcat ride can cut off about one-third of that, but the fact that the Bowl isn’t lift-served limits the number of skiers and riders who venture there. The north-facing G Zones, which range from wide-open G8 to the tree-covered North Woods, are known to hold the deepest and most wintry snow. But most people have “peak fever” and walk by a lot of less traveled terrain along the ridge on the way to the peak. The east-facing B Zones actually get some of the best-deposited snow, and the west-facing Y Zones — which entail the least hiking — have some of the most interesting and adventurous terrain features, with some of the least tracks. Just don’t drop in first thing in the morning after a sunny day, as it can be like frozen coral reef.
If all of the above sounds like challenging stuff, that’s because most of it is. Powder days can even out the bumps and take the chatter out of the snow, and while the double blacks can get chewed up pretty quick by local powder hounds, intermediate skiers have their pick of Highlands’ many groomers, where the sides of the runs can hold powder for hours. There’s also nothing quite like skiing the intermediate runs under the Cloud Nine chair with new snow, Gunbarrel and Dean’s. Even the lower-mountain green runs, like Apple Strudel and Red Onion, have been known to give up some face shots.