All work and no play…

By Daniel Holz | January 30, 2009 8:35 am

Yesterday, during our meeting‘s afternoon break, I finally hustled up to Aspen Highlands Bowl. This involved taking two lifts, and then a snowcat, and then a 45 minute hike along the ridge, ending at over 12,000 feet elevation. The bowl is steep. Very, very steep. Up to 48 degrees steep (measured down from horizontal). For some perspective, if you were to point your snowboard straight down the mountain for 3 seconds, you’d find yourself going 50 miles per hour [exercise for the reader]. Well, at least that would be true if the mountain was covered in a sheet of (perfectly frictionless) ice. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
dan at aspen highlands bowlWhen you’re at the top, you need to peer over the edge to see the terrain. For the record, I’m afraid of heights. Standing on a ridge in the freezing cold, with a brisk wind blowing, with a thousand foot steep vertical drop on both sides, should not be a pleasant experience. The whole Freudian death wish thing should kick in pretty hard. But something about all that fluffy powder magically transforms imminent death into the perfect playground. Dropping into the bowl was heavenly. The whole place was virtually deserted. Waist-deep powder in places. With a wonderful runout through the trees.

Two hours later I was back in the conference room, learning more about the latest results on dark matter detection. A good day.

NOTE: Aaron Sheldon brings up a good point in the comments. I’m a big fan of helmets on the slopes. For me it’s a no-brainer, as it were. Plus, helmets keep your ears toasty warm. Also, especially if you’re going out-of-bounds, pack appropriate avalanche gear (a beacon, a probe, a shovel, etc.). It’s dangerous out there.

  • Stu Dent

    Throw in a chai latte and it is a perfect day.

  • Metre

    Real physicists use skis, not snow boards! Snow boards are for the liberal arts set.

    Truthfully, when skiing I sometimes find myself thinking about the vector forces at work when I carve my turns. Oh well, as a physics professor of mine once said, physicists are curious people. He meant it literally, of course, but I suppose it’s true figuratively as well.

  • Garrett

    Hey Daniel,
    Good to hear of another physicist getting out to play a bit. I’m missing the powder this winter, even if still psychologically recovering from the last snowboarding trip. But Maui isn’t so bad. Drop me a note next time you’re planning to visit the island — Ho’okipa’s been great.

  • Aaron Sheldon

    Looks like you guys have had some amazing rides, I hope you can keep coming back to the mountains for more. But a serious word of caution about the dangers that Daniel and Garrett are completely unaware of: you guys are both traveling in very serious avalanche terrain.

    Garrett I’m assuming that because you were guided you were fully equipped with transceiver, shovel, and probe, as well as a first aid kit in the back pack. But Daniel the only proper piece of gear you have is a helmet, which is a good start.

    Daniel don’t take to much confidence in the fact that this time you managed to safely hike a slack-country run, the next time you may not be so lucky.

    From you post I can determine a few things, first there was between 20-40cm of fresh snow, and that because you mention an absence of other tracks, had probably not bee fully test for stability. Do you know what type of interface the new snow was sitting on? Do you know the weather conditions it fell in? Did you talk to the patrol staff about recent avalanche observations? Did you even notice any warning signs? Second unless you skied Go-Go Gully off of Highland you were probably on a slope closer to 38 degrees not 48 degrees. The eyes have a remarkable ability to over estimate slope angle.

    Play safe out there.

  • daniel

    Garrett, sounds like you had quite the trip! My brother’s trying to get me to join him on a Wiegele heli trip. But I’m too much of a pauper. If your friend wants two physicists along, let me know. :-) I’ll drop you a line next time I’m on the North Shore. Though I confess the Kanaha vibe is more my speed. Mellow and friendly (both waves and fellow surfers).

  • daniel

    Aaron, thanks for pointing out the dangers of back-country skiing/snowboarding. You’re certainly right that transceivers are a good idea. Especially this season! Note that the bowl is part of Aspen Highlands, so they maintain it quite aggressively. It is not slack-country. It is inbounds. They delayed the opening, and were setting off charges all morning to make sure what remained was stable. It’s not in their interest to have an avalanche take out a bunch of their customers. Not to say that major ski mountains are infallible. They are not. A beacon would be a good idea. But I wasn’t hiking/riding true back-country, so perhaps I’m not quite as crazy as I might appear at first blush?

    Also, you’re right that slopes can be quite deceiving. Which is why being faced with a real 45 degree slope is so terrifying. I took the slope numbers off of the official Aspen Highlands trailmap, so I’m guessing they’re right. I did “Be One”, with a steepest pitch of 45 degrees.

  • Aaron Sheldon

    Thanks Daniel

    When I used to ski patrol at Fernie we had a class four rip through Cedar Bowl half an hour after it was shut to the public because of increasing danger. Spent quite an exhilarating evening working a probe line wondering if another cornice was going to rip out. Fortunately no one was caught or reported missing. All in all it was an eye opening experience, a quick lesson that even extensive control work can either fail to get a result, or be negated by changing weather.

    Sorry about doubting the slope angle. I’ve been been down a few 50 degree back country couloirs in BC and Alberta, as well as taking more than my share of mandatories and pillow lines and the difference between those and a steep glade or open bowl is quite telling.

    Funny how Wiegele’s attracts such a strong American following, when there are other companies which access much more interesting terrain (take for example Bella Coola Heli Skiing), must be good advertising?

    Happy trails and adventures.

  • Fernando Pereira

    Ski patrol tries their best, but avalanche prediction and control are not that accurate. I would not ski such a slope without studying the conditions or carrying safety gear (which I know how to use). There’s been a (marketing induced?) tendency by ski resorts to open risky terrain more aggressively, which is starting to erase the difference between inbounds and backcountry. Sometimes I feel more concerned inbounds, where the snowpack is affected by human activity, than in the backcountry, where I have the means to investigate what I’m going to ski.

    As for heliskiing and its cost, if you replace the heli with your own lungs and legs, you can save a bundle 😉

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    I’d be jealous but we just had 2 feet of freshies in the north east (where one doesn’t need to bring oxyget just to get 2500+ feet of vertical!) Being the day after, I did some bumps today, better to get them when soft. What board were you riding? And I just got some new boots this year.. only 6 days out as I’ve had a bunch of stuff to do Dec and Jan, but they seem good – Ride Jackson BOA’s. Doubt they will hold up like my 250+ day Northwaves did, but the convenience of that little dial to tighten is great, especially when its 10 below.

    And to Metre – skiiers dont carve!

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    @Garret: dude! gnarly cornice in that photo! What would you say your riding level was going into that trip?


  • Ciaobella

    Sweet deal that you can use taxpayer dollars (i.e. NSF support for the Aspen Institute) to support your ski vacation.

  • Ciaobella

    (meant to say Aspen Center for Physics, not Aspen Institute)

  • Julianne

    I loooooove the BOA system. I like a stiff boot, and backing off a bit on the tension on the lifts is a big win.

  • daniel

    My boots are almost a decade old, so no fancy airplane wire for me. The whole BOA thing does look pretty awesome. I don’t know how many first tracks I’ve missed while sitting at the bottom of the lift yanking on my boot laces….

  • Chris

    I used to love skiing. Now cost, distance, and sustainability keep me from the slopes. A two hour drive is a big difference from a 7 minute drive (ah, those were the ski bum days).

    I fill my need for speed with longboarding. I’m still slow, but getting better. Faster than walking, more fun than cycling. Instant access to the slopes.

    On the downside, pavement is harder than snow.

  • John R Ramsden

    “Standing on a ridge in the freezing cold, with a brisk wind blowing, with a thousand foot steep vertical drop on both sides, should not be a pleasant experience.”

    The Peak of Ben Nevis in Scotland is like that apparently. Never been there myself, but there’s a long narrow ridge to the summit, with thousand foot sheer drops on either side.

    Mountaineers, even in summer, are advised to take instructions for making their way along the ridge by dead reckoning if a sudden fog or snow storm reduces visibility to the ends of their noses, as it often does there: “two hundred paces south east, fifty paces south” that kind of thing. A few years ago there was an outcry when a well-known mounteering association published wrong and potentially fatal instructions on the web!

  • Metre

    @ Anonymous

    I beg your pardon? Skiers don’t carve? I was carving turns before snow boards were invented (yes, I’m that old). Skiers invented carving. I have seen good snowboarders carve, and it looks good. Most of them, however, use their board like a bulldozer shovel and scrape all of the snow off the hill. Most skiers slip or slide their turns, too, but it isn’t as effective at scraping the hill of all loose snow as a snowbaord is. It makes me shake my head.

    But all kidding aside aside, a good day on the slopes is hard to beat, whether you’re on one board or two. And what would be the point of going to a cenference in Aspen if you didn’t get to carve a few turns?

  • Shantanu

    Daniel or Mark (or anyone else who was there)
    Can one of you report on the Aspen conference and if there were any interesting
    new talks/results/? Are the slides online or going to be ?

  • Mark

    I’ll be doing that soon Shantenu


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