It all happened so quickly. One moment I’m skiing along at Mach One, and the next second I’m completely out of control and flying head first over the snow. Finally, after what feels like an eternity – and with a scarily loud wallop – I nosedive onto the icy, rock-solid piste.
I’m winded, confused and seeing stars. Blood is trickling down my face, and I’m lying on the snow a completely broken man with my ego completely in tatters.
Thankfully, help is quickly at hand. Following just behind me in hot pursuit is Mike Britt, one of Aspen’s top ski patrollers – a man who’s all too familiar with picking up the scattered pieces after a big smash.
Along with a small group of fellow holidaymakers, I’ve joined Mike for Aspen’s Last Tracks programme, which offers avid skiers the chance of one last special descent after the lifts have closed for the evening – at a time that is usually reserved for propping up the après-ski bars. It also allows a rare glimpse of life as a ski patroller, and the chance to shadow them as they ‘sweep’ the mountain – which is one of the day’s most important tasks.
The programme is a twist on First Tracks, when a small number of skiers are able to ski one run before the lifts open to everyone else. Aspen, however, is the only resort to offer punters a chance to get an extra run in at the end of the day.
We’d been told to take the last chairlift to the top of the mountain, where we’d meet Mike and Aspen’s pack of about 35 ski patrollers, who are tasked with keeping the mountain safe. It’s a full-on job, and one that finishes every day with a final comb of the mountain, checking to make sure no
skiers will be left stranded overnight.
Mike is the archetypal ski patroller – burly, bronzed and sporting an impressive beard – and decked out in black and luminous-orange rescue gear. Bounding around beside him is a golden retriever avalanche dog, also wearing its official uniform (a red harness with a white cross), who’s about to be given a ride down the mountain on a skidoo.
Sectors of the mountain to sweep are assigned to the patrollers, their radios crackle into life and then we’re off – Mike leading the way but stopping every few metres not only to peer into the dense forest, but also to entertain us with his tales.
Mike waves his pole at an enclave of forest, pointing out the spot where he caught one particular publicity-seeking celebrity “taking, er, ‘suggestive’ selfies with her boyfriend.” The pair, he goes on to say, tried to flee the scene, but in their haste she lost control, falling and dropping her helmet, which flew down the mountain like a bowling ball. Luckily Mike and crew were able to grab it before it did any damage – and then escort them off the mountain.
And when we’re not stopping to listen to Mike’s stories, we’re gliding down wide open slopes – without another soul in sight. Yes, the snow is choppy (there’s no corduroy as you’d find on first tracks), but it’s a magical time to be on the pistes, as the dusk sky turns a pinkish hue, and another bluebird day draws to a close.
“If we see anyone else, it’s not going to be good news for them,” Mike says, exuding an imperturbable air. “We’re scanning the woods for coats and colours that don’t fit in to the natural environment.”
A calm head is vital for anyone considering a career as a ski patroller: a few years ago on St Patrick’s Day, Mike found himself faced with a blindingly intoxicated partygoer who was sprawled out on the snow.
“He’d decided to celebrate by sinking a small brewery’s worth of green beer, before hurling himself down the mountain. When I found him, he was lying barely conscious with an absolutely horrific leg break.”
Such dramatic finds are extremely rare, although it’s not just skiers the guys have to contend with. On one dim evening, the team heard an unusual rustle in the forest; it was a grizzly bear that’d been rudely awakened from hibernation by the avalanche bombs.
Hanging out with the guardian angels of the slopes offers a fascinating peek into the vital, yet often thankless, work they do. Growing up on skis, I had a love-hate relationship with ski patrollers. Yes, they were cool (a burly pack of guys and gals who could ski like gods), but on the other hand, they are the mountain police – poised to reprimand any sniff of bad behaviour. Building a jump? Don’t think so. Skiing too fast? They’ll have your lift pass.
By now, we’re nearing the bottom of the mountain, and the light is fading fast. Luckily we’ve found nothing untoward on our sweep and the mountain is clear for another day. But there’s still the last pitch into town to ski, and keen to impress Mike with my prowess on two planks, I’m making huge arcing-turns on the empty slopes. But the sun has all but disappeared and the dusky light makes it tricky to see bumps and ruts in the snow. And that’s when I crashed. I’d skied straight into some big divots in the snow – left by a piste grooming machine – and gone flying.
Now, crouched here, my head throbbing and Mike applying butterfly stitches to my bloodied nose, I have a new-found respect for the folks whose job it is to keep us safe. I just wish I’d skied a little slower so I’d seen the bumps in the snow. That way I would have avoided the cuts, bruises and aching limbs. But boy, it could have been worse… it’s just my ego that needed recovery time.
Last Tracks runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, but is only available to guests staying at the Little Nell or Limelight Hotel and costs $25. The Limelight has B&B doubles from $300 a night.limelighthotel.comFor more information seeaspensnowmass.com