We attended the annual Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame gala this past Saturday. This is indeed a Colorado event, but always goes out of state boundaries in many ways.
John Atkins is perhaps the most far reaching inductee of this year. Through the 1980s he was the head training and conditioning coach for the U.S. women’s alpine team. This group, including World Cup title winner Tamara MCKinney, are said to be the the most gold and silver draped skier’s in U.S. history. Much of their success is attributed to Atkin’s conditioning program and his motivational coaching.
Listening to Atkins give his speech at the event, you could see some of what made it happen. He had a little trouble knowing when to stop talking, but his go-getter demeanor was obvious. He told one story about having the team playing tough with karate moves during warmup so as to establish their presence at race starts and such. That explains much — if you’ve ever following ski racing and checked out some of the women’s teams our gals (and guys, for that matter) are up against, the Austrians for example, a bit of toughness is required.
Inductee Pat O’ Donnell gave his speech after Atkins, and unfortunately was rather brief but still incredibly interesting (other than starting his speech by insulting our sitting president — amazing what people will do for a few laughs).
O’ Donnell was President and CEO of Aspen Skiing Company from 1994 to 2006. But the story does reach out of Colorado as O’ Donnell’s career path starts with him being a California climbing bum and working as a Bellman for 90 cents an hour to support his habit.
O’ Donnell got an engineering degree at Cal Poly, but apparently could have put a business degree to better use as his work life was locked when he became manager of Badger Pass Ski Area (Yosemite) in 1970, then went on to manage Kirkwood ski area. From there he moved to Colorado where he worked at Keystone ski area, then eventually landed as CEO of Patagonia, which is where he really began applying the concept of a “values based corporation” by ramping up their green ethos. From Pati’ he moved up to Whistler as President, then he was at Aspen from 1994 to 2006.
While the environmental component of O’ Donnell’s Ski Co’ tenure is pushed as his main legend (I think we’ll need a few more years of perspective to figure out the importance of that), in my view his influence on Aspen’s mountain culture was astounding and much more important. Mainly, he shepherded what was previously a somewhat aloof and shuttered corporation into being a much more vital and involved part of the mountain recreation community. Perhaps this is evidenced by his opening up Aspen Mountain to snowboarders. But more, in 2002 Highlands Bowl was opened by the Ski Co’ as the crown jewel of Aspen’s hike-to inbounds terrain. In my view, this one action has had a profound effect on our community.
Previous to “The Bowl” we had a small amount of inbounds hike-to terrain at Snowmass Ski Area, but nothing like the vast reaches of steep natural snow that Highlands provides. Not only that, but when Ski Co’ opened the Bowl they eliminated a buffer zone that blocked off access to an amazing amount of hard core backcountry skiing. Now you just ride the lifts, hike to the top of Highlands Peak, pass through a backcountry gate, and about a million acres of pristine terrain is there for the taking.
With one problem.
Yep, that waiting harvest outside Highlands is in Colorado, with a frequently deadly snowpack that can kill you by avalanche just as quick as a head-on with a tractor trailer. In other words, while the white blanket of fun begins from the top of Highland Peak, you can’t always go there. “The Bowl” changes the equation. On days when it’s look but don’t touch, you turn around and spend the day playing in practically the same snow, only with avalanche control.
It’s not perfect. Much of Highlands Bowl becomes bump skiing soon after every powder storm, the cut up crud is legendary, and if your chosen run has been carpet bombed for avy control you may find it nearly unskiable or even dangerous because of the icy bomb craters. More, it takes quite a bit of time to do a lap. But what’s happened is you can be a “backcountry skier” in Aspen and not get shut down by a bad winter with endless avalanche danger. Along with that, climbers using bowl hiking as training get incredibly fit at altitude and apply their strength to excellent alpine climbs all over the world. Thus, the energy and just plain positive outlook of our backcountry skiing community has been revitalized.
About the only catch with the system is it’s still incredibly expensive to ski the Aspen lifts. I guess O’ Donnell is an environmentalist and was able to float his green ideas in the face of corporate structure, but when it came to populist stuff like providing a cheaper ski pass, nothing happened. Come to think of it, the cost of skiing was probably never a big issue to the man. If he worked for 90 cents and hour as a climbing bum, he knows that such folks will usually figure out a few angles on the system and get up on those ski lifts one way or another — perhaps by eventually becoming a ski area CEO.