At 12,392 feet above sea level, the air feels empty and hollow. I pause for a moment to catch my breath before shrugging my skis off my back and laying them on the snow. There are a surprising number of people up here and the mood is celebratory. iPhones pass back and forth capturing panoramas and “selfies.”
“It’s impossible to get this all into a picture,” my friend Laura sighs, motioning towards the steep, semi-circular wall dropping off below us for at least a quarter mile on either side: Highland’s Bowl, the gem of Aspen. Behind us an infinity of snowcapped peaks rises against the sky, a vastness of jagged rock that makes my own fear and discomfort seem irrelevant. A breeze tugs at the Clif bar wrapper clenched in my gloved hand, and I hasten to cram it back in to my pocket.
Five minutes ago, hiking up Highland’s ridgeline, this same light breeze screamed apocalypse as it rushed through my ears, inducing gusts of vertigo and threatening
to send me reeling over the edge of the bowl. Plodding up the boot-packed trail, I imagined the initial shock of losing my balance, grasping for something to hold on to, but there would be nothing, until I hit the steep snow slope and begin to pick up speed, tumbling helplessly down 1,500 feet as the deep powder muffles my screams.
But the summit is quiet. A wind vein swings around on top of a thin metal tower, strung on three sides with a canopy of brightly colored prayer flags. An old chairlift, cushion still in tact, hangs from the metal tower, its weathered metal frame plastered with stickers. It faces south, towards the Maroon Bells and a myriad of other 12- 13- and 14,000-foot peaks, framed by the flickering rainbow of the tattered, dancing flags. The chair must weigh at least fifty pounds, and I wonder who lugged it up here, 800 vertical feet above the last working chairlift on the mountain…and why?
On the other side of the tower stands a pair of wooden posts with a sign reading “Highland Peak, 12,392.” Below the posts, a stash of ropes and caution poles and an emergency sled, the kind that Ski Patrol uses to evacuate injured or unconscious skiers.
“So, is this worth it or what?” an older gentlemen asks, turning around and spreading his arms wide as a duo of middle-aged women tail behind, gasping from the exhertion of the hike. “This is incredible,” one of the women squeals, a hint of incredulous laughter in her voice, like she had no idea what she was really in for when she signed up to hike the bowl.
All around us, people are in various stages of preparation. Layers are zipped, lines chosen. A man who buzzed by me on the hike rips skins off the bottom of his skis, stuffs them into his backpack, and drops over the ridge, out of sight. A wave turns in my stomach and I contemplate the potential risks—what if I fall, what if I tumble and tear my ACL or hit a rock and split my face open.
When I was five, I was so terrified of deep water that I refused to learn how to swim. “My hands are right here, to catch you,” my dad promised as I clung furiously to his back, legs rigid above the water’s surface, as if dunking a single toe might be enough for the invisible forces of evil to pull me under until I drowned. But back in the shallows, with my feet planted firmly on the ground and sun illuminating the lake’s sandy bottom, I was happy to play for hours.
Every Saturday morning I cried and begged to skip swim lessons. Every Saturday morning the answer was the same: “You have to conquer your fear, Ariella. If, after you learn how to swim, you decide that you never want to do it again, that is fine. But first you need to conquer your fear.”
A year ago I moved to Colorado,trading in the security of a career in a familiar city for the unknown of a seasonal job in a remote mountain town I had never even visited. As the Rockies came into view on the third day of our cross-country drive, I craned through the windshield, as if the gullies and couloirs held some preview of the life I was driving towards.
It’s been a year since we got here, and I still don’t know where I’m going. But, I’ve realized, a little bit of uncertainty is a good thing. The moment I stop being scared is the moment I stop growing, the moment I stop being alive. It is what motivates me to tie in to a rope and pull myself on to the start holds of every new climb. It is what pushes me to keep going when I am nervous to be alone on a trail after sunset. And it is what urges me to ski steeper and faster.
I force down the last few bites of my Clif bar, pull down my goggles and click in to my skis, side-slipping down to peer over the edge, but it’s too steep to see. I face forward, ski tips hovering in the airpush off with my poles, and drop.