Each year Aspen plays host to a fast-paced, big mountain showdown complete with 45° pitches and high-altitude boot packs. And Abi Butcher has signed herself up…
“No time to stop, you can drink on the way down,” says Chris, packing away his water bottle before strapping into his snowboard at the top of Aspen’s Highlands Bowl. I am bent over double, heaving for breath and – for the first time in my life – struggling not to throw up from the exertion.
As a skier (minus the soft boots), and non-native to Colorado, I’ve arrived at the 3,775m summit a little behind him. We’ve climbed a mere 217m, but at this altitude, having done the same climb at almost a running pace only 20 minutes earlier, under blazing sun, it’s about the hardest I’ve ever pushed my body. I know I have another lap to go, too.
My head pushes aside any complaints and I manage to keep it together and clip into my skis, searching out the fall-line and best way down the spring snow in the ‘O Zone’.
With legs that feel like jelly after a lap and a half of the toughest skiing in Aspen, I straight-line it down huge bumps, skiing as fast as I dare down a steep 45° pitch. Two days earlier I tackled this run in several stages, but such is the effect of adrenalin, and racing, that we get to the bottom towards the front of the pack.
After six months of training, I’m finally competing in Aspen’s famous Battle in the Bowls race – with an incredible partner, Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug. This man is quick, and extraordinary.
He won bronze in the Parallel Giant Slalom at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, just 18 months after having a full liver transplant. He was just weeks away from death in 2000 from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic, incurable liver disease, when he received the transplant and remains the only transplantee to compete in any Olympics – let alone one to win a medal.
Now, aged 42, Chris pushes his body to the limits and Battle in the Bowls fits nicely in his training programme before the Grand Traverse – an overnight ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen akin to Europe’s Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG).
Also a skier, Chris has chosen to snowboard today and although he wears a permanent smile, I learned quickly not to underestimate the astounding drive of an Olympian. Nor their will to win.
Pro skier and Aspen local Chris Davenport set up Battle in the Bowls 11 years ago, in partnership with Helly Hansen. What began as a series of big mountain battle events across the US with a final in Aspen, is now a one-off event in Aspen Highlands every March.
There are several divisions – including one treasure-hunt section for families – but we’re one of half a dozen pairs competing in the race division. We’re in the mixed skier/snowboarder division, but there are pairs of skiers, and snowboarders, too.
Battle in the Bowls is as much about strategy as it is ability. The only thing you know going into it is that you’ll have to climb and ski two and a half laps of the Highlands bowl, and ski around a dozen trails in the order of your choice. When we registered at 9am that morning, Klug and I picked up a couple of GPS devices and a list of the runs we were to complete. A hot, sunny morning – with temperatures predicted to rise as high as 20C later – this was to be as strategic as it was tough. We had to hit all of the runs at precisely the right time to get the best of the conditions, otherwise we’d be hitting ice and slush all day.
Abi and Chris plan their route
As the local, Chris was in charge of which of the mainly ungroomed, double-black diamond runs to do in which order, working out where the water stops were and how to avoid lift queues.
After a running start at the Merry Go Round restaurant (note to self: don’t ever try to run in ski boots), we hit the bowl first, wanting to get our two and a half laps of hiking and skiing double-black diamond ungroomed trails out of the way before the heat of the spring sun kicked in.
Unfortunately I made a school-girl error and hadn’t cranked up my bindings the morning of the race, so I ruined the first lap on G Zone by popping out of my skis three times. At one point, a kind passerby (the mountain is open to the public as normal) helped me by bringing my lost ski down to me.
“Hurry up! I’m racing!” I squeaked at him while trying to shake ice out of my ski jacket. Poor chap.
Chris was, of course, faster than me (on most routes, but not all I might add) so refilled our water bottles ready to jump on the lift – Deep Temerity – for the first hour or so, where we snacked on bananas, granola bars, sweets and gels. Soon we’d stripped down to our t-shirts and I was ruing the fact that I was wearing a proper helmet instead of a mountaineering one, and that I had alpine boots on (I’d had a problem with my touring boots and had left them at home).
As we flew through the trees over massive bumps down Kessler’s, then No Name, then
St Moritz and Hyde Park, I could always hear where Chris was from the loud whooping ahead of me.
We had a serious hold-up on the Cloud Nine lift, when a little boy lost his ski – again the tiger came out in Klug, as we lost around 20 minutes, all the while envisaging our rivals taking a different route and leap-frogging over us.
As we finished up on Lower and Upper Stein, then P Chutes, I was well into the red zone. My body was right into its anaerobic reserves as we hit Jerome and flew down to the finish at Highland’s Village, smiling, sweating, happy and on a massive high, finishing eighth out of 17 in the competitive ski division, in a total race time of 3:35:13. Straight up to Cloud Nine Café for music, dancing on tables and champagne in the sunshine: this day was Aspen at its best.
Abi and Chris celebrate the end of their battle
“I loved doing Battle in the Bowls,” Chris mused. “Such a cool event and a good workout. The combination of downhill skills, aerobic capacity and navigation make it a unique adventure, not to mention the rad terrain you get to descend! The ability to rip forty-plus degrees down the gut of Highland Bowl is what makes that mountain so special, not to mention the local, soulful vibe.”
The following day I suffered though, the linings of my lungs irritated from extreme exertion, manifesting itself in a cough worthy of a 40-a-day smoker – “high-altitude hack” announced founder Chris Davenport over the de-brief breakfast the following day.
The Battle in the Bowls is quite unique – I’ve never raced downhill and after this don’t think I’d want to. But I’ve never had so much fun on skis and am just trying to work out how to coax Chris into allowing me to partner him in the Grand Traverse next year!