With others to the left and right of me, we're on the job, stamping our feet backward down an icy slope of manmade snow recently sprayed into the air by the Aspen Skiing Company. The slope drops off steeply for about 100 yards before ending in a brush-choked gully, and I'm about to get to know that gully firsthand, because suddenly, I'm falling, feet first and then head first toward the brambles below. My hands and feet splay out like a skydiver's as I dig them in for traction, but it does little good. I pick up speed and then crash in a swirl of ice crystals. Except for the bruises to come, I'm fine, so I let out a whoop to my comrades above. Then it's back up the slope for more "boot-packing."
I'm actually paid to do this. Boot-packing is part of a volunteer, avalanche-mitigation program that's spearheaded by the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol. Since the year 2000, for about six weeks starting in mid-November, a ragtag band of ski bums, night workers, freelancers, ambiguously employed youngsters and any others who can't -- or won't -- buy a full price ski pass, have taken to the hills to boot-pack. They hike a ski-mountain's steepest slopes, where no machine can tread.
The goal is for their boots to break up the layers of snow, thus preventing slabs from breaking loose and triggering an avalanche. Ropes and harnesses used on the steepest terrain make falls like mine, which occurred near the base on a typically harmless pitch, a rare event. Yet the words "falls or possible avalanche involvement," feature prominently in a waiver that all packers have to sign, along with this less-than-comforting reminder: "You are not covered by Workers' Compensation."
For their trouble, however, boot-packers get money toward a ski pass, which this year couldn't be had for less than a whopping $1,549. Fifteen eight-hour days earn a full pass, and the minimum of five days gets you a $500 credit. This translates to a wage of $12.50 an hour, about the going rate for an Aspen restaurant hostess. I have never worked as a hostess, but boot packing is the hardest physical job I have ever done.
In a sense, it's also the perfect job for a recession because it requires lots of people -- around 150 signed up this year. Indeed, boot packing is one of those increasingly rare arenas in which humans outperform machines because there is simply no mechanical way to defuse avalanche potential in the kind of terrain where boot-packers work. But there's more than economics involved; a ski patroller who oversees the program told me that boot-packing has gained popularity every year since its inception, regardless of the unemployment rate. That must be because it's fun -- in a punishing sort of way.
"I could buy a pass in 10 or 12 days working my regular job," says Michael Gorman, a 26-year old native of nearby Carbondale, who works for an environmental group. "But I'd rather be up on the hill packing than at a desk." Gorman likes the time alone with the mountain that packing affords, along with the exhaustion brought on by eight hours of slogging through snow.
Perhaps most compelling are the characters you get to work with. The patrollers who lead are beastly high-elevation athletes; pain, for them, seems strongly tied to mental pleasure. Packers range from distractingly pretty young women to apparent Viking impersonators. Regardless of appearance, they come armed with stories that unspool themselves slowly over long hours on a mountain, talking about everything from acid trips in Crested Butte to river trips in Alaska.
"I love meeting new people, getting to know everyone, and the camaraderie," says Julia Tallmadge, 27, of Carbondale, who met both her boyfriend and roommate boot-packing last year.
On one blustery morning, I rode the chairlift to work with a bearded, wild-eyed friend who might be called the consummate packer, though later I heard stories that he'd completed most days on the job under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. On his final day, he was spotted sporting a tutu and sipping a beer in celebration, but on this particular morning, as I hunched my shoulders against the bitter wind, he exclaimed, "This is gonna be a great day, man. I can feel it!" Funny, but it was.
Nelson Harvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer working too many jobs to list and lives in Carbondale, Colo.