Other than a juicy scandal, nothing excites Aspenites more than new ski terrain. Such a treat is in store for the 2020-21 season on Aspen Mountain, should Aspen Skiing Co.’s plans come to fruition, with the new expansion and lift into the east facing Pandora’s side beyond Walsh’s Gulch out to Harris’s Wall. That snow-loading lee side of Aspen Mountain has an interesting history.
Ski goddess disappeared
On the cold night of Dec. 8, 1972, after a big powder day, Aspen Mountain ski patrollers were celebrating the good life at the Red Onion bar, when word came round that the talented and universally-admired local ski goddess Meta Burden had not returned home that night. Adding to the intrigue, she and the late Tim Howe, a seasoned, consummate princeling of the patrol in his prime, were having an affair.
Howe and Burden had been skiing that day, his day off, back when the patrol worked six days a week. With a December base nearing 40 inches, the new storm had left a lot of weight on top of a ground layer of faceted snow with poor adhesion, known as depth hoar.
That afternoon, Burden, a one-time racer who skied on 207 Dynamic VR17s — the black and gold cultish French racing boards ski-bums worshiped — had an argument with Howe outside the Sundeck. She wanted to ski Kristi. Howe said no, the snowpack there was too dangerous. They had words and she skied off alone for a defiant white-room run there.
By 7 p.m. the patrol was riding up top in the back of a Tucker Sno-cat from the base of the brand new Lift 1A. Howe had already snowmobiled up to look for her. Her tell-tale tracks led into Kristi, where, according to the American Avalanche Association’s “Snowy Torrents 1972-1979,” a 24-inch soft-slab had run 600 feet over Loushin’s Road (today’s Lud’s Lane) below.
At the time, the runs we know today as Kristi, Hyrup’s and Walsh’s were closed areas not subject to avalanche control, poached through pinball-like entrances of thick woods. While the snow-loaded Kristi had not slid that year, Walsh’s had the day before during the big two-day cycle.
At 10:30 pm, with snow still falling, while probing by lantern light, patrol found Burden under four feet of snow some 200 feet below the road. Resuscitation proved fruitless. Former patroller Ed Cross recollects the victim was frozen solid and CPR was challenging. He looked up at Howe, who shook his head to say no more.
In the late 1970s Tim “El Avalanchero” Howe became “supervisor of avalanche control” for Aspen Mountain, and he named the one-time-secret patrol ski stash just south of Kristi and Walsh’s “Pandora’s Box,” based on a concern over what would happen if the general public ever ventured into the steep, timbered terrain that ends with no obvious runout to the valley floor or return to the ski area.
Since then, that frontier along the east flank of Aspen Mountain and Richmond Hill, stretching out past McFarlane’s Bowl above Difficult Creek, has been pushed by out-of-bounds skiers and caught more than a few in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before Walsh’s, Hyrup’s and Kristi became part of Aspen Mountain’s open terrain in 1984, the steep gullies of Pandora’s, out to Powerline and beyond — known as the “Far East”— held a high degree of the wild unknown.
With avalanche dangers having always been a consideration along that steep ridge, some argue that the concept of understanding risk has diminished with the advent of high-tech beacons, airbags, cellphone dependence and avalanche classes for dilettante experts. That said, without frontiers, error and sacrifice, new ski-area terrain would never be tamed.