To learn Aspen Highlands ski patrol director Mac Smith’s story is to take a drive. One loop from Old Snowmass to East Sopris Creek and down to Emma offers a view of Smith’s entire 57 years in the Roaring Fork Valley. Raised on a ranch in Old Snowmass, out of which his family ran an outfitting business with 50 horses and 12 mules, Smith now lives in a cabin on property off East Sopris Creek Road. It’s tucked away from the midvalley’s changing landscape, where Smith can still lead the rural lifestyle to which he’s accustomed.
“I have a hard time finding my own species,” says Smith, who remembers when the Basalt telephone directory was made from two 5-by-7-inch notecards. “I can’t just go into a cafe and find someone who knows how to fix a [hay] baler.” Among Aspen Skiing Company’s longest running employees (and candidate for the ski industry’s best moustache), Smith has been working at Aspen Highlands for 46 years and as the head of ski patrol since 1979. (Aspen Highlands celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.) When he started, Smith made $1.90 an hour; skied on 210-centimeter Head Standards; and was constantly fixing equipment and vehicles, like the Tucker Sno-Cats that gave the resort a rough groom.
He has watched Highlands grow up—and helped raise it—from a renegade ski area owned by Whip Jones where patrollers launched synchronized jumps over the Cloud 9 deck each year to the SkiCo resort it is today. But the biggest change to Smith’s job—“when the yoke became much heavier,” as he puts it—came with the partial opening of Highland Bowl in 1997, a decision only made possible after he and Snow Safety Director OJ Melahn (another 30-plus-year patroller) convinced SkiCo that Highland Bowl could be controlled and safely opened to the public.
Most mornings begin at 4:30am for Smith, a habit instilled early on when he had to milk a cow each morning growing up on the ranch. When he was 17, he slept in one morning and awoke to his father pouring a 5-gallon bucket of ice water over his head. “From that moment on, I had a switch in my head that woke me every day at 4:30am and that lasted until I was 55 years old,” says Smith, who now attempts to sleep in some days.
During winter, Smith leaves his cabin by 6am five days a week to lead the morning meeting with 28 patrollers at Aspen Highlands; his full staff is 40. “At the beginning, you’re trying to do almost everything by yourself,” he says. “Somewhere, as wisdom starts to form, you realize all these people are smart, capable and outperform you most of the time.” Summer, when Smith also grows hay and tends to his horses, is the season he loves most at Highlands. “When we’re cutting trails and laying out Easter eggs for the public to find the next winter… to me, that’s the highlight,” says Smith.
But don’t be fooled—Smith is, and always will be, a skier at heart, and there’s no doubt he knows Highlands more intimately than anyone. These days, he’s on fat, rockered skis. He favors the complex terrain of Deep Temerity, where a “right, right, left, right, left” can reveal fresh tracks three days after a storm. “I fell in love with this mountain in high school,” says Smith. “It’s like a girlfriend—every moment you spend thinking about her, and all the money you make goes to spend more time with her. Highlands is my wife, really.”