This is a story of being on a path—the right path at the right time, in the right place, and with the right gear. It’s also a story that’ll start with an old John Muir quote.
In a letter Muir wrote to his sister in 1873, he said “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” He had no way of knowing that his letters would be published or how that line—most don’t know that it was part of a longer thought—would become a rallying cry (and an arguably corny sticker and t-shirt industry) for modern-day outdoorsy types. In a way, it’s like when a parent puts their child on skis at age three, like Luke DeMuth’s dad did. Will that first foray into skiing be a special but forgotten moment in the family archives, or could it be the spark that ignites lifelong passions? For DeMuth, it was the latter.
Luke has been a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands for nine years, and in his chill way, he’ll suggest that his path here was simple serendipity, maybe even coincidental; but in fact, it was more like destiny. He grew up along Colorado’s Front Range, where answering the call of the mountains is a way of life. “After college, I traveled a lot, but Colorado would always call me back. The mountains are home,” he says. “It's the thin air and the cool breeze on your face and being able to just kind of be yourself. More than anywhere else, the mountains are a place that keeps me centered.” And then, in his mountain explorations, skiing brought him to Aspen’s legendary Highland Bowl, a massive 35- to 48-degree face with 18 named lines.
Each fall, when early season snow begins to accumulate, a veritable army of volunteers pack down the snow to mitigate avalanche risk. Organized by the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol, these volunteers meticulously boot-pack (walking up and down each run) to break up and compress the snow’s base layers. If left untouched, this snow, at that slope angle, could pose serious avalanche concerns later in the season. This work increases safety on one of America’s premier in-bounds ski experiences. In return, this squad of ski bums with super-swole quads not only build some fitness but also earn credit towards a ski pass for the upcoming season.
“I knew I wanted to be a ski patroller after my first season of boot-packing,” says DeMuth. “I loved seeing a team work together so closely. It’s a hard job, and with their guidance, it made the whole thing seem pretty easy. Plus, we had a really good time doing it. It was a revelation—you can make a living on skis.”
Today, Luke DeMuth is in his 9th season as a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands. “The thing that will always keep me interested in skiing is the basic fact that as soon as you start sliding downhill, it just brings a smile to your face,” he says. “You can be a really good skier, and you can be a really, really terrible skier, and generally speaking, you’re still having fun. I know because I cover that spectrum from good to terrible on a daily basis, and I’m smiling the whole time!”
Of course, the work of ski patrol isn’t all sliding down hill with a goofy grin. “We do a little bit of everything on the mountain, from marking hazards and obstacles within our ski area to running ropes in closed terrain," Luke explains. "We also respond to injured guests on the ski hill or even just somebody who got in a little over their head. Plus, avalanche risk reduction work. The mental preparation for this job is a constant as well. During downtime when it's slow or when I'm riding a chairlift, I think about rescue scenarios and what our actions would be if, say, there was a major call in the Highland Bowl. That preparation reduces stress so when intense situations happen, we can flip the switch and be in go-mode.”
For a ski patroller, preparation also includes packing the right stuff. DeMuth says he never leaves the locker room without a backpack, avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, and knife. “I need to trust my gear. In adverse conditions, your gear should be one less thing you need to worry about. For me, the Bugout is lightweight, sleek, and super sharp. It’s just an all-purpose essential."
“Going up on routes in the Highland Bowl on days where it's super windy and snowy and you can't see anything requires some intense focus and concentration and really clear communication with your route partners,” DeMuth says. “And that's also some of the most fun that you can have up there, doing avalanche risk reduction work to be able to open that kind of skiing product to skiing public. That’s a really special thing.”
Talk to Luke for five minutes, and you know you’ve met a guy who’s exactly where he’s meant to be, doing what he’s meant to do.
“It's fun as hell,” he says. “ There's nothing else I'd rather be doing. It's the best job in the world, and I wouldn't trade it, or this place, for anything.”