ASPEN - Gliding silently through an aspen grove, where the afternoon sun stripes the snow in shadowy ribbons, a skier glimpsing the jagged Elk Mountains shimmering at the head of the valley may be dimly aware that this isn't just another ski area.
John Wilcox is sure of it.
The longtime owner of Ashcroft Ski Touring south of Aspen is ready to retire, but he's not willing to hand over the reins of a cross country ski area that is, he contends, unlike any other, to just anyone. So his search for a successor continues.
In a sense, he is looking for a version of himself.
It was late November 1986 when Wilcox, then 41, acquired Ashcroft Ski Touring from its founder, Ted Ryan, reopening it for Christmas that year.
"I'd only been there once," Wilcox said of Ashcroft, "and I'd only ever cross country skied once."
The place was steeped in local history that began with the silver boom of the 1880s, when, by one account, some 2,000 people occupied the mining town of Ashcroft in the upper Castle Creek Valley. Today, what's left of the settlement is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and skiers cruise groomed trails that pass by the sagging log buildings of a quintessential Colorado ghost town.
Ryan first came to Aspen from the East Coast in 1936. He and others formed the Highland-Bavarian Corp. with the dream of creating an alpine ski resort in the upper Castle Creek Valley, but World War II interrupted the plan, and Ryan wound up owning hundreds of acres of the valley floor that had been acquired by the corporation. The land was ultimately transferred to the U.S. Forest Service through a series of deals, but in 1971, Ryan opened Ashcroft Ski Touring Limited under a Forest Service permit, charging a fee to ski ($2 per day for adults; it's now $15 for a full day) and running a restaurant at what had been the cookhouse for the Ashcrofter summer camp operation. Greg Mace, son of Stuart and Isabel Mace, managed the business. He grew up in the valley, where the Maces had a lifetime lease with Ryan for Toklat, their home, lodge and dog sled operation.
Mace died in a climbing accident in 1986, and the elderly Ryan didn't intend to reopen Ashcroft for the winter season without him, according to a report in The Aspen Times.
Wilcox, an ABC television producer and director, struck a deal to buy the business, including the Pine Creek Cookhouse, several warning huts and a workshop. He hired Greg Mace's former wife, Krisi, who'd previously worked at Ashcroft, to run the restaurant.
The vision was mountain gourmet food and remains so today, Wilcox said.
"We never had fried foods - we still don't," he said.
Wilcox had a bit of restaurant experience and a lot of dining experience during his years of world travel as a filmmaker. He recalled seeing something special at Ashcroft.
"I saw this as an opportunity. It was, and still is, a very rare commodity in the restaurant business," he said. "It's a venue in a spectacular setting that, in the winter, you have to ski or sleigh to."
The outdoor-adventure aspect of Ashcroft was a good fit, he said, for someone who'd spent his life filming in places that ranged from Mount Everest to shark-infested waters.
Wilcox spent another 10 years working as a producer/director before settling full time in Aspen in the mid-1970s, but he established an Ashcroft institution when he took over - the sleigh rides. He'd acquired a couple of horses and planned to get a sleigh to pull friends around in; instead, the horses went to Ashcroft, and sleigh rides to and from the cookhouse became part of the operation.
Ryan, tethered to oxygen and ordered to return to sea level by his doctors, took what was probably his last trip up to the cookhouse at Christmas 1986 in a horse-drawn sleigh, Wilcox said. Ryan died at his home in Lakeville, Conn., in July 1987 at age 82.
The sleigh rides transformed the restaurant business, according to Wilcox.
"It used to be you either skied there, or you didn't get there," he said. "People love that sleigh ride - it's amazing," he said.
For camera-toting guests, the cowboys who drive the sleighs and the horses that pull them may get more attention than the scenery.
Today, Wilcox credits his wife, Julia, with handling much of the work associated with running Ashcroft and the cookhouse. He is flirting again with script ideas for filmmaking, a profession that earned him 24 Emmy Awards for various projects, including producing and directing "The American Sportsman" for ABC. In Munich in 1972, he produced and directed award-winning news coverage of the terrorist raid at the Olympic Games.
He listed Ashcroft, including the cross country ski operation and the cookhouse, for sale several years ago for $7.5 million, but then he pulled it off the market while he sought approvals from Pitkin County that would make the next evolution of the business possible.
In 2011, Wilcox received county approval for a plan for seven small cabins to serve as overnight accommodations for Ashcroft guests. Two already exist and house employees (other housing is required). All would be on five acres owned by Wilcox and his wife near the cookhouse.
They have explored converting their 5,000-square-foot home, the Star Peak Cabin, in the upper valley near the ski area to lodging, as well but haven't completed that step. The couple resides in town and uses the snowbound home near Ashcroft mostly during the summer.
Cabins at a nordic ski area, served by a gourmet restaurant, are unprecedented, Wilcox contends.
"It creates something that exists nowhere else in America," he said.
The business, which includes a lease with the Forest Service to operate the ski-touring operation on 735 acres of public land; the restaurant (rebuilt on Forest Service land after the original one burned down); and the approvals for the guest cabins, may soon go back on the market, according to Wilcox. But he's particular about the buyer.
"I didn't do all this for 25 years for someone to come in and botch it," he told county commissioners when they granted approval for the overnight accommodations in late 2011.
"I suppose I would consider a partner if it were the right person - someone who would take it over eventually," Wilcox said. "It's going to take someone who wants to put their heart and soul into a boutique operation."