“Their Generation,” an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other Thursday in The Aspen Times.
There aren’t many people who know the backcountry around Aspen like Jim Ward.
Ward, 78, has hiked and skied the local mountains for 50 years. His exploits on cross-country skis border on the incredible. How many people do you know who have cross-country skied from Denver to Aspen?
Ward’s accomplishments locally on skis are legendary, but he’s done so much more in his life. He’s traveled to six of the seven continents, has rafted some of the wildest rapids in North America, is a veteran of the U.S. Army, was a backcountry guide with the Ashcroft Mountaineering School, was an original partner with Fothergills Outdoor Sportsman Shop in Aspen, did guide work at the Diamond J Ranch past Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River, and is now a retired electrician.
You certainly could argue that Ward is an Aspen Renaissance man.
“Aspen people are a different breed,” Ward said. “This is one of the greatest places in the world for outdoor activities. There aren’t many places where someone can be a closet tree-hugger and a closet redneck at the same time.”
Ward was born in Minnesota in 1935 and grew up in the small farming town of Osseo, Minn., during the Great Depression.
“I was too young to know I was hungry,” Ward said.
He graduated from Osseo High School in 1953 before spending four years with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union as an apprentice.
He met his wife, Faylis, in second grade. She attended the University of Minnesota and was a cheerleader there before the couple married in December 1957. They enjoyed skiing and came to Aspen for the first time in March 1958.
“We skied for two days and slept in our station wagon,” Ward said. “I remember when they chose the site to build the Little Nell. I figured it was a good spot for a hotel since they built it where the parking lot was that we camped in. We also went to see Freddy Fisher and his son, King Fisher, perform at the Red Onion. It was a great trip.”
Ward was drafted into the Army in 1958, and the couple spent some time in Colorado Springs before returning to Aspen in the spring of 1964. While Jim checked out the electrical-job situation, Fay was looking at real estate.
Fay Ward was now confined to a wheelchair after complications during the birth of their first child, Kimberly, but she never lost her zest for life or love of the mountains.
“Fay had just returned from a trip to Europe,” Ward said. “She thought Aspen had a European feel to it and really liked it here.”
The couple chose to make a temporary move to the Aspen area and came back with a 37-foot trailer that they dropped off at the Woody Creek Trailer Park.
After a few months, the couple decided they wanted to rent a place in Aspen proper for a few months, and they found a duplex on Snowbunny Lane.
“Just like most people, we didn’t plan on staying here,” Ward said. “We just wanted to ski, and we never left.”
Four months later, they bought a duplex and lived there until they sold it in 1973 and moved to the current Ward residence on Twining Flats Road.
It didn’t take long before the family got involved with the Aspen Community Church and became part of the Aspen community. Jim continued to do electrical work around town while branching out with his outdoor interests. Lean and strong, Ward was built to cross-country ski, and he took to the sport with a strong passion to go farther and higher in the backcountry.
In the summers of 1967 and ’68, Ward was a backcountry guide for the Ashcroft Mountaineering School. In the summer of 1968, a group of teachers from Aspen Middle School attended the mountaineering school for three days. During their visit, they were exposed to the possibilities of outdoor education. It was the beginning of the local outdoor-education program that runs through the Aspen School District and continues to this day.
“There are many locals that will always remember their eighth-grade outdoor-education trip from Aspen to Marble,” Ward said. “At one point, the eighth-graders have to spend 24 hours alone in the wilderness. That can be a life-changing experience.”
During this time, Ward’s reputation as a cross-country skier grew. In 1968, he led a group of skiers on a tour from Aspen across Pearl Pass to Crested Butte. In 1970, he was part of a group that toured from Vail to Aspen. In 1972, he helped guide a group from the Denver area to Aspen. That trip took 10 days.
In 1970, he became partners with Chuck Fothergill, and the two opened Fothergills Outdoor Sportsman Shop, located where Boogie’s is presently on East Cooper Avenue. Ward says it was the first cross-country shop in Aspen and also catered to fly-fishermen and backpackers in the summer. Ward sold his half of the business in 1978.
He then worked at the Diamond J Guest Ranch in Meredith on Frying Pan Road for three years, doing some guide work and starting a cross-country program there.
Ward also became involved with the planning and building of several of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association huts. He was friends with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Fritz Benedict, a former member of the 10th Mountain Division who came back to Aspen after World War II and was a local architect for many years.
Ward told the story of when McNamara and Benedict approached the Forest Service to build several mountain huts between Aspen and Vail.
“McNamara pushed to have the first huts built in the early 1980s,” Ward said. “He even said if the huts didn’t work out, he’d pay to take them down.”
Ward was instrumental in where several of the huts were built because of his knowledge of those backcountry areas. It was with his recommendation that Margy’s Hut was built in the mountains between Aspen and Frying Pan Road.
Ward was also a member of Mountain Rescue from 1967 through 1988.
“At times, it was a very tough job,” he said. “Over the years, we had to bring down a lot of bodies off the Maroon Bells.”
The number of buildings Ward has worked on as an electrician in the Aspen area is too many to count. Ward is particularly proud of the work he did during the remodel of the Wheeler Opera House in 1984 and ’85 when he was head electrician of the project.
Despite his uneasiness as a swimmer, Ward became an accomplished river guide and has rafted just about every local river. He was also an unofficial river guide at the Grand Canyon for many trips with friends and family.
“I never intended to be a river guide,” he said. “It’s just another thing that happened from living in Aspen.”
Ward retired as an electrician in 1997 and worked for Mesaba Airlines for one winter and Mesa Airlines for four years. He was a luggage handler and snow shoveler for both airlines.
“I did what I could to avoid using a computer,” Ward said. “Both airlines are now gone — guess I broke both of them.”
Working for the airlines allowed him to access many free flights, which he took advantage of with his wife. Ward has now visited six of the seven continents, with Africa the only one he’s missed.
Ward has three children: Kimberly, 54, who lives in England and Natalie, 44, and Casey, 38, who both live in Aspen.
In 2003, Ward was elected to the Aspen Hall of Fame.
He was married to Fay for 54 years until she died of a stroke in January 2012 while mono-skiing at West Buttermilk.
“Fay was an incredible person,” Ward said. “Her determination was amazing. She never let a wheelchair stop her, ever, from doing what she loved.”
These days, Ward is still active on the hills, downhill skiing and accessing the backcountry. This past winter, he cross-country skied to two mountain huts.
“I may be 78 and slowing down a little,” he said. “But I can still hike and ski and still enjoy doing both. I’m proud to live in Aspen. We’re a different breed here.”