Six decades ago, January essentially was an offseason of its own in Aspen. Gay Ski Week and the Winter X Games had not, could not, be dreamed of yet. Even Aspen’s main event, skiing, came to a virtual halt: The ski lifts shut down for several weeks, giving tourists little reason to visit and locals plenty of time to think about ways to amuse themselves.
Lodge owner and bartender Jack DePagter came up with a good one. Winterskol, which DePagter devised in 1951, was meant to attract some visitors and allow Aspenites to let loose in their celebrations after the stress of the holiday season.
“The holidays were a boom, and then there was nothing,” said Julie Hardman, senior events manager of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, . “So it was a time to try to keep things going in town and also bring back the local feel.”
Things have changed dramatically over 63 years. January, with the 37-year-old Gay Ski Week, and X Games, which have taken place here since 2002, is a major month, with no chance of the lifts being stilled.
“It’s an extremely busy time of year,” Hardman said. “People barely have time to breathe after the holidays, then going into Winterskol, X Games.”
Yet the community has always found a reason to raise the annual toast to winter. The 63rd annual Winterskol opened Wednesday night with a new event, the ACRA Awards Dinner, at which ski retailer Tom Anderson and recently retired Aspen Historical Society Director Georgia Hanson were crowned king and queen. Winterskol kicks into high gear today and runs through Sunday with a packed schedule of daily events.
Winterskol has been nothing if not flexible. This year’s attractions include some new events, notably Saturday’s inaugural Fat Cycle Challenge race and a demonstration in which people will be able to test out fat bikes. There will be activities that have carried on through the years, including the Torchlight Descent down the Little Nell ski trail, the Canine Fashion Show and the Wintersculpt ice-sculpture competition. Those who have been away from Winterskol a few years might be aghast to learn that the parade, once a central part of the weekend, was eliminated several years ago.
“The events definitely fluctuate,” said Hardman, who has been spearheading ACRA’s Winterskol effort for 10 years. “We do our best to keep things fresh and new.”
Hardman acknowledged that it can be hard to get Aspenites interested in yet another midwinter event.
“It’s hard. We’re all so busy. There are a lot of events going on,” she said.
She added, though, that Winterskol drives significant tourism. She called Winterskol a “high-sellout weekend” and said she begins fielding calls in autumn from people inquiring about Winterskol dates and activities.
“I think the overall event is a strong one,” she said. “People come and plan vacations around Winterskol.”
One aspect of Winterskol that has become ingrained is the expectation of a bargain. When Gram Slaton became executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, nearly a decade ago, he scheduled some paid events for the venue.
“I found out the hard way — you can’t do ticketed events,” he said. “But you can do really cool free events.”
The Wheeler goes entirely free this weekend with a set of activities designed to bring in a wide audience. At 5:30 p.m., the Aspen Historical Society presents a crash course in local history under the guise of the fictitious Aspen State Teachers College. Following will be the Mad Hatters Ball, an old-Aspen relic that was resurrected last year and reborn as a Winterskol attraction. The ball will include a hat contest and music by local funk-rockers Jes’ Grew. Friday night there is a screening of “Celebration Day,” a documentary of Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion performance, and on Saturday juggler/mime Peter Davison presents his family performance, “Tossed & Found.”
A handful of paid events are presented under the Winterskol banner: a series of shows at Belly Up (the dubstep duo Adventure Club tonight; the ’80s tribute band the Spazmatics on Friday; the electronica act Emancipator on Saturday); the cabaret show “All You Need Is Love,” presented by Theatre Aspen’s Teen Conservatory; Friday’s Ullr Nights party at Elk Camp on Snowmass Mountain; and Sunday’s broomball tournament at the Aspen Ice Garden.
But most of the activities come at no charge: an “I Don’t Get It” discussion at the Aspen Art Museum, with museum Executive Director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson discussing the current Holt Quentel exhibition, and a Naturalist Nights talk on Antarctic birds and animals at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, both tonight; the daily Men’s Health & Women’s Health Village at the base of Aspen Mountain; the WinterFest on Saturday afternoon in Wagner Park; fireworks over Aspen Mountain on Saturday night; the Hike for Hope Uphill race on Buttermilk on Sunday morning; and the ever-popular Soupskol cook-off and tasting on Friday afternoon.
“As long as people in town organize it around free events and family events, it’s good,” Slaton said of Winterskol. “When people try to change it into something it’s not, it suffers. After 63 years, people have expectations, and you don’t want to muck with those expectations. The other 363 days of the year are so expensive, you want to give them a break for one weekend.”